Although the Algonquin word for pocosin translates into “swamp on a hill,” contemporary authorities inevitably point out that a pocosin is not a swamp, but rather a bog. Strangely enough, if you look up swamp in the dictionary, you are likely to find marsh and bog listed as synonyms. Contradictions like this bug the crap out of me, so I did a little research on wetlands terminology.
Wetlands are areas with water tables at or near the surface for long enough periods of time to support aquatic vegetation, and their soils are dominated by anaerobic processes. There are four broad categories of wetlands: swamps, marshes, and two types of mires, fens and bogs. Swamps are forested, whereas the other wetland types have no forest canopies. Marshes have nutrient-rich soil, and stagnant or slow-running waters, and support plants without woody stems, like grasses, rushes, and reeds. Mires are water-saturated lands covered in at least one foot of peat. Fens are mires located on slopes, flatlands, or depressions, get water from both rainfall and surface water sources, and have soils that vary in terms of pH and nutrient content. By contrast, bogs are dome-shaped mires that only get water from rainfall, and have acidic soil with few nutrients.
Pocosins are bogs that have especially deep, sandy, peat soils that are highly acidic and lacking in nutrients, especially phosphorous. Shrubs are the dominant form of vegetation, although scattered pines (e.g., pond, loblolly, and longleaf) can also grow in pocosins. In addition, carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap and pitcher plant often live in this type of bog. Pocosins are subject to frequent peat wildfires, and for this reason the vegetation is pyrophytic. Because berries grow in abundance in these bogs, pocosins provide important feeding grounds for migrating birds.
From the description above it follows that a pocosin lake is a large body of water located in this special type of bog. Being situated within a bog, however, is not the only thing that makes a pocosin lake unusual. Pocosin lakes are shallow and filled with very dark, tannic water, and surface water sources do not run into pocosin lakes; surface waters only drain out of them.
How the pocosin lakes of Eastern North Carolina were formed is a matter of some debate. One popular idea is that extensive, long-lasting, peat fires left depressions in the earth that became filled with rainwater and seepage.
During a week of mostly rainy December days, I hadn’t had many opportunities to spend time outdoors and was getting a bit stir-crazy. The weather forecast for the next week was not very promising, so I expected to spend most of my waking hours at the office preparing my classes for the spring semester. Nevertheless, I kept checking the updated predictions each day, and when I saw that a sunny and mild Wednesday was expected, I quickly formed a plan so as to make the most of it.
Of the four pocosin lakes on the agenda, two (Lake Mattamuskeet and Lake Phelps) were annual destinations, and another (Pungo Lake) I had visited once many years ago. Alligator Lake* was the destination I was most excited about for three reasons: 1) I had never been there before, 2) it has an appealing name, and 3) because I was able to find very little information about it, it was the most mysterious.
The plan for the day is illustrated by the orange arrows drawn on the map. My intention was to arrive at Lake Mattamuskeet just after sunrise, and to spend a couple of hours there. Next I would follow an unfamiliar route to Alligator Lake. I was uncertain how much time I would need to explore the new territory, but I expected to be satisfied with my sightseeing by noon or shortly thereafter. Pungo Lake would be my third stop. My memory of the place was rather vague, but I didn’t anticipate needing much time for the visit as it was the smallest lake on the program. Finally, after only a short drive, the day would be capped off with a stroll along the boardwalk and Bee Tree Trail at Lake Phelps. If I was lucky I would see the sunset over the lake before heading home.
What’s that expression about making plans and hearing god laugh?
*Alligator Lake is also called New Lake, but that seems a dreadful name to me.
Being 18 miles long and 7 miles wide, Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina. Because it is very shallow (only 3 feet at its deepest), it is one of the most popular stopovers for migrating birds that feed on aquatic plants growing on the bottom. It is also the location of the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, most of which is not generally accessible to the public.
Each year at Lake Mattamuskeet one can reserve a spot for an event called Swan Days. Participants are taken into areas of the refuge that are usually off limits (indicated by the red oval on the map) for a tour to see tundra swans and other wildlife. The tours involve riding in either a van or an open-air trolley pulled by a truck. I had experienced Swan Days several times in the past, but decided against reserving a seat this year for several reasons. First, on top of the outing into the refuge, the event also involved a full day of additional activities, including lectures and a luncheon that would require a time commitment I did not want to make. Second, past experiences with Swan Days had proven that just as much wildlife (or more) could be seen by simply visiting the areas that are always accessible to the public.
