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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Up the Creek with a Paddle Kayak Camping & Water Trails

Kayak Camping Roanoke River Paddle Trail

I haven’t backpacked since college. Although I have had a long love affair with camping, my only backpacking trip was more of a one-night stand. You know, one of those experiences that seemed like a better idea the night before than the morning after. Not that it was a bad experience. I just decided that carrying a 40-pound pack was not my thing. I always figured that bicycle camping would be my ticket for adventure travel until I ran across a picture in the Raleigh News and Observer. The photo captured a setting of several canoes tied to the dock of a small camping platform and nearly concealed within a cypress grove. Suddenly my desire to go camping was rekindled but this time I’d be sleeping out under the stars on camping platforms along a designated paddle trail.

Roanoke River Paddle Trail

The camping platform highlighted in the Raleigh News & Observer is part of a paddling trail network managed by the Roanoke River Partners — a grassroots non-profit serving the five North Carolina counties that border the Roanoke River. RRP operates 16 of these platforms that were constructed in the Roanoke River basin in order to bring tourist dollars into an area of North Carolina that had been hit hard by plant closings and the demise of the herring fishing industry.

When they were first built, locals weren’t so sure that they wanted outsiders paddling through their backyard playground but the project has proven to be quite successful. A recent study revealed that the Roanoke River Paddle Trail generates over $550,000 to the regional economy annually. This impact is the result of both the overnight campers and day-trippers utilizing the trail and facilities along the river. It is projected that since the construction of the first platform in 1997, the trail has attracted well over 15,000 overnight campers (with an estimated four to five times that many day trippers).

kayak boardwalk camping platform

Welcome Home!
photo courtesy of Tom Carmine

The Internet can be an adventure traveler’s best friend and through RRP’s website, I had two platforms reserved along with a growing file of information on kayak camping. Man learned thousands of years ago that a boat was better than one’s back for carrying a load, and I was planning to put that into practice. Packing a kayak for camping is like packing a backpack. The stuff has got to fit, and the weight has got to be properly distributed. Since we were not taking canoes, there was no place for coolers and lawn chairs.

1st Outing – San Souci Shuffle

Our target launch date was the last Friday of April, which we hoped would still bring cool nights to minimize the bugs that inhabit swampland. My goal for our first trip was a short paddle the first night and a longer paddle on Saturday and Sunday. We intended on camping one night at Lost Boat and the other at Otter One. Both camping platforms rest within the Roanoke River basin and are located just off Route 17, south of Edenton, NC on the Cashie River.

We arrived at Lost Boat just barely before dark after a four-mile paddle from the Sans Souci ferry landing. The camping platform was nestled in a small cove just off the Cashie River. We quickly set up our tents anticipating that the resident mosquito population would soon arrive to party with us but the cool spring evening kept the bugs at bay. Our first night was exactly what I had hoped for. The night was quiet except for the nocturnal sounds of owls, frogs and other wildlife at play in the woods.

The next day we could have paddled back to our launch site to restock for day two and paddled downstream to Otter One. Instead, we opted to take out our kayaks and spend part of the day in nearby Plymouth, which was hosting a large Civil War reenactment. After lunch and a tour of the town, we launched from Route 45 and paddled across the intersection of the Roanoke River, Middle River back to the Cashie River and down to end of Broad Creek.

Despite the five-mile paddle, Otter One was not far from Plymouth for the average crow, and the evening’s peace was occasionally broken by cannon fire and musket volleys from the rabble-rousing reenactors in town. It’s always good to bring a book along for the evenings on the platform since you can’t build a campfire on the deck and roast marshmallows for entertainment.

Paddle the Same River Basin Twice

Our second annual excursion took us to Royal Fern. We left the boat ramp at the beginning of beautiful Conaby Creek and paddled three miles to the end of a smaller creek. Royal Fern was the most secluded place I have ever camped. There were absolutely no sounds of civilization of any kind and animals bounded through the woods in and out of the creek all night long. The swamp forests along the Roanoke River floodplain provide ideal habitat for bears and this area is no exception.  Although no bear encounters have been reported around the platform in a couple of years, I could not resist shining my flashlight out of my tent during the night to see if any eyes were looking back from the darkness.

Campers on Roanoke River camping platform

Three’s a charm while platform camping in the Roanoke River Basin
photo courtesy of Tom Carmine

For this trip, Steve and I decided to make it a three-day expedition. Leaving Royal Fern on Saturday morning we paddled out to the Roanoke River for a 12-mile paddle that routed us into the Albemarle Sound for our second overnight at Otter One on the Cashie River. Unlike the prior year when a 15 mph wind had kept the fisherman at home for the weekend, this year we passed fishing boats throughout the day.

