National Wildlife Main to Protect Wilderness
The National Wildlife Refuge is very different from a national park and is in no way like a theme park. Don’t expect the animals to be waiting when you arrive at the door to play “the Circle of Life”. As a rule, an NWR is a vast wilderness area intended to protect wildlife, so its main purpose is not to provide tourists. Secondly, whenever you are looking for wild animals, it is useful to have a basic understanding of the animal’s behavior. What type of habitat do you prefer? At what time of the day are you most active? What do they usually feed on? Find the answers to these questions and you will get a great advantage by avoiding what we call the “Uninformed Yelp experience”.”
Located near the Atlantic coast in eastern North Carolina, The Alligator River is a 20- to 30-minute drive from the Outer Banks, depending on which Island you’re from. Some Yelp reviewers mauled that it was hard to find, but we had no problems: it’s two miles west on Highway 64 from the Virginia Dare Bridge in Manteo, with the entrance on the left. The refuge is huge – 152,000 hectares, to be exact – and was created in 1984 to preserve its unique wetland habitat, the Pocosin. Surrounded by a dense network of bogs, swamps and marshes, the Alligator River is home to endangered waders, waders, turtles, snakes, alligators, otters, white-tailed deer and red wolves. They even have guided programs where you can scream with the latter.
Although I traveled to Alaska to see grizzly bears and Churchill, Manitoba to see polar bears, I had never seen black bears in the wild. And since North Carolina is practically our backyard, we were determined to correct this on our trip to the Outer Banks. Although you could see Bears at any point on these streets, the highest concentration seemed to be halfway 2/3 of the way to the dead end on Buffalo City Rd. It is important to drive very slowly, to be especially attentive along the boundaries of trees and waterways by the roadside and, most importantly, to have patience.
On our first visit to Alligator River, we had an experience similar to the Yelp reviews. It was the middle of the day, at the beginning of the Season, and our guide was more of a botanist than a wildlife expert. But since I was stubborn by nature, I decided to bring the family back the same night, just before sunset, when I knew that the bears liked to feed. We drove up and down, back and forth, over and over again. As the sun was setting and we were making our way back to the Sawyer Lake Rd exit, I discovered a black figure next to the road several hundred meters away from me. In the fading light, it was hard to tell if it was a bear or a bear-shaped stump, so I sped up a bit. Suddenly the form – much faster than expected – limped along the embankment, through the narrow channel and into the forest as we approached and looked at each other with curiosity.
Finally, the baby bear’s curiosity overcame her fear and she followed her mother out into the street. She approached the parking lot, hesitated nervously, ran to the water and finally lay down in the middle of the road, as if taking a nap. A brother, apparently eager to see the situation from a bird’s eye view, climbed a tree across the canal. But mom kept sniffing along the trees right behind our car and paid us no attention. Finally, the smallest of the little ones joined her, and they munched on freshly budding blueberry blossoms until they were full. We watched her quietly for 30 minutes, without any other soul in sight. As we were saying our goodbyes and heading back to the Outer Banks for dinner, we spotted three more black bears in and along Sawyer Lake Road. It was a dream come true for a bear enthusiast like me and an awesome adventure that we will never forget.