I arrived at the lake on schedule and immediately drove out the highway that divides it into two parts. There are several pullover areas along the way, and I stopped at each one to take in all the views. As expected, I saw great blue heron, snowy egret, white ibis, and great egret, as well as plenty of Canadian geese. Although they are usually not close to the highway, at this time of year one will typically see and hear loads of tundra swans off on distant parts of the lake. On this day, however, I didn’t see or hear any at all.
Next, I doubled back and went very slowing along the first part of the wildlife drive (highlighted in orange), stopping occasionally to take pictures. Just as in previous years, a few dozen tundra swans and other water fowl could be seen along the way. A pair of northern shovelers were moving through the water quite quickly, but I managed to snap a few pictures before they were out of range.
After a pit stop at the Visitors Center I hoped to go out to the observation blind (highlighted in pink) from which hundreds of swans had been visible in previous years. As luck would have it, on this particular day there was no access to the blind until after 1:00 p.m., so I simply completed my time at Lake Mattamuskeet by enjoying the second stretch of the wildlife drive before heading north into previously unexplored territory.
The Google Maps directions to Alligator Lake were fairly straight forward – drive 13 miles north on NC-94 and then take a series of roads that allowed one to zigzag west towards New Lake Road. The only challenge was that none of the intermediate roads were given names. Nevertheless, there was a sign at about 13 miles with an arrow pointing west that read, “New Lake Road.”
It was a dirt road that ran between farmlands, and due to the recent rains it was very muddy. I swerved along the deserted road in order to avoid the largest puddles and muddiest patches, and made many short, splashing dashes through muck in order to hop from one small piece of relatively solid ground to the next. I was sliding all over the place and my tiny white car quickly became completely brown.
It wasn’t long before it was obvious that the remainder of the road ahead would be nothing but a stretch of uninterrupted mud, so I landed on a dry patch at the side of the road in order to turn around before the car got stuck in the sludge. Disappointed in my failure, I splattered my way back to the highway and then paused to consider my options.
Two different courses of action presented themselves. Plan A; abandon the idea of seeing Alligator Lake, and drive north to Columbia in order to approach Lake Phelps from the northeast. Plan B: retrace part of the route I had taken to Lake Mattamuskeet, and approach Alligator Lake from the south, employing the route that I originally intended to use as a way out.
I opted for Plan B.
Although it required a much longer drive, moving towards Alligator Lake from the south was simple and I arrived at New Lake Road without difficulty. The road ran north to the lake and then turned east so as to parallel the southern shore. After the eastward turn the road was unpaved, but gravel rather than dirt, so except for the occasional pothole it was a fairly easy drive.
All along New Lake Road the properties between the road and the lake were posted as private, so I kept driving hoping I would eventually arrive at a public access point. After about 10 miles the road turned into a posted private driveway and, not wanting to trespass, I turned around.
Along the way I stopped briefly to check out a little cemetery at the side of the road. (One was always coming across small groups of graves like this when traveling through the farmlands of North Carolina.) As I was taking pictures of the headstones, I heard banging sounds coming from the nearby wooded area. I soon discovered that the noise was being made by a group of turkey vultures that were squatting in an abandoned house.
While retracing the route along New Lake Road I arrived at a spot that had attracted my attention on the way in. It was a property with a ranch-style home, a very large, unattached garage, and several other smaller outbuildings. It also featured an elevated viewing stand (for deer hunting?), a barbecue pit, several benches, and a clear view of the lake from the shore. There was no signage identifying the place and the only visible vehicle on site was a huge, green tractor.
The American flag waving at the top of a pole and the benches distributed around the place gave it the look of a public park, but I suspected it was actually a private home of a farmer or a fancy hunting lodge. Nevertheless, I decided to pull over and walk to the water’s edge for some photos.
The ground was extremely soggy and it was difficult to find a spot from which to get an expansive view of the lake. In the distance I could see that the northern shore was dotted with white. This was as close as I was going to get to the swans on Alligator Lake. My photograph came out especially poorly, but it gives you a sense of how far away the birds were from my vantage point.
Half expecting an angry person carrying a shotgun to appear at any moment, I didn’t linger at this spot on the shore. Deciding to be satisfied with the brief encounter with the lake, I headed back to the car and returned to NC-45 to begin the drive to my next destination.
I had only a vague recollection of my previous visit to Pungo Lake. I was sure it had not been in winter, and the only mental image I retained was one of many nutria swimming near an observation platform. I also had no memory of the route I had taken to enter what is called the Pungo Unit, so I needed to rely on the details provided by the map of the area I downloaded from the Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge website.
The map showed several roads running though Pungo Unit, but many were not for unofficial vehicles, and others were said to be closed during winter months to prevent disturbances to migrating birds. It looked like there would be only one route into the refuge area, as well as only one means of exiting that would make possible a southern approach to Lake Phelps. My intended route is illustrated by the red lines on the map.
