National Wildlife Refuges in Coastal NC Wild & Wonderful Resources

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

The Federal Land Ownership Overview and Data Report in 2014 revealed that federal land ownership in North Carolina totaled 2,429,341 acres. This included land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Defense, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Park Service. The USFWS administers approximately 420,068 acres. Most of this land in North Carolina is managed by the National Wildlife Refuge System, which includes 11 NWRS units and the Edenton National Fish Hatchery. Connecting Corridors attended a lecture last month to learn more about these fascinating natural resources.

NWR Volunteer discusses wildlife refuges in NC

NWR volunteer Bob Glennon discusses coastal refuges

Bob Glennon, a retired Natural Resource Planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a volunteer for the NWR gave an informative overview of the refuge system in our state. The presentation was part of the Harry Rosenblatt Memorial Speaker Series held at the Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library in Edenton, NC.

National Wildlife Refuge System Mission

Before the presentation, I picked up one of the refuge’s brochures and learned that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

Glennon opened up with a geographical overview explaining, “We are blessed to have nine area refuges so close together.” He added, “Of the 11 NWR units managed in NC, nine are in northeastern NC. They are located all within two hours and span from the barrier islands along the Outer Banks west to the Roanoke River. According to Glennon, the area refuges make up approximately 380,000 acres.

Compared to other wildlife refuges in the 562-unit system, Glennon reasoned, “We’re not huge but instead, we are diverse.” The regional refuges are also relatively close together.

tours and wildlife Albemarle Sound

Wildlife Refuge Complex

Glennon pointed out that being so close is convenient for both visitors and staff. “Area refuges share staff, supplies and facilities,” explained Glennon. Refuges that share a similar ecological region or habitat and have a related purpose and management needs are grouped into a complex.

Alligator River, Pea Island, Mackay Island, Pocosin Lakes, Currituck and Roanoke River are managed as part of the North Carolina Coastal Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Mattamuskeet, Cedar Island, and Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuges are managed as the Mattamuskeet Complex.

Working as a Natural Resource Planner for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Glennon wrote the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for nine of the NWR units. He confirmed, “Each refuge is unique and each refuge has its own delegated purpose mandated by Congress.” Glennon informed the group of the agency’s premier task, which focuses on a “wildlife first” conservation model and a “big six” core of wildlife dependent uses on wildlife refuges. They include environmental education, interpretation, photography, wildlife observation, hunting and fishing.

Glennon outlined each unit and shared his first hand experiences working professionally and as a volunteer for various refuges. He has led paddling tours of the Alligator River NWR and guided visitors along a sound-to-sea interpretive walk on the Pea Island NWR. There are many visitor experiences available at each refuge ranging from tram tours along the Alligator River to volunteering for “beach walks” during the sea turtle nesting season on Pea Island. Wildlife observation is one of the more popular activities and visitors may observe a variety of resident and migratory wildlife including red wolves, black bears, waterfowl, shorebirds, wildflowers, alligators, songbirds, wading birds, sea turtles and marine mammals. The refuges offer diverse habitats from one of the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the east coast to pocosins, marsh shrub forest and managed mainland and barrier island wetlands.

Great Egret Mattamuskeet NWR

Great Egret along Mattamuskeet NWR Wildlife Drive

Glennon acknowledged that refuge staff, interns and volunteers work with school groups, adjoining landowners and other community partners. Special partnerships or programs mentioned by Glennon include Swan Days at Mattamuskeet NWR and Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival (WOW). Glennon noted, “All refuges share the WOW event, which features over 30 tours, art instruction, drawing, photography and video workshops, natural history programs, and canoe tours.” Recently, the WOW Festival has added an encore session in December.

Paddlers touring Alligator National Wildlife Refuge

The Alligator River NWR is a popular destination for paddlers

In the two years that I’ve resided in eastern NC, I’ve been fortunate to visit nine of the 11 refuges including the National Fish Hatchery in Edenton. I’ve enjoyed wildlife photography, birding and fishing at several of the refuges. I have also paddled several of the paddle trails in Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes. I look forward to completing my northeastern, NC NWR bucket list soon.

To learn more about each refuge and programming opportunities including volunteering, click on the following links:

National Wildlife Refuge list by State
Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society

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Currituck, the Road Less Traveled

morrisfarmmarketcurrituck

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

The summer traffic coming and going to the Outer Banks is heaviest on Saturday during the biggest check-in day. My wife and I found this out through firsthand experience. We had embarked on a Saturday trip to Corolla from Edenton, NC. At the intersection of Hwy. 158/Hwy. 168 in Barco, we noticed a travel time message sign indicating “delayed traffic” toward the beach. Following the lead of the Pulitzer Prize poet, we decided to take the one [road] less traveled and turned north and “that made all the difference.” We shifted gears, took an alternate route and ended up having a delightful afternoon touring the back roads of Currituck County.

