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Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina

Trip Overview

It was a hazy August morning as I drove down Buffalo City Road to the boat launch. Buffalo City Road is about 15 mile east of Roanoke Island in the heart of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Buffalo City Road is named after the town that used to exist before the area became a refuge. It was a logging town for the Buffalo Timber Company which was founded shortly after the Civil War. The town remained a logging and moonshine town up until the 1950s. It was eventually abandoned because of the lack of good lumber that was left due to the years of logging, the prohibition in the 1930s and the increase in diseases such as the flu, smallpox, and typhoid. As you drive down the 2 mile gravel road signs of those times still exist. Miles of rusted train tracks, abandoned buildings, and the possible rail car still are all overgrown with vegetation.

After enjoying the mornings scenery and a few wild turkeys crossing the road I came upon the boat launch at the end of the road. This boat launch is for paddling water craft only. I pulled up and unloaded all my gear. This was my first time paddling in this spot so I made sure to be prepared; extra water, food, spare paddle, and spray skirt (in case of rain). Parking at this launch is really easy. You can park on either side of the gravel road. One side is designated for vehicles with trailers only. After I parked my truck I launched from the sandy/gravel launch that puts you right into the canal that leads to the open water. As you paddle out of the canal and into the open water you pass under a wooden foot bridge that is part of the Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail. Just before this bridge is another canal that leads to Sawyer Lake. The red and green paddle trails follow this canal, see NWR paddle trail map below. My goal was to do the blue trail. I also really wanted to see some alligators. My friend recommended paddling the first half mile or so of the yellow trail because they have been recently seeing alligators amongst the lily pads.

Alligators are present in the refuge. They have been recorded of up to 10 feet. They are also known to back up tourist traffic that is coming from Raleigh and heading to the beach. Tourists stop on the side of the roads to take pictures of the alligators that are in the canals that run parallel to US 64. The refuge is the furthest north alligators are known to live.

I passed under the wooden bridge and into the open water of Milltail Creek I made the right which starts the yellow trail. I kept about a 10 yard distance from the shore, far enough to be out of harms way yet close enough to see some alligators. It was a beautiful morning. There was a south east breeze and many sounds of live along and in the water. Lily pads lined the shore for the first part of the yellow trail. As I turned around and made my way back to the start of the yellow trail I saw a painted turtle sunning himself on a lone stump in the middle of the water. I was unsuccessful in spotting an alligators but seeing wildlife is an added bonus when out for a paddle.

I continued to glided along into the slight breeze I was amazed at the size of the trees and the recovery of the area that was once a big logging industry. Many trees were growing out of the water. At one point I stopped and imagined how the natives used to live in this area before the English came. I imagined they traveled the waters much like I was traveling that August morning.

The big open part of Milltail Creek is about 3 miles long. As I paddled this open water I stayed close to the western shore and headed toward the narrow part of Milltail Creek. There are a few places where it opens up again but it stays mostly narrow for the rest of the trail. The breeze that I was paddling into was gone because of the thick forest that lines both side of the creek. The water in the creek is still. It is not affected much by tides so the only way it moves is from being blown by the wind. The water is very dark and filled with top growth in spots. As I arrived at a few spots I thought the creek was completely closed off due to tall grass and down trees. I however was able to slip through some openings in the grass. Paddling close to the shore in the creek could cause you to hit some unseen down trees and stumps. I made sure to paddle in the middle of the creek to keep clear of these obstacles. As I continued down the creek I gave a few howls.

This refuge is home to the Red Wolf Recovery Project. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service website, The red wolf is one of the worlds most endangered wild canids. Once common throughout the southeastern United States, red wolf populations were decimated by the 1960s due to intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat. A remnant population of red wolves was found along the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana. After being declared an endangered species in 1973, efforts were initiated to locate and capture as many wild red wolves as possible. Of the 17 remaining wolves captured by biologists, 14 became the founders of a successful captive breeding program. Consequently, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980.

By 1987, enough red wolves were bred in captivity to begin a restoration program on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Since then, the experimental population area has expanded to include three national wildlife refuges, a Department of Defense bombing range, state-owned lands, and private property, spanning a total of 1.5 million acres.

Over 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in five northeastern North Carolina counties and approximately 200 comprise the Species Survival Plan captive breeding program in sites across the United States, still an essential element of red wolf recovery. Interbreeding with the coyote (an exotic species not native to North Carolina) has been recognized as the most significant and detrimental threat affecting restoration of red wolves in this section of their historical home range. Currently, adaptive management efforts are making good progress in reducing the threat of coyotes while building the wild red wolf population in northeastern North Carolina.

Although I did not get a response, probably because it was almost noon and wolves are most active at dawn and dusk; it was still fun to be sitting in my kayak howling to the wolves letting them know I mean them no harm.

I reached the bridge on Milltail Road, which marks the end of the blue paddle trail, at around 11:15. It took me about two hours of casual paddling to reach the half way point. It was the half way point because I had to paddle back to my truck on Buffalo City Road. The paddle trail maps indicate the blue trail is 5.5 miles one way. I sat on the floating dock that is just before the bridge and ate my lunch. I really enjoy being able to sit next to the water in the middle of a wildlife refuge and eat my lunch. I am glad I packed in extra water because the heat from the August afternoon was starting to pickup.

I got back into my kayak at 11:30 and started my paddle back to Buffalo City Road. The temperature was really getting hot. I looked at the thermostat on my PFD and it was close to 100 degrees! I tried to paddle closer to the shore to stay in what little shade the trees had to offer on the water. I still couldnt feel any breeze on the narrow part of Milltail Creek.

As I turned out of the narrow part of the creek and started heading north through the open water I felt the wind right in my face. I welcomed it gladly because it cooled me right down. It didnt last long before I was wishing it would stop. I ended up paddling into the wind for the entire stretch of the open water. I spotted the trail marker pole at the entrance to the canal where my truck was parked. It was a welcome site. I paddled under the bridge as a grandfather and his grandson were doing some fishing. I talked with them as I was getting out of my kayak. They had caught two nice fish in the hour or so they were there.

I pulled my truck up to the launch and loaded my gear, glad to have had the chance to enjoy a 12 mile paddle on a beautiful stretch of water. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most remote and beautiful places to paddle on the east coast of North Carolina.


Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge paddle trail map:

FWS Redwolf Recovery Project:

  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip