One of the best places for birding on the entire Atlantic Flyway is North Carolina’s Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. In this sparse landscape of water, sky, and grass punctuated by pine and pond cypress, waterfowl from as far away as the Arctic Circle indulge in a feast that lasts from November through February.
Lake Mattamuskeet, the largest natural lake in North Carolina, is actually nothing more than a shallow depression that collects rainwater; it has no natural inlet or outlet. According to Native American legend, the depression was formed by a peat fire that burned for 13 moons. These shallow waters encourage the growth of aquatic plants that nourish the tens of thousands of waterfowl that visit Lake Mattamuskeet every winter. During a recent December, for example, the lake hosted nearly 17,000 tundra swans, 17,000 pintail ducks, and 11,000 teal.
That these waterfowl return every winter is a tribute to both the resiliency of nature and the ability of humans to learn from folly. People have attempted to turn the lakebed into cropland for over 200 years. In 1773, the Provincial Congress passed a bill to dig a canal from Lake Mattamuskeet to the Pamlico Sound. At that time, the lake was from six to nine feet deep and covered 120,000 acres. However, the bill was vetoed and the project did not go forward.
Using slave labor, a ten-mile canal was finally dug to the Pamlico Sound in the 1830s, draining the lake to sea level and reducing it to half its original size. In the early years of the 20th century, the entire lake was pumped dry three times in hopes of creating a profitable mega-farm. These ventures failed, and in 1934 the lake’s 50,000 acres were sold to the federal government for the creation of the Lake Mattamuskeet Migratory Bird Refuge.
With the aid of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the pumphouse was remodeled into a lodge that soon became a world-renowned hunting retreat. Mattamuskeet Lodge (pictured above) was closed in 1974, but it is now being restored. Its 112-foot observation tower (the old smokestack for the pumping plant) offers a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding forests.
Today, impoundments on the southern and eastern fringe of the lake are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maximize the growth of native aquatic plants such as wild millet, panic grasses, and spike rushes that waterfowl find most nourishing. The entrance road that leads to Mattamuskeet Lodge borders one of these impoundments. A leisurely and observant driver will likely see hundreds of waterfowl along the 2.2-mile driveway to the lodge. From the lodge, take Wildlife Drive and walk or bike to the impoundments a few hundred yards north of the lodge. Note that Wildlife Drive is closed 3 or 4 mornings a week during waterfowl hunting season, generally from late November through January.
Although the lodge isn’t yet equipped for overnight guests, there are places to stay in nearby Engelhard and Belhaven. And remember that Manteo, the gateway town to the Outer Banks, is only about an hour from Lake Mattamuskeet.
Location: Hyde County, nine miles east of Swan Quarter.
Access: US Highway 264 and NC Highway 94 (the causeway crosses the lake.) To get to the Refuge office and Mattamuskeet Lodge, take NC 94 about 1.5 miles north of the NC 94/US 264 intersection, and turn onto the 2.2 mile-long Entrance Rd.
Size: 50,180 acres. Lake Mattamuskeet is approx. 6 by 18 miles. Its average depth is about two feet.
Activities: Birding, wildlife viewing and photography, hunting, fishing, boating, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, picnicking, and auto touring.
Interesting Trivia: Linguists believe “Mattamuskeet” is a corruption of Native American phrases for either “dry dust” or “moving swamp”.