Alligators, Red Wolves and Bears! OH MY!

I'm a brand new kayaker, I've always done my exploring on foot. Boating will provide a unique perspective of these wetlands in Tidewater. (And paddling will help keep those old lady under-arm wing-flaps firm.) On my 50th birthday in April,2000, I took my boat out for the very first time, in my neighborhood creek. I bought my boat in March but it didn't work too well without the paddle. For my birthday, my family gave me a life jacket, a paddle, and a loud whistle. They all stood on the bank to watch me push off the first time and held the other end of a very long rope attached to the boat in case I couldn't paddle back in ok, I was just a little bit scared. When I realized I could actually move the boat by my own power I took the rope back. A few minutes later when I paddled within a few feet of a blue heron, I was hooked!

By May, paddling in a straight line in my local creeks was getting old. I joined a group-paddle through the Chickahominy Nature Preserve led by Don Leger and saw a bald eagle. I needed skills and confidence to venture out alone so I took lessons from Elizabeth McBride to learn about safety, wet exits and varied strokes. She teaches Kayak 101 and she's a wonderful and supportive teacher. Elizabeth starts on the shore discussing equipment, safety, weather, and hypothermia and other pitfalls, and she assured us if we practiced our skills we would gain self-confidence and learn to stay calm enough to recover from most misadventures. We learned wet exits, some new strokes, paddled down the river for a helpful critique, and when class was over she even taught us how to secure a boat onto the roof of a car. I left with skills to practice and the nerve to explore new waterways. I signed up for her Kayak 102 class in August.

Now it's July, I stuff my bike and kayak into my van and drive to the Outer Banks (only two hours from Hampton on the new road way cool). I'm an information junkie so I always stop at area visitor centers and the helpful folks at the center for the Outer Banks turn my interest into a great adventure. I tell them I want to paddle and that I love wildlife. They hand me information on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge with maps of their canoe/kayak trails. The brochure about this 152,000 acre refuge boasts red wolves and bears as well as alligators and asks that you be aware that cotton-mouths, copperheads, timber rattlers and "other natural nuisances" may be encountered. Alligators, red wolves and bears? I want to paddle here! The Refuge's alligators are the northern-most range of the species on the Atlantic Coast. Swans, owls, bald eagles, prairie warblers, cedar, cypress, wild iris and water lilies also thrive in this sanctuary.

I intend to paddle this Refuge very early in the morning when more wildlife is active, but I take my usual 2-3 wrong turns on the way and paddle mid-day. The sun is no problem; there is lots of shade. The refuge lies past Mann's Harbor on 64 almost to the Alligator River. The put-in is down Buffalo City Road at Milltail Creek. The creek runs through the refuge to the river. (In the early 1900's Buffalo City was a major cypress-logging town with a minor in moonshine production. It only took three decades to completely decimate the cypress forest and when the end of prohibition took their other income away, the town folded.)

Just a few strokes from the put-in and I'm on Sawyer Lake, a wide, clean body of water full of diving birds and jumping fish. This looks like a great place to practice my wet exits but Elizabeth has neglected to teach me the appropriate skills to employ if I find myself upside-down and eye-to eye with a gator and I don't think I can stay calm enough to recover from that misadventure. Too bad . . . I'm quite sure the gator would have been gracious enough to help pluck me out of the boat AND give me something thrilling to write about . . . if he left me with enough parts to tap these keys.

Marked paddling trails lead in different directions from the lake and I decide I have just enough confidence to stay upright this trip and explore a few of them. Color-coded posts with arrows mark each trail, hard to get lost, even for someone as directionally impaired as I am, but the beauty of this marsh overwhelms me and I am "lost" in reverie. I paddle towards Alligator River, the yellow trail, and glide through meadows of water lilies. Thousands of lilies bloom profusely and reach out from both sides of the creek and I float through them on my own lily pad, serenaded by frogs croaking amphibian love songs. I entertain thoughts of Huck Finn, Lewis and Clark, and, of course, I am Sacagewea, paddling my canoe through this wet wilderness.

I paddle the green trail, along very narrow creeks, some so crowded with vegetation I'm navigating switchbacks. Wild irises and other multi-colored wildflowers bloom in the water and on the banks. Tree stumps protrude from the water. On top of each stump is a miniature eco-system, a tiny garden with mosses, small plants and insects.

Dragonflies dart around me, and alight on my boat and my arms. One even attempts to land on my slick wooden paddle shaft. He touches down, slides towards my hand, takes off and touches and slides down again. After several tries he alights successfully on the paddle blade. I contain my laughter and keep very still during this exhibition. Treetops along each bank lean over the creek and meet to form a canopy.

Tannin and peat leach into the creek water from the trees and marshes and darken the water brown - almost black, and the creek surface is a mirror. A perfect image of the canopy of trees is visible on the surface of the water. When I focus on the mirror image it not only looks but also feels like I am slowly and silently paddling upside down in the treetops. It is both giddy and spiritual.

I can't wait to explore the Dismal Swamp this fall. I don't suppose there are color-coded, marked paddle trails with directional arrows? I do have that whistle if/when I get lost.

Though the trail guide warned of mosquitoes and biting flies I didn't see any. Unfortunately I did not see any alligators, wolves, snakes or bears either. I'll go again in a different season or just earlier in the morning (now that I know the way) and maybe have better luck. Next time I just might snap a prize-winning shot of one of those elusive mosquitoes. Watch for that photo in National Geographic.

Robyn Roberts
© 2001

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