I would enter the area along the eastern boundary using Pat’s Road, and drive almost to the northern extreme of Pungo Unit. After a short drive east, I would head south along West Lake Road until reaching South Lake Road. These two roads would allow me to cruise the entire length and breadth of the lake, and a brief southern detour would also take me to an additional observation area. Finally, the last bit of South Lake Road would take me to Allen Road which runs along the eastern boundary of the unit. Taking Allen Road north would lead me to Lake Phelps via an approach I had never made before.
Pat’s Road was gravel at the start, but soon turned muddy. The northern end of the road and the subsequent entrance to Pungo Unit were even more treacherous, but West Lake Road took the cake. Solid spots along the road were only occasional, and I slid the car along as carefully as I could, constantly fearing I might either skid into the lake on the left or slip into the canal on the right. After about a half-mile I could see more solid roadway ahead, but first I would have to get past an enormous puddle that spanned the entire width of the road. I didn’t imagine the puddle could be too deep but, nevertheless, held my breath as I cruised through as quickly and cautiously as I could. Once safely on the other side of the obstacle, the vista opened up and hundreds of tundra swans were clearly visible in the waters immediately east of the road. I rolled down the car window and the continuous trumpeting of the birds was sweet music to my ears.
It was difficult to take pictures that captured the vast numbers of birds because wide views would only show hundreds of white spots with no way of seeing that the spots were actually swans. For this reason I shot mostly pictures of smaller groups of birds, and I sure did shoot a lot of them as I lingered in the area for quite some time. In fact, I ate my lunch at this spot (#4 on the map) white watching the tundra swans eat theirs. No other people came by the entire time, so I had the noisy white beauties all to myself.
Eventually I moved on along South Lake Road, and after about a mile of driving pulled over to walk the half-mile Duck Pen Trail (#3 on the map) to an observation blind that offered a view of the lake and more opportunities to see swans. It was great to stretch my legs in the not-too-cool air, and the blind was very nice, but the swan viewing did not compare to that which I had enjoyed on West Lake Road.
Back in the car, I continued on South Lake Road until it met up with Hyde Park Road. I drove south on Hyde Park Road to the observation point (#1 on the map), but didn’t see much there, although I had spotted a hawk (not sure what type) perched atop a tree beside the road.
Before long I doubled back to South Lake Road and drove the short distance east to the raised Pungo Lake Platform (#2 on the map). This was the spot at which I had previously seen many nutria, but this time what I saw was a lot more of the amazing swans.
I was reluctant to leave Pungo Lake, but it was already mid-afternoon and I still had another pocosin lake to visit. I drove east to Allen Road only to find access to my exit blocked by a chain accompanied by a sign stating that the road was closed. The surface of Allen Road looked more solid than many of those I had traversed within Pungo Unit, so I considered trying to squeeze the car around one of the posts to which the chain was attached, but feared I might slide down into the nearby dark and reedy waters.
I was going to need a different exit strategy.
I knew I could simply retrace the route I had taken into Pungo Unit, but the thought of revisiting the precariously muddy West Lake Road was not appealing.
While at the observation point on Hyde Park Road, I had noticed that there was no barricade blocking the portion of the road that the refuge brochure said would be closed to the public at this time of year. This made me wonder if I might actually be able to use some of the other roadways that the map suggested would not be accessible. This tactic seemed worth a try, so again I headed south on Hyde Park Road and then turned west on South Pungo Road.
My hope was to continue onto the portion of South Pungo Road that would get me back to Pat’s Road, but like access to Allen Road, the way was barred. Next I headed south on Van Staalduinen Road toward Refuge Road. Similar to the eastern extreme of South Pungo Road, the map made Refuge Road appear to be inaccessible to the public, but it wasn’t going to take long to check it out, so I forged ahead.
Along the way I pulled to the side of the road to allow an oncoming car passage. This was the first encounter with humans I had had at Pungo Unit, and when the approaching car stopped beside me I saw two familiar faces. The driver was a young man with a big smile, bushy red beard, and bright red mop of hair on top of his head. The passenger was an older man I presumed was the driver’s father. I had exchanged greetings with these guys earlier in the day while taking the Wildlife Drive at Lake Mattamuskeet.
The young man asked if I had seen any birds within the unit, and I pointed out the spots where I had encountered the largest numbers of tundra swans. I assumed he had just arrived at Pungo Unit and inquired about the method he had used to enter. He said he had come in by Refuge Road and that I could easily exit that way. He also mentioned wanting to avoid entering via Pat’s Road because he knew the way was often very muddy, and he wasn’t surprised that access to Allen Road was barred, saying, “Allen Road is almost always closed.” These two friendly fellows were clearly either locals or frequent visitors, or perhaps both.