Just a couple of miles north, we stopped at Morris Farm Market – a place that has blossomed into an authentic quintessential Northeastern NC family experience. What started as a roadside stand in 1982 has now grown to include “acres and acres” of produce, baked goods, ciders, NC craft beer & wine, tractor-churned ice cream, farm animals, tractors and more! We picked up a variety of grab-n-go snacks for an afternoon picnic then stopped by the outdoor bar to savor a pint of Mother Earth Brewery’s Sister of the Moon IPA. We listened to a local duo perform a few nice acoustic tunes while we planned the rest of the day’s backup itinerary. The chalkboard sign above the bar suggested to “Sip while you Shop” confirming that we had made a good decision to adjust our original travel plans. Down-home, down east and pet-friendly, Morris Farm Market is a “must do” stopover on your next outing to the OBX!

outdoorbarmorrisfarmmarketcurrituck ­­Currituck \KURR-i-tuck\

With our alternate plans settled now, we had a little extra time to explore the area before we set off on the afternoon ferry. The thin strip of land stretching down Currituck County mainland is primarily farmland, wetlands, open space and water. This peninsula connects the coastline and is bounded by Currituck Sound on the east, the North River on the west and the Albemarle Sound south of Point Harbor. The Currituck Courthouse and the Old Currituck Jail are both near the ferry terminal so we parked our car and walked over to the historic site and learned that the jail was constructed circa 1820 making it one of the oldest extant jails in North Carolina. Both buildings stand sentinel above the expansive backdrop of Currituck Sound.

oldcurrituckjailApproximately 15 vehicles loaded the ferry and we departed on schedule at 3 p.m. The 45-minute ferry crosses a 5-mile section of the sound, which according to the ferry captain averages depths of eight feet. The Currituck/Knotts Island Ferry is a year-round free ferry that’s managed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry System. It makes six round-trips daily during the summer season.

Currituck, Adventures Past & Present

Local islanders refer to travelers who visit their paradise as “daytrippers.” Our Knotts Island adventure started with a scenic driving tour of Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service administers the refuge located on the NC/VA state line along North Landing River. The majority of the refuge’s land is located in Currituck County. The island is actually a peninsula connected to Virginia’s mainland with a solitary road along a man-made causeway. The peninsula appeared as Knots Isle on early pre-colonial maps of the 17th century. Water and the geographic isolation has always defined the region and its inhabitants so naturally, it has developed a rich heritage of hunting, fishing and outdoor life. Locals claim that the origin of the name “Currituck” was loosely derived from Carotank; a Native American word for “land of the wild goose.” Today these lands provide a sanctuary for thousands of migratory waterfowl including numerous species of geese.

MackayIslandNWR

The peninsula changed ownership several times since 1728 when NC commissioners drove the first stake in the ground to mark the Carolina-Virginia border. One of the most influential landowners was Joseph Palmer Knapp. The wealthy New York publisher and philanthropist purchased property on the island in 1918 and built a hunting lodge and grand resort. He also experimented with innovative wildlife management practices. Knapp and a small group of conservationist pioneers became concerned about dwindling waterfowl breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canada. The group began fundraising across the country to create a conservation organization in 1930, which eventually became Ducks Unlimited. From these humble roots, Ducks Unlimited has become one of the preeminent sportsmen-based conservation and wetlands conservation advocacy organizations in North America.

The refuge is located primarily in the southwest region of the marshy peninsula. Basically, three access roads provide entry into the refuge. Sections of the refuge may experience seasonal closures during the winter because of prescribed burns and other management-related activities. A variety of habitats can be discovered along the Marsh Causeway (NC-615), the refuge internal roads, various overlooks and pedestrian trails. Cycling is allowed along some roads and trails. The .3-mile Great Marsh Trail can be easily accessed directly on NC-615. We opted for a convenient stop at the Kuralt Trail Overlook. The observation site is popular among birders and wildlife photographers. Two spotting scopes located on the elevated platform above the Great Marsh allow excellent, up close viewing of birds and other wildlife. We also stopped by Corey’s Ditch where we enjoyed a short break throwing a cast net in the creek and observing the wide-open marshlands.

cyclingcurrituck

Take Me Home, Country Roads

We chose to explore the terrestrial way home instead of back tracking on the ferry. We saw several groups of cyclists riding the rural roads. NC-615 and other low motor traffic roads along the peninsula are popular bike touring routes. The Tidewater Bicycling Association in Chesapeake, VA utilizes these routes each spring for their signature cycling event. This year they celebrated the 40th Annual Knotts Island Century, which included five route options – two that include ferry ‘hops’ during the rides.

