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By Hugh Biggar
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 7, 2002

At just past 8:30 in the evening, I find myself surrounded by the inky dark of the Carolina night, the only sounds the hum of crickets and croaking of bullfrogs and the scuffling of feet on a gravel road. Light from a half-moon reflects off black waters bordering the road. Members of the small group I have traveled here with huddle close together, not too eager to stray close to those waters or the neighboring piney woods. Vacationers in North Carolina's Outer Banks at this time are likely mini-golfing, walking along the beach or enjoying some nice seafood or a summer action flick. But we're in an altogether different place, outside the boundaries of the traditional beach experiences. High-pitched yelps interrupt the quiet.

We're just 20 minutes west of Nags Head -- but a world removed from the Outer Banks' beaches, rolling dunes, strip developments, Wright Brothers and Lost Colony landmarks. This is the flat, swampy heart of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, surrounded by fields and scrubby woods. The 152,000-acre refuge is home to 200 species of birds, overly friendly black bears, the country's northernmost alligators and the source of those yelps, the red wolf. Somewhere in the surrounding forest is one of the East Coast's few populations of wild wolves. We have gathered here for a low-key foray into the wilderness, to get in touch with our inner wolf and to learn more about this endangered animal. And to have a little howl.

Aubrey White, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, is our guide for the evening, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Shauna Baron. The two groups sponsor the frequent red wolf howling safaris. "It is a really good opportunity for people to make an emotional connection to the wolves and realize they are in our back yard," says Baron, the Fish and Wildlife Service's red wolf outreach coordinator. "Not many people know they are here, and that only 250 exist in the world."

At 8 o'clock in the evening, we meet at the entrance to the Creef Cut Wildlife Trail, just past highway signs reading "Please Don't Stop to Feed the Bears." As this is very much a user-friendly wilderness experience, our group of 20 is diverse, ranging in size from young children to seniors. Baron passes around a red wolf pelt, generating excited oohs and aahs, and points out the long ears and reddish heads characteristic to red wolves.

At the same time, while we swat away mosquitoes and man-eating yellow flies in the gathering dusk, White provides some stats on the red wolf, the first carnivore declared extinct in the wild ever to be reintroduced to its native range. They once roamed throughout the southeastern United States. But by the early 1970s the animals -- like their larger cousin, the gray wolf -- had been made nearly extinct by centuries of trapping and hunting and deforestation. At that time, the few remaining wild wolves were captured and sent to zoos to prevent the species from being entirely wiped out. From this small band, four red wolves were reintroduced into the wild in 1987. The Alligator River refuge was chosen for its isolation and lack of development. (A similar effort in the Great Smoky Mountains failed.)

Since 1987, the red wolf population in the refuge has grown to roughly 100 wolves, almost halfway to a goal of 220. At that, they are spread thin, with packs of six to eight wolves stretched across this broad patch of eastern North Carolina. Even so, the future looks promising. Although at one time wolf bounties were paid in the state, locals have mostly come to accept the animals, and programs are now in place to prevent interbreeding with coyotes, the biggest threat to their future as a species.

With all this in mind, and eager to escape the bugs and stretch our vocal cords (which several of us have been warming up, sounding like wannabe Tarzans), we climb into cars to caravan six miles over dusty, washboard roads into the refuge.

We park and step out into the paludal, black night. A few of the children move forward, led by White. Soon, they let out high-pitched yells that elicit no response from a pack of seven wolves located roughly a half-mile away, but will likely keep any friendly bears away. White then takes over and lets out an ululating call that might send a chill down the spine of the unknowing -- or even the knowing.

It certainly captures the attention of the red wolves. Immediately, yelps come floating back, sounding more like distant city sirens than the doleful howls of the gray wolf. When the calls fade, White encourages us as a group to respond. We let out a collective noise that sounds more like the shrieks of large mammals being slowly devoured by bugs than anything wolflike. The only response we get is the heckling of bullfrogs. Perhaps we've made it all too clear we're just humans crying wolf. As Baron explained earlier in the evening, the already-shy animals have learned from hard experience to be deathly afraid of humans.

White then takes the lead again, sending out another deep, piercing call. The red wolves respond in kind, their calls barely rising above the crickets and frogs. We all pause before heading back. It's a nice note to leave on, one that reminds us of what brought us here and away from the nearby beach playgrounds in the first place -- the call of the wild and a sound like no other on the East Coast.

HOWLING: The next howling safaris will be Aug. 14 at 8 p.m., and again on Oct. 16, 30, 31 and Dec. 13. They are free, and no registration is required. Be sure to bring flashlights and insect repellent. For more information contact the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, 252-473-1131, or visit http://alligatorriver.fws.gov or www.redwolves.com. The refuge also offers opportunities for hiking, birding, fishing and kayaking. Be forewarned, however, that the terrain can be challenging and in wet weather roads are impassable. Kayaking is one of the better ways to see the refuge and its wildlife. There are four kayak trails available, each color-coded to help guide visitors. The refuge is open only during daylight hours. The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, home of the first colony of English settlers in the present-day United States, is a 15-minute drive away in Manteo.

STAYING THERE: Although there is no camping in the Alligator River refuge, nearby Manteo has several bed-and-breakfasts and a few hotels. For B&Bs try the Roanoke Island Inn (252-473-5511, www.roanokeislandinn.com). Rates are $168 for two, $138 after mid-October. At the Elizabethan Inn (800-346-2466, www.elizabethaninn.com), rates start at $89 until mid-September, $59 in the off season.

EATING THERE: Your best bet is in Manteo, which has a quaint downtown worth a visit on its own. Good sandwiches can be had at Poor Richard's Sandwich Shop, located on the waterfront. For more innovative food and good views stop by the Full Moon Cafe, also on the waterfront.

INFO: Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, 800-446-6262, www.outer-banks.com/visitor-info.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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