On a morning in March, I drove my truck down a dirt road straight as a wound drawn across the ditched and drained fields of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The adjacent fields were filled with stubble dry as straw. Dust billowed behind my truck. No one was in sight.
A frosty morning, launching my kayak on the headwaters of Milltail Creek.
Frost still bleached last year’s grass when I slipped my kayak into the headwaters of Milltail Creek. From the landing at the Milltail Road bridge, the creek runs 10 meandering miles to its confluence with the Alligator River, all of it within the refuge.
On a previous trip I had paddled 3.5 miles from the Buffalo Road landing to where the creek narrowed to a thread. It doesn’t sound like much but after a fallow year forced by the pandemic, 7 miles round trip seemed excruciating, 7 miles pushing a 75-pound boat buffeted by a headwind on my return. (There’s an applicable rule. No matter the weather forecast, in a kayak the wind will always be on the bow during your return. Authorship has probably been claimed by someone already. If not, I’m christening it Thrasher’s Law.)
This time I was paddling about the same distance, from the Milltail Road bridge to the point where the creek widened into a series of bays, the end point of my previous trip. Another day I’ll tackle the four miles from the Buffalo City landing to the mouth of the creek, hopefully before the weather warms and the tourists blossom like spadderdock.
The reflections of a winter forest on still water, Milltail Creek, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Milltail Creek wanders through miles of what was once called swamp but has been rebranded as wetlands. It was a swamp that held little value for most people until 1889 when William Baptist of New Orleans invented the pullboat. Until then the virgin stands of white cedar and bald cypress were protected by the fluid nature of the swamp if not the alligators, cotton mouth, and malaria. William Baptist’s invention changed that.
It was basically a steam engine on a barge fitted with a spool of heavy steel cable 5,000 feet long. The barge was anchored to pilings or trees and the cable reeled in, hauling cut trees through the slash and the muck where not even mules could gain footing. A smaller wire rope run through a block returned the cable to the cutting ground.
The pullboat was towed into position by tug and then used to clearcut the trees in spokes that radiated into the forest, each spoke 150-yards apart. Eventually, even more efficient means were invented to extract all the profit from the land. By the early part of the 20th Century nothing of value remained. The lumber companies abandoned the swamp and the men they employed to cut and transport and mill the trees. The only work left was making moonshine on the banks of Milltail Creek. (See Blockade Whiskey.)
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is something new, created in 1984, but the concept was first pioneered in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt designated Pelican Island on the Indian River, Florida as a haven for wildlife. By 1909 he had created 53 refuges. Unfortunately, Congress refused to fund them. The legal battle between the privilege of private property owners and the common good has been going on ever since. The fact that wildlife needs a refuge says something about our cultural values.
Winter branch overarching Milltail Creek, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
The Alligator River refuge contains 152,000 acres of mostly wetland. Wetlands are places that resist precise boundaries because they’re mostly water. By definition, they’re fluid. They were also largely reviled as wasteland before we began to understand how critical they are to our own survival.
In 1750 the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm traveled the colonial Northeast. “People are…bent only upon their own present advantage, utterly regardless of posterity,” he wrote. “By these means many swamps are already quite destitute of cedars.”
That’s one reason for the Alligator River refuge, to protect it from ourselves. We have a long history of valuing only our present advantage. Protecting the wetlands protects our future selves, our posterity.