North Carolina Wolf Country

The Vast Eastern Wilderness
By T. E. Nickens
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I threw my head back and howled at the moon, my voice caterwauled over the black waters of Milltail Creek, deep in the interior of North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and rolled in echoes through the far woods. Silence. I took a deep breath and tried again, howling with an eye-popping, red-faced, larynx-shredding shriek. A barred owl answered from across the creek. Then nothing.

Dispirited, I tried one more time, tossing toward the Milky Way the most wolflike series of yips and yowls, bellows and bawls I could muster. This time, they answered.

One, two, a handful, and then an arioso chorus of wolves wailed back in the night, from somewhere beyond the creek in the dark, tangled woods. For the next 15 minutes I talked to the wolves, my howls joining theirs, mixing with moonlight on Milltail Creek. Then, my throat raw and my heart pounding, I drove back to my hotel in Manteo, northern gateway to the famed Outer Banks. From wolf lair to hotel took less than half an hour.

For years the desolate stretch of US 64 through North Carolina's coastal plain was a dreaded no-man's-land for travelers en route to the barrier island beaches. These days, however, kayak trails, wildlife observation towers, and red wolf interpretive programs lure visitors out of their cars and into one of North America's most underappreciated wild places: the shrub bogs and blackwater rivers of a vast network of public lands, chief among them the 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the 110,000-acre Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Here you can hike through woods and fields that hold the densest populations of black bears in the mid-Atlantic. There are natural lakes and managed impoundments that attract ducks and geese by the tens of thousands, cypress-fringed rivers where you can catch a glimpse of the eponymous alligator at the northern edge of its range, and so many wetland and upland habitats that 76 species of reptiles and amphibians can be found in the region.

But the star attraction, no doubt, is Canis rufus, the red wolf indigenous to much of the Southeast. At the Alligator River refuge, this shrewd predator has been roaming wild ever since the first few animals were released in 1986. Today, some 75 red wolves run free in eastern North Carolina.

Eddie Nickens is at work on a book, Ark of the New World, a history of North Carolina wildlife from European contact to the present.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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