North Carolina Wolf Country
Last fall, I struck out for a three-day exploration of Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes. This is remote country, much of it covered with pocosins. An Algonquian Indian term meaning "swamp on a hill," these spongelike wetlands are underlaid with enormous deposits of peat and support unusual and threatened plant species such as carnivorous sundews and juniper, or Atlantic white cedar. Driving along dirt roads that lattice Pocosin Lakes, I tunneled through dense stands of evergreen bog plants: fetterbush, titi, gallberrry. Cane grew in thickets, with only scattered pond pines rising above the underbrush.
That made the climb up to an observation tower overlooking Pungo Lake literally an eye-opening experience. From a field of vision limited to a few dozen feet I gained a miles-wide perspective of the pocosin wilderness sprawling out from the shores of a 2,800-acre natural lake already dotted with a few early-arriving tundra swans. They were the vanguard of a feathered host of some 60,000 snow geese and swans that overwinter on the refuge each year.
They come because this is big country. The Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula is almost twice the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is made up of a patchwork of agricultural fields measured in hundreds of acres, swampy woods and immense pine plantations. There is an austere beauty to the land, but finding ways to experience its wild aspects has always been difficult. Happily, that's getting easier.
Pettigrew State Park
At Pettigrew State Park, on the shores of pocosin-fringed Lake Phelps, I hiked along antebellum carriage trails to observation platforms overlooking the 16,600-acre lake. Great horned owls called from the woods, giving a river otter cause for concern as it swam the shoreline in search of a meal. Along the Scuppernong River a three-quarter-mile, raised boardwalk gave me a prothonotary warbler's-eye-view of cypress swamps and hardwood bottoms that are impassable by foot or boat. In the Alligator River refuge I cruised back roads looking for black bear and hiked within a hundred feet of a large sow that woofed her cubs into a nearby pine tree and gave me a menacing stare.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication