It was late September, and I had an unscheduled weekend in need of an adventure, but oh the choices one must make!
Do I head west to the mountains to witness the great warbler migration, or do I head east and search for bears?
Not a tough choice.
I headed east to the Pocosin wilderness of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. I needed to see the big stuff. I wanted grand wildlife, the kind of wildlife that people travel great distances to see.
So, with the car loaded with camera, lenses, tripod, and a small backpack, I headed four hours east, and turned in at the modestly designated Charles Kuralt Trail. A small kiosk offers maps and a bit of information about the 154,000-acre refuge. There is a single port-a-potty and a bear-proofed trashcan at the entrance.
Nothing grand marks one of the greatest natural treasures of our state. The main center for the refuge is a few miles down the road, but the reserve itself is pleasantly free of crowded parking lots and tour buses. This small kiosk marks the driving trail for a refuge that is home to one of the largest black bear populations of the eastern United States.
It was mid-afternoon, North Carolina wilting hot, and bears don’t usually come out in the middle of the day. They wander the agricultural fields at sunrise and sunset. This was my scouting time. I drove the gravel roads of the refuge for a good two hours trying to pinpoint the exact best location to set up and wait for the bears to arrive in the early evening. That sounds like I have some special criteria, but in truth, I was just driving around trying to see which road was most littered with bear scat.
Satisfied that I had found a good road with easy access to a harvested cornfield, I drove to Manteo and checked into a hotel. I rested briefly, checked that all batteries were fully charged, and then returned to the refuge just as the sun was casting its brilliant yellow light on the fields. I parked my car, tucked myself down by the wheel, and waited.
I peered around the car, using it as a blind, and kept myself still. It was a long wait. The sun was fading rapidly, along with my hopes for finding a black bear to photograph.
It all came together at once.
On my right, I saw and photographed a young male bear as he ambled down the gravel road. He was moving at a slow pace as he headed to the field for dinner. I looked left, and another young male magically appeared from the brush and crossed into the field. I walked closer to the field, and to my surprise, a huge male black bear was already feeding at a short distance from where I stood. He looked up at me, and returned to his meal.
How can I describe the thrill you get when you see such a huge, beautiful creature directly before you? It feels like wilderness. It is foreign to everything we witness every day in our suburban lives.
The bears in this refuge are truly wild. They have not been fed on scraps of sandwiches thrown from cars, and they have not been habituated to our presence by foraging for garbage at local dumps. I felt safe in their presence because these shy bears are not used to people and they avoid us.
Although black bears can come in many shades from blond to cinnamon to inky black, the bears that I have seen at the Alligator River refuge have all been a rather deep black, with brown at the muzzle, and a slight red hue on the outer guard hairs of their back. Seen in dim light, a passing black bear appears starkly blue-black on the white gravel of the refuge drives.
Although the black bear is the smallest of our North American bears, it is still a very large animal. The male who stood before me probably weighed close to 500 pounds. The largest black bear on record came from Craven County and weighed a whopping 880 pounds. Females are substantially smaller and weigh on the average about 200 pounds. This average reflects the weight of our coastal black bear. The bears in the mountains of North Carolina are smaller.
The success of the black bear’s resurgence in North Carolina thrills me.
By 1900, the bears had been driven to the remotest areas of our mountains and coastal plains. The chestnut blight of the 1920s further decimated the population, but with effort, our bears are thriving and repopulating the state. Their territory is slowly moving in from both the east and the west. At the Alligator River refuge, farmers plant soybeans and corn, but they are required to leave behind a small percentage of their crop for the wildlife. Imagine a refuge of 154,000 acres situated only a half-hour drive from an outlet mall on Nag’s Head.
In September and October, the bears are very visible because they come to the agricultural fields to stock up on food for the winter. There has been great argument about whether or not southern black bears hibernate. They do. It is not the total hibernation that we might imagine. If disturbed, the bear can get up and leave its den, but the black bear lowers its body temperature by 10 to 15 degrees, and remains in this torpid state until April. They do not eat, urinate or defecate during hibernation.
Some bears enter their dens in November, but others may den as late as January. Sows give birth at this time. The mother will remain denned with her tiny cubs, and nurse them for the winter months, until she emerges in April with cubs that have multiplied their birth weight tenfold. Talk about attachment parenting! It is no wonder that the mother has such a fierce bond with her cubs.
My evening at the refuge was drawing to a close. The sky was almost navy blue, and the few other vehicles that shared the drive had long since left. I was alone, ecstatically alone, peering at the tall roadside snags sentried by great horned owls commencing their evening hunt of the fields.
I stopped the car to move a phalanx of southern leopard frogs who were temporarily transfixed in the headlights of my car. I was giddy with excitement by the sheer volume of wild creatures that I had seen. Dozens of frogs were leaping around me in this miraculous oasis of wilderness, and I knew that this was just the beginning of my weekend adventure.
Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can contact Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org