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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!