Before our own ‘century trip’ ended, we stopped by Frog Island Seafood located at the junction of Hwy 158/168 in Barco, NC. We took their advice to “Buy Today – Feast Tomorrow!” and purchased some fresh scallops. We also sat down for a delicious meal in their diner section of the market and reflected on the day’s journey. The country roads and scenery along Currituck Sound proved to be a delightful retreat away from the bustling beach season along the OBX. We feel like we know this charming slice of land a little better now and it makes us appreciate the northeastern most region of NC we now call home!

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Paddling Milltail Creek

sawyercreekmilltailcreek

A group of Edenton paddlers recently traveled across the sound for an adventurous day exploring the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to black bear, deer, reptiles and a variety of waterfowl. Alligators and red wolves also inhabit the 152,000-acres of wild land, wetlands and water. Milltail Creek and Sawyer Lake are popular recreational areas within the boundaries of the refuge and a network of paddle trails is easily accessed from Hwy 64 approximately 15 miles west of Manteo, NC.

Milltail Creek Paddle Trails

Twelve of us caravanned from the Peanut Mill in Edenton, NC to the trailhead, which is located two miles off Hwy 64 at the end of Buffalo City Rd. Paddlers can choose among four paddle trails in the Milltail Creek/Sawyer Lake region of the refuge. Each trail has a color-coded marker along the route that directs paddlers to trail changes and/or trail intersections. Our group was excited to explore these designated paddling trails, which are also called water trails or blueways. Multi-agency coordination, non-profits and volunteers have developed hundreds of miles of trails throughout the Albemarle Sound. Developed paddle trails provide printed and digital information, convenient access, signage, safe parking areas and alternate routes that can accommodate a wide variety of user groups.

millcreekpaddletrailmarker

Novice paddlers and families with young children can enjoy the 1.5-mile loop (red) trail that includes a paddle through a narrow canal and a strand along Milltail Creek. There’s also a 5.5-mile point-to-point option (blue trail) along Milltail Creek, which requires a shuttle or a vehicle drop from a canoe/kayak access point along Milltail Rd. The yellow trail follows Milltail Creek west for four miles to the confluence of the Alligator River. The round trip out-and-back is approximately eight miles. The green trail follows the small canal to a passageway that leads paddlers to beautiful Sawyer Lake.

Spirited Trip Leader

Allan, our group leader, always prepares well when he plans a group outing. He does his homework with the research, shoots us a trip summary and invitation. A few weeks later, a dozen or so local paddlers show up for the annual adventure. Allan also has a knack for keeping things fun and maintaining a “go with flow” attitude on each trip.

milltailcreeklanding

After we parked and surveyed the scene at this year’s outing, our energized group offloaded the boats and gear then shared ideas about which paddling trails we wanted to explore. A couple of others intuitively scouted out the launch options to various routes. Immediately from the launch area, boaters face a decision to paddle up a narrow canal (red trail) filled with alligator weed or sneak through a narrow passageway underneath a small bridge and escape into Milltail Creek. Since the wind was light in the morning, we opted for the wide-open space and methodically launched each of our boats, paddled under the wooden bridge, scooted through a weed-clogged barrier and eased into a panoramic view of Milltail Creek.

Even though we were only an hour or so from our paddling commute, we were now paddling in paradise on a gorgeous day and one filled with endless possibilities.

Milltail Creek

Our colorful kayaks provided a delightful contrast with the tannin-soaked water and green alligator weed-choked shoreline. Milltail Creek appeared more of a lake than a creek in some areas. We chose to hug the eastern shore where we soon noticed a trail marker with multiple colors that indicated the intersection of the green Sawyer Lake Trail. We continued along Milltail Creek and paddled approximately 1.5 miles into a beautiful cove. Once out of the cove, we noticed a significant headwind blowing from the south. We paddled another half mile and crossed over the expansive creek then continued along the west bank. A few of us noticed the blue markers along the trail as we completed a circuit on Milltail Creek.

redtrailmilltailcreek

Returning back to the landing, we took advantage of a restroom and snack break then forged ahead up the small canal trail. This section parallels the Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail – a half-mile footpath that heads out of the parking lot. The narrow passage proved to be lots of fun as our train of boats zigzagged through alligator weed thickets, over downed trees and under outstretched limbs. After twenty minutes, we reached the same intersection that we had scoped out earlier and picked up the blue trail leading to Sawyer Lake.

Sawyer Lake

As we entered Sawyer Lake, OBX Kayak Adventures was leading an Alligator River NWR tour with approximately ten paddlers. The refuge offers licensed commercial outfitters special permits for guiding activities. Several outfitters from the Outer Banks conduct paddling tours to the area.