The route I actually ended up taking through Pungo Unit is marked in purple on the map.
Because the plan to use Allen Road to reach Lake Phelps could not be executed, I stopped before leaving Pungo Unit to consult my map while munching on some carrot sticks. The most reasonable alternative involved heading northwest on NC-45 and then turning northeast on one of the side roads in order to approach Lake Phelps from the north – the same old direction from which I had always visited the lake in the past.
I set out and was foiled almost immediately when I found that NC-45 was closed and I needed to follow a detour. By the time I made my way back to NC-45, I had difficulty figuring out exactly where I was, but drove until I came upon some familiar roads and made my way to the Visitors Center at Pettigrew State Park. I strolled the boardwalk to the view Lake Phelps, and then over to where I could see Somerset Place State Historic Site – a colonial plantation with preserved, restored, and recreated structures.
I wanted to hike the nearby Bee Tree Trail or drive out to the southern lookout over the lake, but it was too late for either activity. Instead I ate the last of my snacks and used the restroom before making the long drive home.
Not everything had not gone according to plan, but I had visited all the lakes on my agenda, although some of the stops had been briefer than I had hoped for. Still, all in all, it was a fine outing and I had certainly enjoyed seeing a butt load of tundra swans, so I considered the day a success.
Return to Lake Phelps
When I got home, I unloaded the car, got cleaned up, ate dinner, and checked my e-mail. I also checked on the weather forecast and found that it had changed yet again. Thursday was no longer expected to be rainy, but rather only mostly cloudy with continued mild temperatures. I considered this a sign from the gods of small adventures, and set about making a new plan for approaching Lake Phelps from the south.
It was pretty late when I got to bed (for me anyway), so I didn’t set the alarm clock and got a fairly leisurely start the next day, not leaving the house until 8:30 a.m. I drove east on US Route 264 to Belhaven where I stopped briefly to look out over the Pungo River. I also made two other brief stops at locations where I could view the river. One place was a campgrounds in Scranton that looked like a Hooverville of shacks and decrepit mobile homes left uninhabited for the winter.
From the campgrounds I headed south on NC-45, and after only a mile-and-a-half turned north on Smithwick Road. According to Google Maps, there would be several bends in Smithwick Road and after 3.3 miles it would change names to De Hoog Road. De Hoog Road would then provide a 7.7-mile beeline to the road that runs along the southern shore of Lake Phelps.
It wasn’t long before the pavement ended and Smithwick Road became gravel and then mud. It wove back-and-forth a couple of times, up a hill through farmlands, and then, as promised, straightened into De Hoog Road. Less than a half-mile along the now gravel De Hoog, the landscape changed dramatically and it was apparent that I had entered pocosin. Signs indicating that the road through the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was for daylight use only confirmed this notion.
The pocosin is crisscrossed with narrow canals and the road ran on the western side of one. I spent several hours driving very slowly along De Hoog Road and stopped frequently to take pictures. I found the pocosin scrubland to be very beautiful. The short shrubs with twisted branches formed what looked like an impenetrable tangle highlighted by subtly colored leaves. The gray wood and green, yellow, and red leaves, and their reflections on the dark canal waters produced intricate patterns that I found mesmerizing.
The pocosin is not dramatic like a mountain peak or a thundering waterfall, but I found it to be a peaceful place of wild beauty that appealed to me greatly. I parked the car in a small clearing beside the road and walked along one of the canals for a couple of hours. In sandy areas there were prints made by deer, raccoon, and bear, and many small birds flitted about. I also saw a skin that a snake had shed and hoped the weather wasn’t warm enough for its owner to be active.
Few of the birds sat still for long or let me get close enough for good photographs. I did manage to get a rather poor picture of a belted kingfisher before he decided to keep his distance, and a partial photo of a downy woodpecker (or was it hairy?) before he took wing.
I could have lingered in the vicinity of De Hoog Road for the rest of the day, but decided to move on and to return for a full day in the near future. In the meanwhile, I wanted to reach the southern lookout of Lake Phelps, so I continued north and then turned east taking Shore Drive to its terminus. There I found a small parking lot, a pair of chemical toilets in a sturdy little building, and a path that led to an observation platform. Ahead of me on the path was an opossum who was in no hurry to get away from me.
