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July 24, 2014

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Originally published: 2012-12-28 09:11:03
Last modified: 2012-12-28 09:11:03

A naturalist’s natural vacation in nature

In January of last year, a good friend and I decided to take a two-day vacation. We opted out of the possible spa getaway or weekend cruise. 

Instead, we choose to go camping in below-freezing temperatures on the edge of a shallow lake at the most remote location in North Carolina.

It was a spur of the moment trip, and, as I sit here typing, I cannot remember exactly why we picked Pettigrew State Park in Creswell. Unlike you, dear reader, I had not been told of the beauty there.

After the six-hour drive, we arrived in the dark. And upon raising our tents, my friend and I settled into our sleeping bags. It was then that we noticed the howling.

I thought at first that we were hearing coyotes and almost disregarded the sound. As I listened, though, I noticed that the howls were longer and deeper than a coyote’s. We were hearing red wolves.

Red wolves are a critically endangered species with only about 100 individuals existing in the wild, and all of them within close proximity to Pettigrew State Park.  Can you imagine my excitement?
The next morning was just as blessed.
We rose to the sunlight and an odd honking sound that I had never heard before. Upon crawling from our tents, we saw the first of hundreds of tundra swans flying from the lake to their daily feeding grounds.

 Their white feathers were bathed in the blues and purples of the early morning sky.

Snow geese and tundra swans spend their summers on the tundra of the Canadian Arctic. Yet, they use the lake at Pettigrew and its adjoining woodlands as a primary wintering ground. December and January are the best months to view them.

How did my friend and I greet these wonders of nature? What would any good naturalists do? We hooted and hollered and hugged each other.
How did they greet us? How does any wild animal view a tame one? With barely a despairing glance.
With breakfast and lunch packed, we spent the day exploring the expansive wilderness.

Pettigrew, itself, is about 5,000 acres, but it is in close proximity to the 111,000-acre Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Even in the dead of winter, life abounded.

To our surprise, we also found a fully restored and wonderfully interpreted plantation home and grounds. We were the only visitors to Somerset Place on that particular day, and our guided tour was overflowing with enthusiasm.

The tundra swans returned to the lake at sunset; their feathers bathed in orange and gold. After another cold night, the trip was over, but I think of it often.

Where would you like to travel, valued reader?
Can you allow yourself a weekend to discover a new place? In your backyard? In your state?

The adventure will leave you with something to smile about for a long time.

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service. If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (  

For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.

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