The lake is surrounded by wetland forests of bald cypress-gum, cedar, loblolly pine, and a variety of bay forest species. Remnant stands of Atlantic White Cedar can be observed throughout the refuge’s forests. We noticed several cavities hammered out by woodpeckers in a number of snags lining the shore. The shoreline is quite deceptive and really isn’t defined by solid ground. A few of us stuck our kayak paddles into the water as depth finders near the islands of alligator weed and lily pads. In most cases, we didn’t hit bottom.

fragrantwaterlilymilltailcreek

In a secluded cove, we instinctively huddled into a rafting group on the northeast corner of the lake and simply let the wind direct our course of travel. We seemed quite content drifting along as we marveled at the natural landscape and mirrored reflections of the lake, forest and sky. Conversations of the historic past were casually discussed. Days of moonshining, dodging revenuers and Buffalo City memoirs were tossed around as we unconsciously shared the natural wonders of wild space.

Reluctantly, we slowly paddled our final leg of the day’s journey. Combining the various trails, our group covered approximately seven miles while utilizing three different trails. Even though we didn’t observe any bears or alligators, the Milltail Creek paddling trip gifted us with a “taste of the wild” and a greater appreciation of the region we work live and play in. Our paddling experience in the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge reminded all of us how good it can be when we successfully balance conservation, education, research, and wildlife with nature, recreation and wilderness. Paddle on!

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Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

tundra swans at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR

waveLINKS birding category

A visit to North Carolina’s largest natural lake has been on my ‘to-do’ list for nearly twenty-five years. I’ve read about the history of the lodge, the world-class birding and wildlife as well as the excellent outdoor recreation options. Last month, my wife and I took a day-trip to Lake Mattamuskeet and we instantly discovered it was well worth the wait.

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula and encompasses 50,180 acres of water, forest, marsh, and open fields. The shallow lake, which averages a depth of only two feet, covers approximately 40,000 acres. The surrounding marshes and woodlands provide habitat, cover and food for more than 200 species of birds. November through January is the prime season for bird watching considering the fact that over 12,000 ducks, geese, swans, herons, bitterns and other waterfowl winter on the refuge’s grounds.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service has a comprehensive conservation and resource management plan for the refuge that includes water management for waterfowl, shorebirds and fisheries; cooperative farming; prescribed burning and deer management with public hunting. Through the preservation of wetlands and habitat, they also protect and conserve migratory birds and other wildlife. Education, interpretation and community partnerships are also vital strategies that the refuge implements. The Annual Wings Over Water Festival in October is a stellar example of how our national wildlife refuges successfully collaborate with local communities.

Great Egret Mattamuskeet NWR

Great Egret observed along the Wildlife Drive

 Seasonal activities

Whether you’re walking or driving, a number of trails, roads and levies provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. During the winter, the refuge management restricts access to some roads and levees from November 1 – February 28. However, approximately eight miles of levees and 12 miles of road are open year-round. Boating, canoeing and kayaking are not allowed during the winter. Check with management at the refuge headquarters for additional information about refuge regulations, restricted areas and permitted hunts.

The Hwy 94 causeway, Wildlife Drive and the refuge entrance road offer premier birding opportunities. The observation platform along Hwy 94 affords a panoramic view over the lake. The New Holland Boardwalk Trail along East Canal Drive provides convenient access to a cypress swamp and marshland. Also, there’s a trailhead kiosk, photo blind and benches for photography and observation.

Mattamuskeet Lodge

Mattamuskeet Lodge – originally a pump station

My wife and I took advantage of a beautiful January day and visited the refuge. We enjoyed the exhibits inside the Visitors Center and the grounds adjacent to the Mattamuskeet Lodge. This facility was originally built as a pumping station designed to drain the lake into productive farmland. Eventually, the project proved to be too costly and impractical. Three decades later the U.S. Government acquired the land and the refuge was established in 1934. The lodge and surrounding acres have been transferred to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Efforts to secure funding and restore the lodge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, are currently being planned.

American coots at Mattamuskeet NWR

American Coots – Mattamuskeet NWR

Further adventures

While touring Wildlife Drive, we stopped at several locations to observe Tundra Swans, Great Egrets, Northern Pintails, American Coots and White Ibises probing for food in the shallow waters. Several groups of birders and photographers were lined along the banks taking advantage of the splendid views.

Our first exploration to Lake Mattamuskeet turned out to be a sneak peek but a real treat and a good overview of the refuge, trails, facilities and access points. With spring in the forecast, we plan to return and explore the refuge in our canoe, skiff or on our bikes – maybe all of the above!

map of Mattamuskeet NWR

Map data by ©OpenStreetMap & contributors

Directions: Mattamuskeet NWR is located approximately 70 miles east of Washington in Hyde County, North Carolina. The headquarters entrance road is located off Hwy 94 1.5 miles north of U.S. 264 between Swan Quarter and Engelhard.

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