Exploring a refuge by canoe or kayak combines adventure with physical activity and an intimacy with nature that's hard to beat.
Whether you navigate on your own or take a guided trip, bring your own boat or rent one, many refuges make wonderful paddling destinations. Besides providing a close-up glimpse of shorebirds, mammals and other wildlife, refuges offer serenity, mapped water trails, and, sometimes, the option of multi-day camping excursions. The Refuge System boasts some 1,000 miles of marked water trails.
"When you're in a canoe, you're not as intimidating to wildlife," said Nancy Brown, a public outreach specialist at the South Texas Refuge Complex, where guided canoe and kayak outings on the Rio Grande and the Laguna Madre are sellouts. "We've paddled right beneath hawks and past white-tailed deer. When you're in a canoe, animals don't appear to see you as a predator."
A boat is a must for those who wish to explore the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon where a marked canoe trail is open all year-round, as well as at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which crosses southern Georgia and northern Florida. "The vast majority of the refuge you can see only by water," said Blaine Eckberg, park ranger at Okefenokee Refuge. "Paddling lets you enter one of the largest wilderness areas east of Mississippi River, full of egrets, cranes and of course alligators. Mild temperatures and the lack of biting insects make spring the most popular paddling season."
Two islands and seven raised platforms are available to paddlers who want to camp overnight in the swamp, as Eckberg recently did. "You may hear alligators growling, but they're not likely to bother you. They're not interested in people."
More than 42 million people visit refuges each year, generating almost $1.7 billion in sales for regional economies. In addition to wildlife observation, refuges provide rich opportunities for wildlife photography, hunting, fishing, environmental education and nature interpretation.
Here are just a few of the National Wildlife Refuges that are popular for outdoor water activities:
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Pennsylvania
The refuge's 4.5 mile segment of Darby Creek winds through the largest freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania before flowing into the Delaware River. See migratory birds including warblers, herons, egrets and sandpipers, as well as bald eagles, kingfishers and waterfowl. Enjoy great fishing along the way. Refuge waters are tidal and navigable only within two hours before and after high tide. Bring your own canoe or kayak. Download monthly tide charts on the refuge Web site and learn points of interest along a self-guided paddle tour.
Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, Vermont
Paddle past one of the most impressive great blue heron rookeries in the Northeast. Look also for bald eagles, ospreys, waterfowl and neotropical migratory birds of the silver maple floodplain forest. Take a map and have enough daylight or moonlight to find your way in the delta's many channels. Canoe rentals are available nearby.
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts
Part of the Great Marsh, the largest continuous salt marsh north of Long Island Sound, the Parker River Refuge attracts hundreds of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Spring and fall are favorite paddling seasons because migratory birds are plentiful and mosquitoes and horseflies are not. Check tide times to avoid being stranded by low tide. Rentals are available in Newburyport. A paddling guide and map are available online.
Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, New Hampshire and Maine
Paddlers can ogle moose, bald eagles, loons and other wildlife from along more than 10 miles of the Magalloway and Androscoggin Rivers, their backwaters and much of Umbagog Lake. Visit the refuge Web site for water route options. Canoe rentals are available nearby.
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada
From June 15 to December 31, paddlers can explore a large freshwater emergent marsh and waterfowl nesting haven along a six-mile marked trail in Nevada's high desert. For off-trail paddling, a GPS is recommended to navigate the maze of bulrush islands. A route map is available at refuge headquarters. Paddlers must provide their own watercraft.
The refuge, boasting some of the most scenic estuarine habitat along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, offers guided summer interpretive trips for paddlers with their own canoes or kayaks. For scheduled dates and times, see the Web site. The refuge provides nursery grounds for coho and chinook salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout. Paddlers may see ospreys, bald eagles and great blue herons, and hear many more birds along the willow-lined banks of the Siletz River.
Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, California
The Sacramento-area refuge offers free guided summer interpretive paddles along a secluded and normally closed slough lined with oaks and cottonwoods. Commonly sighted wildlife on the two-mile route include river otters, western pond turtles, Swainson's hawks, great blue herons, belted kingfishers and wood ducks. For tour dates and times, visit the refuge Web site.
A boat is a must for exploring this refuge, whose freshwater marsh and open water harbor waterfowl, eagles, osprey and colonial nesting birds such as white pelicans and herons. The refuge has the most extensive marked canoe trail of the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex, made up of six refuges in northern California and southern Oregon. The Upper Klamath Refuge trail is open year-round, with boat rentals available from nearby concessions. A paddling brochure is available from refuge headquarters.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland
Paddlers armed with a water trail map (available from the Friends of Blackwater) can explore tidal marshes and brackish ponds for a closer look at bald eagles, ospreys, herons and muskrats. Visit the refuge Web site for information on ordering maps.
Self-guided paddling along Mt. Landing Creek quickly leaves houses and other human structures behind. A map available at the launch site shows how to follow the creek to the Rappahannock River and onto the extensive Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, commemorating the voyages of the famed 17th-century explorer. Along the way, see eagles and marsh birds, cattails and wild rice.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
Paddling is perhaps the best way to see the refuge. You can explore 15 miles of color-coded water trails on your own or take a guided canoe trip on Pea Island (two hours, $25; three hours, $35) or Alligator River (three hours, $35). To reserve guided trips, contact 252-475-4180.
At the northernmost part of the Everglades, Loxahatchee Refuge offers paddlers a close-up view of an endangered ecosystem and its resident alligators and other wetland species. Paddlers follow a clearly marked, self-guided 5 mile loop. Rentals are available.
Bring your binoculars and snorkel gear on this guided kayak trip ($30) of the lower Laguna Madre.
Guided half-day tours ($15) take paddlers over fossilized oyster reefs and under Altamira oriole nests.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, southern Georgia and northern Florida
This vast swamp, one of the country's best-preserved freshwater systems, is home to alligators, sandhill cranes, red-cockaded woodpeckers, carnivorous plants and many other species. It also contains more than 120 miles of canoe trails. Call 912-496-3331 between the hours of 7:00 and 10:00 a.m. weekdays to request an overnight wilderness canoe permit. Requests can be made no more than two months in advance. Guided boat tours and boat rentals are also available.
Paddling the birthplace of the National Wildlife Refuge System offers visitors a chance to see manatees, herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills up close. Paddle on your own or enjoy a guided tour of the refuge and Indian River Lagoon. Reservations are recommended. Details on rentals and fees are available on the refuge Web site.
Guided half-day tours ($20) on the last stretch of the Rio Grande before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico offer views of tropical birds found nowhere else in the continental United States.
J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota
Paddlers can choose between a 5 ½-mile route and a 13-mile route along the Souris River, which winds 75 miles through the refuge. The river provides habitat for muskrats (you might even see an albino one), minks, weasels, American bitterns and ruddy ducks. Paddlers must have their own canoes or kayaks.
Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan
The scenic Manistique River, which once carried thousands of logs to nearby sawmills, meanders through hardwoods, swamps and mixed pine forests in the southern portion of the refuge. Paddlers may spot mergansers, spotted sandpipers, mink, river otter and wood turtles. Canoes and river kayaks are available at nearby outfitters. See the Web site for details.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Two extensive canoe routes offer day trips to weeklong or longer trips. The more heavily visited Swan Lake System route, about 60 miles long, contains 40 lakes linked by foot and water portages to the Moose River. The Swanson River System forms a strenuous 80-mile water route that connects 40 lakes and 46 miles of the Swanson River. Both systems offer excellent trout fishing and wildlife viewing for the hardy. Pack as lightweight as possible. Bring life jackets, hip waders and wilderness experience.