Not many people have seen the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary in Corolla. The sprawling 2,600-acre sanctuary is home to over 285 bird and 400 plant species, including rare and endangered birds like bald eagles, least bittern, and black rails. The only building is The Pine Island Hunt Club, a duck hunting club built in 1913, now serving as a headquarters for the Audubon. Birds and semi-aquatic animals like river otters and nutria roam the marshlands and sound waters freely, without even the sound of traffic to disturb them.
“There’s this experience of a human-free Outer Banks that you don’t get anywhere else,” says Robert Fearn, director of the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary.
As the director, Fearn understands the importance of keeping this vital link in our ecosystem preserved, and that’s why all that untouched land is usually kept behind a locked gate. But he also knew that finding a way to share the Audubon with locals and visitors was just as important to ensuring its survival.
“People only preserve what they love, and they only love what they know,” says Fearn. “People need to see it, but I don’t have the resources to dedicate time and staff to do that. That’s why I have this partnership with Coastal Kayak.”
Coastal Kayak leads guided kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and walking tours through many popular spots like the maritime forest, Kitty Hawk Bay and Long Point Marsh, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and Pea Island, but they’re the only touring company with permission to lead groups through the Audubon.
“We’re super fortunate to have the privilege to kayak and paddleboard there,” says Coastal Kayak owner Joe O’Grady. “It’s like stepping back in time.”
O’Grady has been the owner of Coastal Kayak for all of the 20 years they’ve been in business, and he believes the reason they’ve kept going strong is their knowledgeable tour guides. Coastal Kayak regularly goes on recruiting trips to colleges, looking for experts in wilderness leadership, history, zoology, and botany. Take their guide Jonathan Cooley, for example. He did his master’s thesis on diamondback rattlesnakes. All Coastal Kayak had to teach him was how to kayak.
“We’re leading the best quality trips, and people really appreciate that,” says O’Grady. “And I learn new stuff from my guides all the time. It’s really rewarding.”
Participants of all ages have the opportunity to learn all about Outer Banks history and wildlife during their kayak tour, but if they’d rather just enjoy the quiet paddling through the marsh, the Coastal Kayak guides are happy to give them that too.
“One of the things they do a good job of is listening to the participants and crafting the tour to them,” says Fearn. “They play it by ear, and no one gets bored by a bunch of bird facts if that’s not what they’re interested in.”
Most importantly, what participants get out of a tour with Coastal Kayak is a chance to unplug for a few hours and spend quality time outdoors with their family and friends.
“We’re always focused on so many things that are really not that important,” says Fearn. “But on these trips you’re having a transformative experience with your family, and that becomes what’s important.”
“And if they want to give the Audubon a million dollars on their way out, even better,” adds O’Grady.