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Where Swans Fly and Bears Walk Educator Trek

January 9, 2012
Sunrise At Pungo Lake

Sunrise At Pungo Lake

Today, a group of educators took time away from home in order to work on their appreciation of nature, and in turn, better foster an appreciation of nature in their students. We spent a long day at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Plymouth, NC. Pocosin Lakes is the wintering grounds for thousands of tundra swans and snow geese, and home to a dense population of black bears. Our goal was to stand under a sky filled with swans and walk in the tracks of bears.

Snow Geese flying overhead at sunrise

Snow Geese flying overhead at sunrise

Our day began and ended with the spectacle of snow geese. They tend to spend the night on Pungo Lake, but disperse just after sunrise to feed in the agricultural fields on the refuge and beyond. We pulled up to the fields at the south end of the refuge just as the 60,000 snow geese flew in. It’s hard to describe the sight and sound of that many birds – someone compared it to the noise of the city, but with a more musical quality. They swirl around the fields looking for a propitious site to land and finally settle down to feed. At the end of a full day, we rushed to the south side of the lake to watch the swans and geese fly in for the night, passing in front of the almost-full moon.

Not too far into the morning, we were rewarded with our first bear sighting. With a title like Swans and Bears for an educational program, there were high hopes from everyone that we would see a bear. At the first glimpse of a giant majestic black ball of fur, the bus erupted with cries of “BEAR BEAR BEAR!” If the sound of an oncoming bus wasn’t enough to startle the bear, I’m sure our shouts were heard. The juvenile bear began galloping off to try and find shelter. After feeling a bit of protection from a cluster of trees, the bear slowed and checked us out again. We could see its head poking out as we all strained to get a better look. After a short period of time the bear turned and sprinted off into a corn field. The pressure of trying to spot a bear on our trip had eased and a sense of peace and contentment swept over us for being able to share that short moment of excitement.

The middle of the day was filled with learning. Someone talked about reading about ‘pocosin’ habitat, and being required to teach about it, but not really knowing what it was, beyond the words describing it in a textbook. Today we experienced pocosin when we walked along a short section of a game trail among the thick gallberry, wax myrtle, and red bay. And we learned from Wendy, the refuge biologist, that pocosin habitat was once widespread in eastern North Carolina before it was ditched and drained for farming. Much of the Pocosin Lakes Refuge is set aside for this particular habitat and the creatures that call it home.

Black Bear tracks along road

Black Bear tracks along road

Pocosin Lakes is the type of place that can reach down into your soul. It’s not the landscape itself – the agricultural fields that provide food for the waterfowl, the dwindling pocosin habitat filled with dense evergreen shrubs, the drainage canals that keep the roads drive-able and fields farmable. It’s what lies hidden just around the bend, or behind the vegetation, or in the woods. It’s the huge lines of snow geese undulating in the sky, then covering the ground like snow. It’s the gentle whistling of the swans and the whir of their wings as they fly overhead. It’s a dirt roadway, full of more tracks than you’ve ever seen before – hinting at the numerous bears, raccoons, foxes, and deer hiding just behind the river cane.

A quote from an elementary school teacher captures the spirit of the day well: “Before we left, I was worried about all the stuff I needed to do. But out here, I was present to the world around me. It is there all the time, if only I take the time to watch and listen and let go of my worries.”
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