The Pasquotank seems a basin of superlative statistics. Almost half (41%) is underwater. Within 3,366 square miles, there are 2,000 miles of streams and rivers, 918,500 acres of estuary, 107 miles of coastline, and less than 120,000 people, most of which seem crowded onto the Outer Banks.
Although named for the Pasquotank River, the basin contains six others – the Perquimans, Alligator, Little, Yeopim, Scuppernong, and North Rivers – all of which empty into one of four sounds – the Albemarle, Currituck, Roanoke, and Croatan Sounds.
Croatan Sound also borders the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge contains 152,000 acres, much of that 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.
What intrigues me most about the Refuge is Milltail Creek. The creek is the center of a colorful history, both natural and human. Despite alligators, water moccasin, and malaria, the swamps around Milltail Creek were once heavily logged for white cedar and bald cypress. When the trees and money ran out, the local population turned to bootlegging whiskey. Now the Refuge is the tenuous home of the rare Red Wolf.