Finding Home with Help from Bears

My eyes open as my ears are filled with noise.  It’s the all too familiar sound of my alarm, but at a very unfamiliar time.  Everything is unfamiliar.  The place, the people, the culture.  This is not home.  It is the third week of this new semester at the OBXFS and none of us, myself included, seem to be fully adjusted yet.  But this morning, there is not time to ponder on the unfamiliar.  My body slowly gains function as the brain reluctantly wakes up and does its job and tells my arm, hand, and fingers to work together to shut off that annoying ringing beside my head.  It’s 4:30 am.  I get out of bed and shuffle around putting on clothes as I brush my teeth.  In separate rooms, my classmates are likely doing the same as we prepare to venture out into the darkness.  Thankfully, this early morning rise is not the beginning to a normal school day.  This is the day we venture out into the wild in hopes of seeing the infamous black bear.

After a quick breakfast, which consisted of copious amounts of coffee, we filed into two white vans.  These vans took us away from the Dare to Hyde Wildlife Tour compound and into prime bear habitat, which turned out to be agricultural fields.  We made our way down twisty country roads, van windshields fogging up in the cool morning air.  The sun started to creep up and the sky began to turn a light shade of blue.  Eventually, the country roads turned into dusty dirt roads that ran past low lying fields and old farmhouses.  The dirt roads carried us to crop fields with canals flanking us on both sides, their black water reflectingbear-pepper the ever changing tones of the early morning sunrise.  It did not take long for the guides to begin spotting bears in the adjacent fields and point them out to us.  Many of them were quite far away and appeared as little, black specks peppered throughout the corn stalks.  Despite the inability to clearly see the bears and our sizable distance from them, there was a noticeable silence and stillness each time a new one was spotted.  Everyone was engaged by these wild creatures.  We fell into a trance, faces pressed against the glass, with eyes wide open taking in each new bear discovery as if it were better than the last.  But suddenly, the vans came to a halt.  It was time to set out on foot into the heart of eastern NC bear country.bear-sunrise

By the time we exited the vans, the sun had formed a semicircle with the horizon as it rose above tall trees in the distance.  The lower section of sky was a deep orange that faded gradually until it met up with a light blue above that was partially covered with wispy, white stratus clouds.  Bristling with anticipation, we began to walk along the dirt road.  Our guides assured that we were safe, but nonetheless, there was something exhilarating about knowing we were out in nature, so close to bears and unprotected.  Being outside the vans, we were able to get much closer to the bears, several coming to within fifty meters of the group.  One bear in particular gained our attention.  It crossed a nearby field and slowly approached one of the canals we were sandwiched in between.  Tentatively, the bear submerged itself into the water, matte black fur meeting shiny black water.   It slowly traversed the canal, swimming with only its head above the watbear-thru-binocser.  We could clearly see its dark eyes centered around a tan muzzle  as it approached the bank of the canal that connected to the road we stood on.  Frozen to the spot, we watched as the quadruped ambled up the bank and then slowly turned and began walking towards us.  The guides had previously explained that black bears have very poor eye sight and may not notice human presence if the wind is blowing so that our scent does not reach their ultra sensitive noses.  The wind must have been blowing just right; the bear walked with head down until it was no more than 10 meters away.  We could hear the dampened thud its paws made with the dry earth each time it took a step; we could see water glistening on its dark coat from its recent swim; we could smell its wild, musky aroma, and; we could sense the intensity of the situation.  Just when I thought it would never notice us and walk right into our group, the bear’s head shot up like it had awoken from a nightmare.  Its eyes focused on us for one-tenth of a second before its front legs sprung into action, slicing through the air and completing a 180 degree turn that was followed by the rest of its body.  Now the back legs were put to work as they pushed off the dry ground and propelled the bear forward.  It did not stop running for as far as we could see, front and back legs working together now to speed the bear down this road normally reserved for trucks and farm equipment.

