Monday, February 6, 2012

Blackwater Tour: Part Two

We camped our last night out at The County Line, a private campground with a large man-made lake beside the highway in East Lake. The owners had cautioned us about a black bear seen fishing the water's edge at the far end of the lake, the end where we camped. It was cool and still as the sun set and the herons winged silently across the lake to their roost in the pines beyond. The mosquitoes swarmed, oblivious to the season and the temperature, so Cameron and I thought we would retire early and read in the tent. First, I needed to visit the outhouse, an old port-o-john mounted loosely on a wooden platform fifty yards or so away from our campsite. (There was closer outhouse, but it was lying on its side at the corner of the lake where the bear had been fishing.) It was already dark so I carried a flashlight to see my way and to see any wild eyes peering out of the woods along the path.

My trek was uneventful, the best thing that had happened all evening. I settled into the tent, uncomfortably propped on a couple of pillows and wishing that I had a nice chair in which to recline while I read. Cameron soon fell asleep. It was not long thereafter that I heard a bang nearby, the sound the door of a port-o-john makes when you let it slam shut on its own. We were the only people at the campground. Then more banging, sounding like someone -- or something -- was pushing against the outhouse and making the door swing open and slam shut. Quiet. Then more banging. I heard Itchy, the camp caretaker, walk out onto his deck at the other end of the lake, no doubt to shine a spotlight on the source of the noise, perhaps thinking that I had knocked over the outhouse in my enthusiasm for a nighttime seat.  The noise stopped.

We slept well. About two AM, I woke to the sound of red wolves howling nearby. They started all the dogs in the neighborhood howling. The dogs all imitated the wolves' howl; they did not bark or whine. The dogs were part of the pack. It was a clear and strong howl, wild and exuberant. I could tell the wolves were moving through the area quickly as the direction from which the howling came moved west to east in a matter of minutes. Their howling stirred in me a sense of being part of an ancient wilderness, a time before men clear-cut forests and swamplands.

We woke soon after sunrise to give ourselves as much travel time as possible. We wanted to be sure that we could stop in the fishing villages along Pamlico Sound, take photographs, sample local cuisine. But first, with the benefit of daylight, I returned to the outhouse and saw where a large furry creature had rubbed the side of the outhouse clean. A bear.

Highway 264 runs along the northeastern side of Alligator River NWR. Blackwater canals separate the asphalt from the forest. It is barren country with the exception of the US Navy bombing range. We arrived at a road stretching eastward to Stumpy Point. We followed the road to its end at a boat ramp on a narrow spit of land extending between the marsh and the shoreline. We saw boats that had washed into the marsh as well as a broken boat resting on its side, all casualties of Hurricane Irene. The land there was less than six feet above sea level. The storm surge had clearly overwashed the spit.

Broken fishing boat in Stumpy Point

Next door was the Stumpy Point Trading Post. We had not eaten breakfast, so I hoped the trading post might have coffee and such. We entered the store and found ourselves between a counter and the comforting warmth of a pot-bellied wood stove. I asked if we could buy a couple of cups of coffee; I could see the coffee maker on a shelf behind the counter. The owner said "no", but he would be happy to give us some.

Bob, the owner, was sitting behind the counter surrounded by paints, canvasses and an easel. He was working on a black and white painting of a local scene with fishing boats and trawl nets and crab traps piled alongside the dock pilings. "Leave it to Beaver" was playing on his television set. Bob used to live in Nags Head, but had moved to Stumpy Point several years before when the woods where he used to pick berries on the island were replaced with beach houses and the dirt roads were replaced with pavement. He talked about the changes he had witnessed, none for the better. He escaped the chaos; we visited Stumpy Point instead of Manteo and Nags Head for the same reason.

Cameron reconnoitered the store and found his favorite brand of kippers, not for breakfast, but for later. After admiring some locally made decoys and some of Bob's other paintings, we thanked him for the coffee and left.

Stumpy Point fish house
It was mid-morning when we reached Englehard and stopped at Big Trout Marina and Cafe. We sat on the dock outside the small cinder block building beside the harbor and ate fried egg and cheese sandwiches. The sun was up, and the wind was light. Trawlers lined the harbor. The cook dashed out for a few minutes and came back with two grocery bags full of local seafood. It was too early in the day for us to want to eat fish, but we just knew it would be a great place to eat it fresh. Cameron also enjoyed the old general store which carried everything from plumbing to guns.

Englehard trawler

From Englehard, we returned to open farmland, flat featureless land with rows stretching to treelines more than a mile away. We passed a sign for New Holland, one of several grandiose failed schemes to pump dry 50,000 acre Lake Mattamuskeet to build a town and farm the rich soil beneath the water. Despite building the largest pump in the world, no one could keep the water out of the lake. The pump house became a lodge for hunters coming to shoot the ducks and geese that migrated to the vast shallow water in winter.

Mattamuskeet Lodge and canal

The lodge is no longer open and may not open again as the sand used in the brick mortar came from the beach with enough salt content to rust through the steel structural members. Mattamuskeet is the state's largest natural lake. At times, waterfowl number in the hundreds of thousands. There was not a great density of birds when we stopped midday. Still, we saw Tundra swans, Canada geese, scoters and a few mallards. And lots of turtles along the canals.

A few miles farther along the highway, we detoured out to Swan Quarter. Aside from its fishing fleet, there was not much happening and nowhere to eat. We continued toward Belhaven.

Some of Swan Quarter fishing fleet
We ate lunch at Farm Boys in downtown Belhaven on a corner across from the Pungo River. Once again, despite all of the local fishing boats, the fish they sold us was cod, not exactly native to our North Carolina waters. I began wishing that I had planned enough time to eat shad or herring in Jamesville or at Sunny Side in Williamston, two places famous for their local seafood.

The ferry at Bayview where we would cross the Pamlico River back over the Aurora was closer than we realized so we had more than an hour before the next ferry would depart. We drove on to Bath, the oldest town in the state -- founded in 1705 -- and former haunt of our favorite local pirate, Blackbeard. We visited St. Thomas Episcopal Church (1734), the oldest church building in the state. Its design is classic and simple with walls three feet thick at the base. The old bricks on the front are marked by graffiti.

St Thomas, Bath

St Thomas graffiti

Our journey took us through a large swath of our state's blackwater and peat soil country. It is wild country, sparsely populated, a mix of poverty and large scale industrial farming. Each town, village and crossroads retained the skeletons of past prosperity -- homes, barns and commercial buildings that were collapsing from the weight of time and disuse.

Fortunately, some of the ancient character of this land can still be experienced today. Eerie gray Spanish moss drapes from the limbs of  tall, rangy junipers growing in the soggy soil and along the blackwater creeks and rivers. The tea-stained water, a mirror on the land, reflects blue sky, white clouds and marsh grasses. As with the howling of the red wolves, the Tundra swans beat their wings in a bold rhythm, pulsating a soft whistle at each beat, a sound both elemental and primordial that reaches deep into our souls, well beyond intellect or conscious understanding, just as it would have been for the Algonquin ten thousand years ago.

NOTE: The red wolves that have been introduced to this area are not native. But it is the rich wildness of this blackwater country that enables it to support large mammals such as deer, bear and, now, wolves.


  1. Wow, this makes me want to be there with you two! The photos are wonderful. Hi to all from a various island in the caribbean.

  2. We will trade! Would love to be with you two as well. Even with Steve's projects.


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