THE ALLIGATOR RIVER
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Remote and inaccessible by land, the Alligator River is a heavily traveled link on the Intracoastal Waterway between Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. The river is a major artery in northeast North Carolina and an arm of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary.
Much of its shoreline is protected as part of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and the river remains a fertile nursery for young fish. Yet, because its drainage basin is mostly wetlands, it is important to view the river's story in the context of land use on the peninsula it drains, the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula. Land uses on this peninsula have far-reaching impacts on the well-being of the estuary as a whole.
With one branch rising from Alligator Lake and others rising from deep in the broad, flat Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula, the Alligator River begins as a winding tracery about fifty miles from Albemarle Sound. As the river meanders through modern farmfields and ancient wetlands, it gathers volume, widens and sets itself due north for the last twenty-mile leg. Swamp forests of tupelo-gum, white cedar and aged bald-cypress fringe the river, purify water and buffer against floods. They are the northernmost retreat for the American alligator.
At one time, the river drained over a third of the peninsula. In vast sheets, rainwater flowed leisurely toward the river and its tributaries through millions of acres of wetlands known as pocosins. Unique and ancient, pocosins occur only in North and South Carolina. They are noted for thick layers of peat formed from the remains of plants which decayed in a waterlogged but oxygen-poor environment.
Algonquian for <MI>swamp-on-a-hill, <D>the word pocosin refers to the curious domed shape of the wetland. Acidic and nutrient-poor soils may support only scattered pond pines (preferred nest sites for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker) amid dense stands of gallberry, ti-ti and bay. Yet this impenetrable tangle of evergreen shrubs provides the seclusion necessary for the survival of black bear, gray fox and bobcat. Recent efforts to reintroduce the red wolf to the wildlife refuge are being carefully monitored and show early signs of success.
Streams in the river's watershed are dark, laden with organic matter from wetlands, and highly acid. The dark rich waters are host to river herring and striped bass that come to spawn. Young spot and croaker also drift into its creeks and bays from the open ocean where they were born. The river and its creeks are, in fact, a nursery where young fish thrive and grow. Locals have long considered The Frying Pan one of the best fishing spots around; in the 1920s and '30s herring was processed here on long piers built out over the water.
Impenetrable pocosins and labyrinthine swamps must have seemed forbidding to land-hunters who crossed the Sound and ventured up the Alligator around 1700. They sought shelter in Alligator Creek and started a community at Fort Landing. Since the warlike Secota Indians patrolled the area, col-onists built a makeshift stockade whose possible remains a pile of logs may be seen at low water. Other pioneers ventured further up the river, but few cared to tackle clearing the vast forests. They hugged navigable streams and perched on ridges of high ground known as chestnut oak islands. By the 1750s East Lake (best known for its rye whiskey during prohibition) and the Gum Neck area had been settled. Kilkenny, settled in the early 1800's by the Irish, was for years the last frontier in Tyrrell County
Most people farmed a little, fished a little and made cypress shingles to sell for seven dollars a thousand to boats that came up the river. They built occasional canals through swamps to drain farmland and aid navigation, or dikes to channel streams, but changes to the land were negligible.
Further west on the peninsula, plantations like Buncombe, near Roper, and Somerset, at Lake Phelps, were prospering. A boom in agriculture after the Revolution was spurred by logging cypress and growing rice<197>and the belief that draining swamps benefited public health. A six-mile canal dug by slaves from Lake Phelps to the Scuppernong River floated barges and drained 10,000 acres of wetlands for cultivation.
By the 1880s depleted soils could no longer sustain high yields, and emphasis shifted to forestry. Buffalo City was founded by three men from Buffalo, New York, who purchased vast acreage in Dare County to lumber the area. Abandoned tram roads built to remove timber still crisscross the peninsula.
MAN AND THE LAND
A century later, in 1980, major timber companies owned 44 percent of land on the peninsula, and large agricultural corporations owned 21 percent. Only a third of the pocosins on the peninsula remained in their natural state. North Carolina and other southern states gained a reputation as the wood basket of the nation.
The previous two decades had seen massive efforts to clear forests. Using huge, cleated rollers, roots were broken up and the soil tilled for planting. Clearings often stretched from horizon to horizon and were likened to Kansas cornfields. Drainage ditches as many as 16 miles per square mile of land collected excess water which was fed to rivers, creeks and eventually the estuary. Corn, soybeans, pines for pulpwood, cattle and hogs were raised where once impenetrable thickets grew.
Mining and marketing peat from pocosins as fuel for power plants was proposed. However, this idea proved to be economically and environmentally flawed and never came to fruition. Most of the “Super Farms”have gone bankrupt, although intensively managed pine plantations continue to be profitable. Unfortunately, the practice of bedding, or recontouring the land to enable pines to survive where high water tables normally exist, has led to degradation of valuable wetlands.
Clearing and ditching of land has altered natural drainage patterns. Slow seepage of rainwater into the estuary is replaced by great pulses of fresh, acidic water immediately after a rainfall. Herbicides, commonly used on pine plantations, along with sediment from cleared land, can be carried as runoff into the estuary. Freshwater runoff, acidic and laden with sediment, can force fish and shellfish out of traditional, near-shore nurseries and into less hospitable areas. This is suspected as a major reason for plummeting hauls by commercial fishermen.
The Alligator River is one of 25 bodies of water in the state that have been designated Outstanding Resource Waters. The value of the watershed as a nursery for a wide variety of fish is preserved by setting limits on density of shoreline development and prohibiting discharge of additional wastewater. The Pocosin Lakes and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges together place over 200,000 acres of wildlife habitat and wetlands under federal auspices.
The presence of a military bombing range within the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge has had mixed blessings. Critics complain about noise and threat of fire from target practice, but the bombing range has prevented exploitation of thousands of acres.
Establishment of wildlife refuges in the past decade has had positive effects on the environment. However, in the search for economic growth, careful management of natural resources is needed to protect the environment and preserve traditional pursuits of farming, fishing and hunting
Public education about the role of wetlands in protecting water quality is vital to insure an enduring appreciation for the uniqueness of the land. Use of Best Management Practices for forestry, now required by state law, will control erosion and limit run-off of nutrients and sediment into the estuary. A balanced approach to industry, tourism, and agriculture is necessary to maintain traditional resources clean water and valuable wildlife habitat.
Achieving these goals will depend on people, people who care enough to become informed, make their voices heard, and work together to protect our precious natural herit