The encounter with the bear had ended and so had our wildlife tour.  Unfortunately we could not stay out all day meandering through the fields looking for bear.  Field work awaited us.  However, those few hours spent on the tour gave us a once in a lifetime experience that we could carry with us in our memories forever.  Many of us had never seen a bear in the wild before this excursion and some of us may never again be graced with the pleasure of viewing these extraordinary creatures in their true homes at such close distances.  Experiences like this; experiences that are so foreign from everyday life, have a special sort of capability to enhance mindsets and relationships.  I believe that each of us gained something during that tour, something unique to oneself but also something that could be shared with one another.  This trip took place early on in the semester, before friendships and tight bonds had been established within the group.  These breathtaking few hours allowed us to obtain a special attachment to each other through a shared experience.  We have since become a tight knit group, one might even call us a family of sorts and I think the wildlife tour aided the bonding that has occurred.  Sometimes, going out into the wild can bring you closer to home.




The Great Swamp Swamp

Dismal (adjective) – depressing; dreary.

We’re ready.

Such a fitting description of the weather on Friday morning at 8:15, as we faced a 2 hour drive north into southeastern Virginia. Our agenda for the day was meeting author, professor and musician Bland Simpson at The Great Dismal Swamp for a few hours of kayaking and exploring, with lunch thrown in there somewhere.

But first, a little background about this place that is literally named “The Great Swamp Swamp.” It has a really interesting history, as Bland so knowledgeably explained to us. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge used to be a habitat that covered over a million acres and became a formally protected resource when the Union Camp Corporation donated about 49,000 acres to The Nature Conservancy in 1973. A year later, that land plus more was designated a National Wildlife Refuge, which comes with perks.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 112,000 acres in attempts to preserve the ecosystems within the refuge. Pretty neat. I’d definitely never been to a swamp before and had unrealistic ideas of what it was supposed to look like (I was thinking along the lines of a Shrek swamp and that was not really the case).

What’s also cool about this wildlife refuge is that Lake Drummond sits in the middle of it all. It’s roughly about 2.5 miles by 2.9 miles and you can only get to it by the feeder ditch that we kayaked up. As we completed the ~2 mile paddle up the narrow canal, we got to listen to Bland recount interesting facts that he had gathered about the swamp while writing The Great Dismal. A native to Elizabeth County, NC, Bland is practically an expert on mysteries, geography and culture of eastern North Carolina. He is an author, a professor in the English Department at UNC Chapel Hill (go Heels!), a member of the NC Coastal Federation, and to top it all off, a pianist for The Red Clay Ramblers. Oh, and he performed Off-Broadway. So really, what hasn’t Bland done?

Side note: as we were paddling, I had to name drop to him. I said “Bland, I think you’re good friends with my grandmother, Margaret Maron.”

The lunch spot, with time for a little frisbee.

He said, “Oh yes, I’m very good friends with your grandmother actually. In fact, she asked me if I would introduce her at the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame induction ceremony on October 16.”

My grandmother is an author as well, most famously known for her Deborah Knott series, which are also based in North Carolina, similar to Bland’s books. So if you’re looking for something new to read, I can’t help but highly recommend her books. (And she’s getting inducted into a Hall of Fame. Like, c’mon.)

After a quick paddle up the canal, we got to a bit of land in between the ditch and Lake Drummond. Surprisingly, it looked like a park, set up with picnic tables, 2 restrooms and a ramp to take out and put in boats on either side of the land. Between the canal and the lake, there is a dam that

Great Dismal Swamp feeder ditch entrance

controls water flow and can be opened and closed based on water levels in both parts of the refuge. As we finished refueling our bodies and resting our arms, we loaded back into the kayaks, ready to make it to the lake. A little more paddling and we came to the edge of where the canal meets the lake. We gathered around Bland as he read a ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp, Thomas Moore. It was kind of creepy and quite fitting for the day and where we were.

Creepy story


The weather actually couldn’t have been more perfect, on the contrary to what I said earlier. It was cloudy and there was a, dare I say “cool,” breeze the entire time we were out. Way better than scorching sun and stagnant humidity. When Bland finished reading, we had some time to check out Lake Drummond. Not quite enough time, or energy for that matter, to paddle all the way around it but I did manage to find a cool tree sticking out of the water.

