Saturday, January 28, 2012

Blackwater Tour: Part One

This past Monday, Cameron and I left the boat, but not the water. We loaded our kayaks on top of the Land Cruiser, stuffed the back with lots of gear and food and began a 350 mile circuit of the peninsula bounded by Albemarle Sound, Pamlico Sound and Pamlico River. It is land formerly swamp and now barely above sea level, a land of peat and blackwater, juniper and wildlife. In winter, it is a destination for migrating waterfowl, especially Tundra swans, Canada geese and a variety of ducks.

Aurora ferry landing in fog
We left Oriental in fog. Arriving at the Aurora ferry landing to cross the Pamlico River, we learned that the ferry was fog-bound on the north side of the river in Bayview. After a short wait to satisfy ourselves that we had no other option, we drove west toward Washington (the original city of that name and colloquially referred to as "little Washington" to avoid the customary confusion). North past Plymouth where Weyerhauser chews up pine trees and spits out paper. Then south through the remnants of Creswell along Thirty Foot Canal to Pettigrew State Park and Phelps Lake.

Phelps Lake morning fog
Phelps Lake shoreline in morning fog

Shoreline of Phelps Lake

Phelps Lake is a natural lake covering more than 15,000 acres (roughly five miles by seven miles), the origin of which is unknown. It is a type of lake known as a Carolina bay of which there are many scattered from North Carolina to New Jersey. As they are all oval in shape, one theory is that they were formed by a shower of meteors. Of  the thousands that have been identified, the only ones that still hold water are all in North Carolina. Phelps is only ten feet deep at its deepest. Its waters are crystal clear over a bottom that is mostly sand.

Native Americans visited the lake as much as 10,000 years ago. Thirty dugout canoes have been discovered in the last few decades along the edge of the lake. Carved from juniper, the canoes are well-preserved. The longest is about 37 feet. Sadly, not a single canoe was left in the park when archaeologists decided to move the canoes to East Carolina University for further study.

The surrounding woodland is pocosin, a Native American word meaning "upland swamp". The soggy land is home to red wolves, bears, otters, deer, mink, fox and a wide variety of birds, reptiles and amphibians. The dominant population of migrating birds that we heard and watched were the Tundra swans. They arrived late afternoon in formation, long necks extended, an exquisite pearl white against the deep blue of clear sky. Their honking is melodious in flight but somewhat more raucous when they have roosted on the lake for the night. Raucous and, at times, cacophonous and incessant. The only break in their chatter came when something disturbed them. Then, as quickly as they ended their honking, the night erupted with a crescendoing roar as if a plane was revving its engines for take-off, the sound of thousands of wings beating the water as the rafted swans burst into flight.

All night long we heard them on the lake. Although they sounded like they were barely a few hundred yards from our camp, we later determined that they had been at least a half mile out on the lake. Despite the noise, we slept well and enjoyed hearing their chatter. We woke to a cold, damp morning. The forecast heavy fog had become rain overnight, but had moved off before sunrise. Our stove was not working so we ate some fruit and dreamed of hot tea, then set out for Columbia.

The Scuppernong River is a large blackwater stream that begins near Phelps Lake and winds twenty miles or so through juniper swamp eventually emptying into Albemarle Sound. By the time it reaches the town of Columbia, it is a couple hundred yards wide. We put in well below town where the river has widened to more than  a mile. We kept to the shore and wandered among the roots and knees of the junipers. We spooked a group of Canada geese, one scoter and lots of turtles.  After enjoying the wind shadow of the land for a while, we rounded a headland and faced the north wind and the fetch kicked up across the Albemarle Sound. We soon turned around as an accident in so remote a location could have been disastrous.

Coasting along side by side, we let the wind push us back toward the boat ramp.

Solitary juniper draped with Spanish moss

Offshore stand of juniper in Scuppernong River

Back in camp, we fired up a replacement grill. Hot tea at last!!

In the late afternoon sun, we listened to a distant raft of swans chattering out on the lake and watched as a motor boat scared them into the air with the roar of wings we had heard the night before. They moved south a couple of miles so that their sounds were muted. We waited for the evening return. It was almost dark, and we had just about given up having a large group on the lake when flights began soaring in from the north. We could not see them all, but we could see hundreds pass overhead. They joined the group that had settled onto the southern part of the lake. Both Cameron and I were pleased  that they would again serenade our slumber.

On Wednesday, we drove east across the Alligator River into East Lake and to Milltail Creek in the Alligator River NWR

Milltail is another wild and remote location in a 150,000 acre NWR. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, the eponymous alligator, black bears and red wolves all call the NWR home. We would like to have seen each and every one of those species. However, because we cannot choose the conditions under which we might have a close encounter, we opted to visit during a quiet winter month when deer are more evident that bears.

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