In December of 2018, we set out to the far east of North Carolina. Bridged to the Outer Banks, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge is a water fowl’s dream. The air was filled with tundra swan’s trumpet, as they splashed around in the many ponds that covered the landscape. Black bears could be seen picking through the harvested soybean fields, lazily moving from spot to spot, some not even bothering to stand while they ate. Fishers and cranes picked off fish in shallow waters, while the ducks paddled around on the surface. There was no doubt, these swamps were filled to the brim with life. And amongst all this life, we were hoping, wishing, to find the rarest creature living in it.
We were hunting for a red wolf.
The next few days we spent both in wait, and search. Though we saw many black bear, we found nothing but tracks of wolves. We took some time to talk to a few folks working at some of visitor centers on Roanoke, asking them of sightings. We weren’t able to turn up much, most didn’t even seem to have ever seen one for themselves. One man from the Coastal NC Refuge’s Gateway Visitor Center did tell us of a neat experience he got to see last year though, while he was living in Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in a camper trailer. He told us of the freeze that happened the year before, and how the ponds, and swamps froze over. The question came up: how do the resident alligators withstand the cold? He got that answer going out on one of those cold mornings. Dabbled here and there across the iced surface like stuck logs were gator snouts sticking just above the water, frozen in place.
I laughed. The idea of cryofreezed gators was defiantly not what I was expecting. Nature is resiliantlent.
The week was passing by quickly, and still no red wolf. I was beginning to wonder if we’d even see one. We drove back towards the dirt road, skimming the fields mindlessly. Empty field after empy field, then a crane, then a bear, then a wolf. A wolf?! I slammed on the brakes, barely remembering to put it in park, and hopped out of the car. For just a fleeting moment he looked at us, then hurried back into the weeds out of sight.
Neither of us were able to land a clear image of him, but just the sight renewed our hope. Maybe we would get a shot of one before we left.
Dustin set up a blind, we got in, and the wait began. Black bears crossed back and forth in the fields looking for an easy meal, as the sun was beginning to set. The temperature started to drop. I tucked my hands under my arms, trying to ignore the cold while listening to a flock of swans sound over head. I stared blankly out the blind, growing tired at the wait, and worried we’d go another day, if not the whole trip, without getting a shot of a red wolf. I fiddled with the settlings on my Nikon to pass the time, taking a peek through the view finder, setting it to a new point to focus on.
Then, I jumped.
Silently, and cautiously, he stepped out from the brush. A collared red wolf sneaked into the lane in front of me, checking the safety of the area. My breath caught. I was elated. The world’s most endangered canine, with fewer then 30 left in the wild, was standing in front of me. Both a beautifully rare sight, and sad reality stared me down as my shutter went wild.
He decided to have a seat, and a good scratch there until the light left. The wolf shaped black blob picked up after the sunset, and headed to the next field. We took that as a cue for our leave as well, and packed up hurriedly to get into the warming car.
The next morning we drove back to the same spot before sun up. Red, and orange colors spread throughout sky, as dawn broke over the tree line. All the wild things began to stir. A young bear cub stumbled his way onto the path, eating up the green grasses. The morning started to shift into noon, with still no luck. I looked out the blind, watching as a white truck rolled up the dirt road. A few minutes later, they were stopped in front of us. It was a ranger.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be disturbing you guys!” He said.
We insisted it was no problem, the morning was over, and we didn't see anything other than otters, and black bears.
“Have you heard any commotion at all in the trees?” He asked, gesturing to the tree line just twenty feet away.
“No, it’s been pretty quiet.”
“Okay, I’ll be just a second.” He rushed over to the same tree line, and waded into the brush. After a minute, he came back out, dressed in a few more leaves than when he went in. “Sorry again!” He said, as he made his way back to his truck.
“ What were you looking for?” I asked.
“I was checking for red wolves. We’ve got a few traps set.” He said, dusting off his pants.
“Oh! We saw one last night, just a little ways down this path. I’ve got a photo of him.”
He took a few steps forward. “Do you have it on you? Did he have a collar?”
I pulled up one of the clearer photos on my camera, and leaned it towards him so he could see. He smiled, seeming a bit excited at recognizing the wolf. “That’s one of our breeder males. He’s an old guy.”
We chatted for a few more minutes about the wolves, before he hopped in his truck, bidding us good luck before driving off. The rest of the day went on without an event, but we were still grateful to have the previous night’s experience. Despite the odds, we saw not only one, but two, and even managed to photography one.
The trip was a success. We packed up for the long trip home, knowing again, someday, we’d be back in red wolf country.