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Launching the American Safari at the Alligator River NWR

We were driving toward the North Carolina coast when we looked up to see an unusual sight. A dark bird of prey with a blinding white head was soaring gracefully overhead. It was none other than America’s national bird: the Bald Eagle. Our American Safari had officially begun. Three months from now we would be across the continent on the coast of British Columbia, surrounded by these majestic birds. But here this rare sighting was a happy omen of good things to come.

A few miles before the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, road signs reminded us that we were entering wild territory, red wolf country.

Red wolf crossing
Red wolf crossing

Instead of heading directly to our destination (a beach house in Rodanthe) we couldn’t resist making a quick detour into the Alligator River. We just love this place. Every time we visit I have the same reaction: this place is crazy. It seems like everywhere we look there is a black bear: on the road, crossing a field, behind some trees, and right behind us. I am pretty confident in saying that this is one of the best places to see black bears in North America. (I guess I’ll have to wait til the end of our trip to find out if it’s true.) During one of our visits last year, we were standing in the middle of the road and from a single point we could see a total of 13 bears in various directions. What place in North America can top that?

During our drive through the refuge, which only lasted about 40 minutes, we saw five bears. We had barely driven into the refuge when we spotted a black bear standing in the middle of the road. It was a female with a small cub waiting for her by the treeline. The cub had a tiny face and huge round ears and was clinging to the base of a tree with huge clumsy paws. He gawked at us with a comical look of shock and amazement, then back at his mom waiting for the signal to climb in case we posed a threat. They decided we were harmless and headed off into the forest.

Black bear mother heads into the forest
Black bear mum

We saw a few other bears while cruising along the Wildlife Drive. Most of them were crossing fields in the distance, but we did come across one large old fellow very close to the road. He was waiting to cross a canal and seemed uncomfortable with our proximity so we took a quick photo and let him be.

A male black bear waiting to cross a canal in the Alligator River
A male black bear waiting to cross a canal in the Alligator River

If you don’t see a bear crossing the road or out in the fields, stop the car and wait. See a shaking bush? A bear is probably spying on you. A noise in the forest? Perhaps a baby bear is learning how to climb a tree. See some wet tracks crossing the road? Well, you just missed a bear that came out of the canal next to the road…

Bear tracks in Alligator River NWR
Bear tracks in Alligator River NWR

On the way out, a couple informed us that a mother bear with two small cubs was hiding just inside the woods. We would have loved to sit around and wait for them to emerge, but we had to move on and make our way to the beach house to catch dinner with Hal’s family. It was a great beginning to what will surely be a great journey.

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Hal Brindley at the Antarctic Circle

Hal Brindley

Brindley is an American conservation biologist, wildlife photographer, filmmaker, writer, and illustrator living in Asheville, NC. He studied black-footed cats in Namibia for his master’s research, has traveled to all seven continents, and loves native plant gardening. See more of his work at Travel for Wildlife, Truly Wild, Our Wild Yard, & Naturalist Studio.