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Wildlife is right at home on the N.C. coast in Alligator River NWR

Dusk is softening the edges of forest and swamp to an auburn haze when one of us spots it: a smudge of black at the edge of a stubbly field.

“Bear!” the kids shout from the backseat.

Without field glasses, the bear is a blur, but it’s the first wild one the 8- and 10-year-old have seen, so they’re ecstatic.

Black bears and other charismatic fauna set the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge apart from other wild places in North Carolina. This 152,000-acre refuge in Dare and Hyde counties is home to one of the largest populations of black bears in the Eastern United States and is the world’s last stronghold for the imperiled red wolf.

River otter, bald eagles, bobcats and alligators roam here. In winter, the refuge skies whiten with wheeling flocks of tundra swans, sweeping down from the Arctic.

When the refuge was established in 1984, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service formed a partnership with farmers: About 5,000 acres of the refuge are croplands, planted to sunflowers, wheat, millet, rice and soybeans. Farmers keep a portion of the crops, leaving the rest for wildlife. The present-day agriculture is a new take on a long tradition.

“A lot of the land (here) was farmed for hundreds of years,” says Cindy Heffley, visitor services specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service tells a group of visitor aboard the refuge tram tour on a Saturday morning in autumn.

Refuge managers now flood fields so thousands of migrating ducks, swans and other waterfowl can swim and eat grain, Heffley explained. The pocosin – an Algonquian word meaning “swamp on a hill” – and flooded forests draw flamboyantly feathered wood ducks.

Wildlife is what draws families like ours to the refuge, to hike the trails, paddle the cypress creeks or drive the gravel roads. But Alligator River has a long, hidden human history, as well.

Bootleggers, bears

Once, along with farming, the refuge land was in high demand for its lumber.

Our tram creaks to a stop at a crossroads fringed with goldenrod and cattails. A bear-chewed fence post reads “Buffalo City.” It’s all that remains of an industry, a community, a long-vanished life.

In the late 1800s, this spot was a thriving lumber town with about 500 residents, a general store, hotel, lumber mill and short-haul rail line. The land’s Atlantic white cedar trees were valued for buckets, barrels and roof shingles. Whole trees were laid down in the swamp to form corduroy roads.

White cedar grows slowly, and lumber companies didn’t replant what they took. But even before the trees began to play out, residents were looking for other ways to make cash. Prohibition gave them their opening.

“My daddy was a bootlegger. That was a way of life in Buffalo City – nothing to be ashamed of!” recalled onetime Buffalo City resident Julia Jordan Haywood in the book “Logs & Moonshine: Tales of Buffalo City,” by Suzanne Tate (Nags Heart Art). “Buffalo City was known for having the best likker in the United States.”

Residents shipped in rye and huge sacks of sugar, brought by steamboat up the coast from Elizabeth City, then loaded onto boats that took the supplies from Alligator River, part of the Intracoastal Waterway, to Milltail Creek in what’s now the refuge. The work came with plenty of hazards, some conventional – Haywood recalled that her bootlegger father served time at one point – and others less so.

“The mash would be out and bears would come and eat it and get drunk and stagger all around,” says Heffley. Enough whiskey survived the bears and revenuers to make its way up to Canada. “It was really high-quality.”

Howl of the wild

As the lumbering and moonshine dried up, so did the town. Today the wind rattles through a forest growing where a railroad ran and a hotel once stood; bear tracks – each wider than a man’s hand – mark an empty stretch of sandy ground nearby.

Not just tracks, but scat. On our visit, we tram riders dodge piles left by bears on the paths leading to fields.

“Bears use this area a lot,” Heffley says.

Scat reveals a lot about an animal’s diet. “Especially for the endangered red wolves,” she says. “Biologists are looking to see what’s in the scat.”

The shy red wolves haven’t left any trace for the tram visitors this day, nor does our family catch any glimpse of the wolves when we return to the refuge at dusk and spot our bear.

But for those who attend a “howling” event, the wolves are very present. These nighttime excursions take visitors back to an area of the refuge not open to the public. There, in a large area of fenced land, range red wolves used for breeding or which, because of injury, can’t be released to the wild. The tour leader and visitors lets loose a howl and, almost every time, the unseen wolves call back. The eerie cries fill the night, both chilling and beautiful.

“It gets you,” Heffley says of the wolf song. “Even though these are captive ones, they are an endangered species. There’s only about 100 in the wild that are in the whole world and the (wolf restoration) program is under review right now. (A howling) would be good to experience.”