Alligator River Canoe Trip Report, April 18, 2003
- ALLIGATOR RIVER
The Alligator River drains a large, wild area of northeastern North
Carolina before emptying into Roanoke Sound. On the map, it
definitely looked like a place worth visiting. To add to the
attraction, Red Wolves were reintroduced in the area a few years
ago. With the wolves now established, I'm guessing that the
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is the only place in the
world that can claim Alligators, Bears, and Wolves. I could be
wrong, but if so, I can't think of another place that does.
We got up early on Friday morning. The previous night's storm had
mostly passed, leaving only overcast skies and a little drizzle. We
left Nags Head and began the long drive back to Charlotte. We passed
Manteo on the new bypass, which consists mainly of a LONG, impressive
bridge over the sound. Once we reached the mainland, it didn't take
long to arrive at the turn for Buffalo City Road. We followed it to
its end at a canoe put-in at Milltail Creek. Our plan was to follow
a route in Ferguson's guidebook. He suggested a 4 mile paddle to
Sawyer Lake, which was perfect since we only had a couple of hours.
We put in at 8 AM and followed red markers up a narrow channel. To
our right was some high ground with a footpath, while swamp was on
the left. It didn't take long to reach our first point of
confusion. We reached a fork in the channel, with a red marker and
arrow pointing helpfully back the way we had come. There was no
indication of which we should go to continue on the route. This
turned out to be a common problem in the refuge. Either markers were
missing or they were obviously wrong. One marker pointed off into
the woods. Another pointed up into the sky. It was apparent that we
were on our own. Unfortunately, the map scale was too small to be
useful. I guessed left, which turned out to be correct.
We paddled for a few minutes and reached another unmarked fork. Here
though we could see that Sawyer Lake was off to the left. We paddled
that way and entered a beautiful lake. The shores are heavily
wooded, to the extent that it seemed almost like a mountain lake.
There was no sign of another person. As we paddled farther into the
lake, I was overcome with a true sense of wilderness. I've been to a
lot of remote places, in the Rockies and the canyons of Utah, but I
don't think that any of those locations seemed any more wild than
We paddled to the far end of the lake enjoying the quiet. Here was
found a large stand of Atlantic White Cedar. Well, the guidebook
said we did, anyway. To be honest, I wouldn't know an Atlantic White
Cedar from a Pine if it fell on me. Let's just say the trees were
very nice and leave it at that.
We reached the end of Sawyer Lake and paddled back. We reached the
area where we first entered the lake. Instead of turning right to
return by the same route, we paddled ahead, once again without the
reassurance of route markers. Eventually we found one though, and
continued on the red route to a low water bridge. Here the foot
trail from the parking lot crosses Sandy Ridge Gut. The water was
up, so there was no hope of floating under. We made an easy portage
by dragging the canoe over the trail. We put back in and paddled
through perhaps the prettiest part of the route. The swamp was
beautiful and the channel remained very narrow. Fortunately, the
route was clear of fallen trees.
Our side stream eventually spilled out into Milltail Creek. This is
a huge body of water that really looks more like a lake. I imagine
it gets some power boat use from time to time, but we saw nobody this
morning. It was a windy day, so we stayed close to shore. We
paddled back to a marked side stream on the right. We followed this
under a bridge and back to the take out.
As we approached the take out, I heard a loud BANG. I almost jumped
out of the boat. We hadn't heard anything louder than turtles
plopping into the water in 2 hours. We reached the parking area, and
discovered the source of the noise. 2 other paddlers had just
arrived, and the noise was the door on the porta-potty. We got out
and wished them a good trip.
As we drove out, we reflected on how we hadn't seen any exciting
wildlife. We'd seen the usual birds and turtles, but no bears,
alligators, or wolves. Then, I spotted something odd in the road
ahead of us. We approached, and two river otters ran out of the road
and jumped into the creek next to us. This was the best look that
I'd ever had of river otters in the wild. It was the perfect
exclamation point to a great trip.