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to see the lake from the south side, as the view was pretty much the same as it had been on the previous day from the north – a whole bunch of water. My curiosity was satisfied after only a brief stop and then I moved on to Cypress Point for a quick look-see, and finally to the Pettigrew State Park headquarters. Unlike the day before, I had enough time to walk around Somerset Place, where I stopped to say hello to a pair of goats, and then the mile out to Bee Tree Lookout. The last few yards of the Bee Tree Trail were so flooded that I had to stop before reaching the lookout, and instead doubled back and took the branch-trail to Somerset Cemetery, before saying goodbye to Lake Phelps.
Next I drove north to Interstate 64, and then east to Columbia for a stop at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center. Although I felt too grungy to go inside, I did amble along the boardwalk to the downtown area, and then back to the portion that runs through the trees at the shoreline of the Scuppernong River. I had stopped at the center to use the restroom on many previous trips to the outer banks, but this was the first time I had explored the boardwalk. It was very nice.
At that point it was still early enough to get home before dark, and I dislike driving at night so I thought I should call an end to my small adventure. But my mind’s eye kept seeing the beauty of the pocosin, and I had noticed a road at the end of Shore Drive, right by the parking lot of the southern observation platform, that seemed to run parallel to De Hoog Road. I decided to drive back there and cap off the day with just a little bit more time in the pocosin.
Subsequent research has not allowed me to learn the name of the road I took. It may have been Evans Road, but it could also have been an unnamed road to the east of Evans. Anyway, I took the road south, but before long it turned east rather than continuing to parallel De Hoog Road, so I found that my way out of the pocosin would not mimic the route I had taken in earlier in the day.
At this point there was only about an hour of daylight left. I was satisfied with that in terms of additional time to enjoy the splendor of the pocosin, but wasn’t sure it was enough to find my way out before dark. I moved along at a fairly steady pace, stopping less often then I had earlier in the day, but still captivated by my surroundings. The last light of the day gave the place a distinctly different glow and the reflections on the black mirror of the canal water were as engrossing as before, if not more so.
After several miles and a few turns the road ended where it formed a T with a different one. As I sat trying to decide which way to turn, a red pickup truck passed in front of me from right to left. As I didn’t want to be on someone’s tail, I turned right, following a new canal into the unknown. After only a couple of miles the road was blocked at a sign announcing private property. I turned around and headed back to the T, considering what I should do next.
I needed to travel 13 miles if I retraced my path back to Lake Phelps and I could easily cover that much ground before dark. On the other hand, I hated the idea of missing out on a chance to explore more new terrain. Nevertheless, I decided to be sensible and chose the route that was assured to get me out of the pocosin before sundown.
Strangely enough, when I got to the place where I should have turned I found myself continuing straight on through, in the direction that the red truck had gone. In response to this strange action I decided I could afford 10 more minutes covering new ground before it would be too late to turn back, so what the heck.
The road made enough turns that it was difficult to keep track of the directions in which I was heading, but the location from which the last of the sunlight was coming provided a handy compass point. Despite feeling pressured for time, I still made a few stops for photographs, although the rate at which I drove had picked up quite a bit.
At minute 8 of my allotted 10 the red truck came into sight on the road in front of me. As I approached, the passenger clad in an orange vest walked along the road in my direction carrying a rifle. I waved as I passed him and then stopped beside the truck to greet the driver. I asked if keeping my present course would lead me out of the pocosin and the driver said that it would. When I asked how long it would take, he estimated it would be about 10 miles – a number both larger than I had hoped for and suspiciously round.
The road continued to twist and turn and after ten miles I saw no sign of the outside world. After another 10 miles I came to an additional road at the corner of some farmland. I needed to decide between sticking to the same direction and making a hard right. I went straight ahead and before long, at the other end of the field to my right, there was another choice between straight on and a right turn. I ended up exploring both of these options and learning that each path ended at a barricade. I should have made the hard right the hunter had failed to mention.
As I drove along I began wondering what prey the hunters were after. I didn’t think they would shoot ducks with rifles, and I hadn’t seen any deer all day. Just then in the road in front of me was a black bear. Not surprisingly it immediately disappeared into the cover on the left side of the road. I was excited by the sighting and glad that the hunters had not found that particular animal.
Eventually I passed the red truck again; it had gotten in front of me while I was busy discovering dead ends. After a few more miles the road led out of the trees into an open area with fields on both sides. There was still some purple daylight left, but the sun had already gone down beneath the horizon. After a few more miles I came to NC-94 at a point about 22 miles north of Lake Mattamuskeet. I drove north to Columbia and then east for home.
It had been an unexpectedly long day, but I was very satisfied and knew that I had found a location that I would return to again and again. My time in the bogs also rekindled my desire to reach the pocosin areas within Dismal Swamp State Park, but that would need to wait for some other time.