The Ark of the Albemarle

The Albemarle Peninsula is a lovely place, wet and low lying, surrounded by water almost all around, covered in swamp woodlands and expansive marshes. It is home to black bears, white-tail deer, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. It is the only place in the world where red wolves run wild and free — if wearing a thick radio collar is truly free. Soon it will all be underwater. Alas, the Albemarle Sound is a drowned river due to a combination of rising seas and sinking land, and the water continues to rise. 

A map says the peninsula is land. That would be misleading. It is easy to draw a line on paper and say this side is water and this land, but that is not how the world works, especially not this landscape in eastern North Carolina. Everywhere you go is a muddied definition of land and water. In flat country at the edge of the continent, the slightest variation in microtopography impacts the landscape. 

The ground on the Albemarle Peninsula is some mixture of sand and black organic soil. It is soft and unconsolidated. Whichever way the wind blows, one side of the peninsula is being eaten away by waves. No place is better to see this than at the end of Point Peter Road on the east side. Today the road ends as a decaying promontory jutting into the sound. Across seven miles of open water the Outer Banks are a thin barrier on the eastern horizon. There is a break where Oregon Inlet connects to the Atlantic Ocean. Everything from due north to due south is a broad expanse of shallow water sloshing about more from the push of the wind than the pull of the moon. 

In order to pave a road here, sodden soil is trenched out and heaped up a few feet above the water table to provide land dry enough for gravel to be hard packed. Point Peter Road is a hard capped berm that resists erosion better than the soft peninsula. Up and down the shoreline, wind-thrown waves eat away at the land. Dare county can lose ten feet of land every year here. 

Looking west from this spot, the land is flat and open. On the south side of the road runs a large canal where the earth was borrowed for the road bed. Smaller drainage canals, from a time when draining the wet soil was a goal, section the lowland. This pattern repeats itself across the Albemarle Peninsula. While much of this landscape is wooded, along Point Peter it is a marshy savannah. 

This land is slowly sinking due to a process the geologists call isostatic adjustment. In a giant, tectonic seesaw, the North American crust where the glaciers sat up north is rebounding, which in turn is causing this latitude to subside. And ocean levels have been rising, a process that has accelerated in the last hundred years. The combined effect causes a high rate of relative sea level rise in the Albemarle Sound. Canals penetrating the peninsula allow brackish water to intrude into the water table, raising salt levels to where the forest can not survive. The trees have all died, except where some hammock gives sanctuary to a single specimen or a small grove. It is a subtle process that is measured in centimeters and parts per million, but it is certain nonetheless. The marsh that remains is suited to the brackish groundwater. This is how low country drowns.

On the west side of the peninsula is the Alligator River estuary, twenty miles long and two miles across, where alligators and manatees occasionally appear. It gives its name to the conservation reserve on the peninsula, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The Navy’s Dare County Bombing Range is a large parcel just south of the refuge.

Small changes in elevation, drainage, or salinity yield a surprisingly large variety of ecosystems. Pocosins, hardwood swamp forests, white cypress swamps, bogs, freshwater marshes, brackish marshes, and open water occur across the peninsula. Three feet above sea level is a hill in these parts. Freshwater streams in this low, coastal landscape languish with black tannic tea. The edges are not so much a bank but rather swamp forests standing in water. Where the ground rises up a foot or two, dense forests grow on earth you can walk on. 

This is the only place on the Earth, where red wolves are part of the landscape. Red wolves are currently recognized as a species of North American wolf, Canis rufus, although there are some who argue they are a subspecies or a hybrid species. Legal protection hangs on the debate. They are smaller than grey wolves, but larger than coyotes. They once thrived in the eastern woodlands from New Jersey to Texas. When the last animals were captured from the wild, it was determined there were 14 breeding animals from which to rebuild the population. 

After failed attempts elsewhere, the Fish and Wildlife Service began a release program at Alligator River in 1987. The Albemarle peninsula is large enough to support about three dozen animals — hardly a robust population. They adapted to the thick growth and available food. Remote from the interference of other canids, especially coyotes, the red wolves topped 100 and started expanding their range. When they moved out of the refuge, some landowners were unwelcoming and conflicts ensued. Some wolves were killed by vehicles; others were shot intentionally or mistaken for coyotes. Although they were listed as an endangered species, red wolves on private lands do not have protections, since these free ranging animals were considered a “non-essential, experimental population.” The “essential” wolves are all safely in captivity. The Albemarle Peninsula itself is an unsustainably limited range for Canis rufus. And, with the encroaching water it is a changing, if not disappearing, landscape that will become unsuitable for wolves in 100 years. Is this the only refuge we will begrudgingly offer red wolves? 

I longed to see a red wolf in the underbrush, or perhaps crossing the road. In 2010, I met with the manager of the refuge and asked if there was someplace we could go see a wolf. He said it was unlikely. They are very good at hiding and would be deep in the woods during the day. Human conflicts with red wolves has again cost them, as the numbers plummet. Today there are a dozen collared wolves in the wild, none in breeding pairs. 2019 was the first year since the program started that no pups were born. This is how the red wolf dies. 

I still have never seen a red wolf, although I was at the Albemarle many times when they were at their peak reintroduced population. In German there is a word, Fernweh. It means woe for something that is distant — a farsickness. I am moved by red wolves. To me the Albemarle landscape is richer just knowing they are there. 

Lithograph: Red Texas Wolf. 1854. John Woodhouse Audubon. Courtesy Houston Museum of Fine Arts

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