Upon leaving the beaches of the Outer Banks, most of us will do one of two things — head directly over the Wright Memorial Bridge towards Virginia, or do the bridge hop onto highway 64 towards Raleigh.
But what if we avoided those two all together and chose a route a little less traveled?
You’d find yourself in the midst of one heck of a day trip chock full of wildlife and landscapes that you won’t find anywhere else in North Carolina.
The waypoint? Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. The means? Letting curiosity take the wheel and continue onto 264, also known as the Pamlico Scenic Byway, after passing through Manns Harbor. You wont be disappointed, the destination is worth the journey.
But hey, isn’t the journey also part of the adventure?
As the road weaves past Stumpy Point, hooks around the Long Shoal River and begins to creep towards Engelhard, the scenery is nothing short of breathtaking. Charming19th century homes dot the landscape, each dripping with hydrangeas the size of a VW bus. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice a commotion; a pair of bear cubs clumsily tumbles out of a cornfield under the watchful eye of their mother.
“Some of my colleagues refer to this place as the Yellowstone of the east,” Refuge biologist Wendy Stanton says.
Still, you continue to push forward, in awe, through this seemingly timeless landscape. A final turn is made and suddenly the marshes and fields give way to the largest natural lake in North Carolina: Lake Mattamuskeet.
“The lake is 40,000 acres, and the ecology here is simply amazing,” Stanton says. “Its origins do still remain a mystery, but we think it’s possible that fires burning deep into the peat in the marshes could be the answer.”
At 14 miles long and 5 miles wide, the lake itself was once in danger of being drained by corporations, but thankfully in 1934 the lake and the land around it (50,180 acres to be exact) was acquired by the U.S. government and the refuge was established. The myriad of plants animals that have since taken over are astounding.
Black cypress dot the lake, resembling centuries old bonsai, some heavily laden with nests of the Great Blue Heron, hovering just above the water but still safely nestled in the canopy of the tree. More than 30 species of snakes, turtles, deer, bobcat — and many other critters — also call the lake home. During the winter, hundreds of thousands of birds make their annual migration to the placid waters — a true sight to behold.
Rumors spread and tales have been told, but the lake also has another famous patron; blue crabs, but not just any old blue crab.
“The lake is famous for the giant blue crabs it produces,” Stanton shares, adding some visitors brag to have even pulled in those weighing in at more than 5 pounds, although no photos have yet to surface.
Why so big then? More food? Fewer predators? The answer lies in the water itself.
“When the crab larvae enter the lake, they get trapped. After the first molting, it takes longer for the shell to harden in the fresh water.”
Longer growth period equals mondo blue crabs.
“Northeastern North Carolina is really special because of our conservation lands,” Stanton says. “Many people have grown up here fishing, hunting, and birding these waters.”
While the lake has been protected for quite some time, Stanton says she needs our help and consideration more than ever. In the warm, nutrient rich water, algal blooms have become present and as a result only 10% of the SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) remains, leaving the animals to forage for food in surrounding wetlands.
“This can be turned around,” she says. “It will just take time and a lot of effort on every level.” And there are ways that we can help on a local level; make sure septic systems are properly maintained, use only the recommended amounts of fertilizer to reduce runoff and maintain a buffer of natural vegetation around ponds and lakes to act as a filter to incoming water.
You really must experience the place first hand to understand how truly special it is. The only sounds you should expect to hear create a natural chorus. The wind whipping through the reeds, water bugs scooting across the surface like bumper boats, geese honking and snapping turtles gingerly breaching the water for a breath of fresh air — and the sound of a long exhale, as the stress just melts away.