We had hoped to find a portion of beach about halfway through the trip to allow us to snack and stretch our legs but the shore of the Sound was lined with dense trees and logs pushed ashore by two hurricanes. We were left with no place to get out of the kayaks so we rested while floating in an eddy behind some fallen trees at the mouth of the Cashie. By the time we arrived at Otter One, we were anxious to get out of the boats.

By foregoing a mid-day trip into town, we arrived earlier in the afternoon than we had planned. This gave us more time on the platform than we were accustomed to and a sort of “what do we do now” kind of experience. After a short nap, I opted to fish, and Steve paddled off to a nearby eagles’ nest before we cooked dinner.

Three’s a Charm

On our third trip to the backwaters, we were able to recruit two others to join us. Launching from a private ramp at the River’s Edge Restaurant in Jamesville, we paddled three miles up river to the Barred Owl platform. Barred Owl was the first camping platform, and it has one of the most beautiful settings as it stands over the water at the end of a long creek.

That night we were blessed with a clear night, a full moon and a leafless tree canopy. The sound of fish feeding on the surface and hoots of the neighboring barred owls filled the night and left us thinking, “Camping doesn’t get any better than this!”

Saturday’s treat was to return to Jamesville and lunch at the Cypress Grill. It is widely known for its fried herring that were once abundant in the Roanoke River. The Grill is a quaint riverside shack of a place with friendly folk, homemade pies and numerous other fried fish entrées. The Grill is a seasonal restaurant and it’s only open from January to April.

After an abundant lunch of fish and pie, we paddled nine miles to Three Sisters, which was typical of other platforms with its small dock and walkway leading back to a raised platform in the trees. A few platforms have near water level piers but most require the paddler to climb out the kayak onto a dock about one foot above the water.

We completed this trip by completing a circle back to Jamesville via Cut Cypress Creek. This route completes a short cut across the top of a “V” formed by the Roanoke River as it flows past Jamesville. The creek is a scenic passage through a tree canopy until it reconnects with the Roanoke.

roanoke river trail packing kayak

The art & craft of platform camping
photo courtesy of Tom Carmine

Packing a kayak for camping is like packing a backpack. The stuff has got to fit, and the weight has got to be properly distributed. Since we were not taking canoes, there was no place for coolers and lawn chairs.

For the most part, these paddle trips are without too much technical challenge but our trips have not been without some memorable moments. On our first trip we learned that even a small river like the Roanoke could quickly whip up some waves when driven by 15 mph winds. Cut Cypress Creek runs a small but steady current from west to east, which makes it difficult to maneuver long sea kayaks around fallen and submerged trees. One in our group twice learned that you don’t limbo too far to one side when passing under fallen trees across a creek. And finally, in emergencies, help is generally reachable by cell phone or by other boaters during the day. However, always be well prepared and plan accordingly.

After three trips, I can say that the logistics for camping on these platforms are easy. They are simple to reserve, and there are so many options for short or long paddle trips.  The platforms average around 400 square feet. They provide posts for stringing tarps or hammocks, and they have a private area for your own portable privy. Summer campers report that bug spray is a must, but cooler weather campers can enjoy bug free nights. For more information, to make online reservations, or link to other camping platforms in the region visit Roanoke River Partners website at www.roanokeriverpartners.org.

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Take a Virtual Tour of the Roanoke River

Roanoke River TrailA partnership with GOOGLE Trekker and The Conservation Fund is helping to connect people all around the world with NC’s Roanoke River Paddle Trail and five other historic American trails. Carol Shields, Executive Director for the Roanoke Rivers Partners, Inc. explained, “This project was the result of RRP’s long-time partnership with The Conservation Fund.”

According to the The Conservation Fund’s news release, the project used Google’s Street View Trekker; a 4-foot-tall, 40-pound camera and backpack. Using this technology, staff from the Fund and its local partners set out to create a 360-degree digital view of the trails, waterways, landscapes, vistas and outdoor sites where America’s story begins.

Be sure to check out the virtual tour and plan on scheduling an outing this year along one of the Southeast’s finest and wildest rivers!

NEWS RELEASE

TAKE A VIRTUAL TOUR OF AMERICAN HISTORY WITH THE CONSERVATION FUND AND GOOGLE MAPS
Featuring Iconic Lands Where Natives, Pioneers, Soldiers and Other Heroes Shaped America

ARLINGTON, Va. (March 8, 2016) – For the second year, The Conservation Fund has teamed up with Google Maps to provide Street View virtual tours of some of America’s most renowned and treasured places. From the hallowed battlefields of Gettysburg to the rugged trails that Lewis and Clark explored on their journey west, people can now explore, hike and paddle—via their digital devices—important historic and cultural sites protected by The Conservation Fund and its partners at Google Map’s Street View.

Using Google’s Street View Trekker, a 4-foot-tall, 40-pound camera and backpack, staff from the Fund and its local partners set out to create a 360-degree digital view of the trails, waterways, landscapes, vistas and outdoor sites where America’s story begins. Read more…

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