The trip was a success and we all returned more knowledgeable of a new ecosystem and wildlife refuge just a couple hours away from us, along with insight into a man rooted in North Carolina and involved in the environment.

(Personally, I think this picture is a good embodiment of The Great Dismal Swamp.

Columbia, NC Population: 891, now 905

Who knew that we were just miles away from one of the smallest towns in North Carolina?! Columbia, NC has a population of just 891, so the students were a little more than dismayed to find out that “nightlife” is pretty nonexistent. However, that did not stop the OBX family from having one heck of a good time!

The field trip to Columbia, NC was a part of our two-week orientation to get us acquainted with our new territory.

Orientation week: team bonding on the pier!

We started off the day with an art class at Pocosin Art Lodge. There were no crayons, markers, or pastels in sight. Instead, this art class contained saws, bowls of sulphur, and a drilling machine! Needless to say, as a very clumsy person, I was afraid to touch anything!

Watching Laurel guide us through the process.

Our class was taught by the very talented Laurel who has been studying art for years. She told us that we would be making key chains with pictures of either wolves or bears. These key chains would have a copper back and plastic front held together by copper bits drilled through to hold the back and front together.

We selected our pictures and got to sawing and drilling. While the process took a lot of patience and concentration the end result was magnificent. The key chain Gods would be proud of us!

The rest of the morning was spent discussing the human dimension of our capstone but afterwards, we were let loose to discover what lies in Columbia. We found a few gems: an antique store that sold 300 dollar vintage dolls, Red Wolf Coalition headquarters, and Elements cafe that looked like it belonged in a magazine.

We had a fantastic dinner from catered by Elements Cafe where Laurel and David Clegg, who is the county manager for Tyrell, joined us.  Mr. Clegg told us everything there was needed to know about Tyrell county. A politician with a theatre background made for an interesting discussion about how Tyrell county involved into what it is known today.

The night continued with catching Pokemon and an encounter with a couple who manages Scuppernong Gazette. We landed a picture that was posted on the Scuppernong Gazette Facebook page.

Finally Famous!! Posted on the Scuppernong Gazette Facebook page!

We spent the night in the Pocosin Art Lodge which ended after Julia and I whooped Jack and Andy (Economic professor) in spades. GIRLS RULE!

Julia and Tamara. Spade masters of Columbia, NC

img001-2The next day we spent with Ken Cherry, the richest man in Tyrell county. We asked about the history of the town and how people have formed opinions about the wildlife among them. We looked through his art gallery and were later taken to his farm where bears, wolves, and coyotes frequent.

All in all Columbia, NC is a hidden gem. Big memories made in such a small town!

We can never take a serious photo haha!

Jockey’s Ridge: Data Collection and a Workout All in One


OBXFS's newest ecologists
OBXFS’s newest ecologists

The 11 OBXFS students are now officially settled in and the semester is well on its way! We spent the first two weeks of our time here exploring new places and learning about the important Capstone work we’ll be doing for the rest of the semester.

If you don't take a selfie - did it really happen?
If you don’t take a selfie – did it really happen?

In order to help us get comfortable with data collection, Lindsay Dubbs – our incredible ecology professor/chaperone/mom – sent us on an ecological scavenger hunt to learn more about the different landscapes around us.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?
Working Hard or Hardly Working?




We were lucky enough to have our first data collection site at Jockey’s Ridge! We spent the afternoon roaming up and down the dunes and making observations about nutrients, vegetation, and natural forces. The dunes were as exhausting as they were beautiful. After few hours of running around, the OBXFS squad was ready to finish collecting samples and relax.




Sunsets this incredible demand to be photographed
Sunsets this incredible demand to be photographed


Overall, our trip to Jockey’s Ridge showed us just how much fun data collection can be. Like all field work, it may be challenging and tiring at times, but the experience is more than worth it. We’re excited to see what the rest of the semester holds!