Assateague Island

By Rick Skwiot
(Published in PortFolio Weekly)

If you want to get an idea what this land looked like before English ships arrived, go to Assateague Island—though you won’t see Assateagues, Gingoteagues, Pocomokes, and Nanticokes, the Algonquin-speaking peoples who lived there then.  But you will glimpse one of the last significant stretches of uninhabited coast from Maine to Key West, a 37-mile long barrier island with unspoiled sand beaches, wild horses, wild birds and peace.

Assateague lies but a hundred miles north.  Take U.S. 13 from Hampton Roads.  Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  As soon as you do, you’ll find yourself in another world, one without traffic, urban sprawl, or fast-food franchises.  This is time-traveling back, say, some sixty years, before all that began.  But to time-travel in earnest, you must take a few detours.

Coming off the bridge make an immediate right into the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.  Walk south from the visitors’ center half a mile on a bramble-lined path amid fluttering sparrows to the observation overlook, built atop a World War II bunker that housed two sixteen-inch guns.  These cannon guarded Chesapeake Bay against German submarines.  Though never fired in battle, they could lob a one-ton projectile—ordnance the weight of a small car—some 25 miles, into downtown Virginia Beach, for example.

But more important, from here you can see the saltwater marsh and the sea, and the vastness of the land and water.  You can hear cardinals chipping in the green canopy and an owl screech in the distance.  Then you can descend to the small cemetery below and see, as I did, a black snake slither into the broken grave of a mother-of-three, who died in 1823 at age 25.

Next, get back on the highway.  But don’t just barrel up the Eastern Shore like you have a date waiting in Philly.  Though your destination is Assateague, this is a journey, where you can be enriched all along the way.
So detour to Capeville to see what 1940 really looked like.  Though perhaps it looked more prosperous then, with fewer abandoned homes.

Stop at Kiptopeke (“big water” in Accawmack) State Park to see loons and mergansers paddling Chesapeake Bay, to search for shells on the white sand beach, to hike through a pine forest and mount a hawk observatory.

Do not stop at Cape Charles unless you wish to wallow in dubious melancholy.  Despite guidebook claims of charm and interest, the town feels dead, abandoned.  Rusting railroad cars sit on rusted tracks; “downtown” shops lie comatose and empty.  And where are the people?  Perhaps up the road pulling a shift at the Tyson or Perdue chicken factory—the former pouring out a roostery aroma over Temperanceville that put me off buffalo wings for some days.

For an up-close look at the marshland, take state route 180 to Wachapreague, “little city on the sea” to the pre-colonials and “once a resort for wealthy New York sports and fishing enthusiasts who arrived by steamship,” according to the official state travel guide.  But you’d never know it now.

Cruise through Locustville for a view of bucolic farms.  Go to Accomac to study gracious colonial homes and a staunch, redbrick, barred-windowed debtor’s prison—so English, so Puritan.  Wonder about the poor sods—and perhaps sots—who rotted inside, fellow wayfarers for whom most any writer feels a special kinship.

But enough of side trips.  Enough of abandoned farmhouses, abandoned cars, and concrete-block churches.  Enough of the feel of depletion, as if the land, the people, and history were all winding down, a feeling that increases as one approaches Maryland.  But don’t go that far.  Three miles before the state line, turn right on Virginia route 175.  You are almost at Assateague.

If of a delicate nature—or a naturalist—avert your eyes as you pass the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) facility on Wallops Island.  Otherworldly rocket-launching and satellite-tracking equipment looms over the countryside like alien creatures.  You have come for nature study, and this stuff vibrates of the unnatural, of things beyond human comprehension, of dark science.

Cross the causeway and drawbridge to Chincoteague (pronounced “shin’ ko teeg”) Island.  Left on Main Street as you come off the bridge, right on Maddox Boulevard, some seven blocks down.  Then straight, straight on across the saltwater marsh, up over the channel bridge, down onto Assateague Island and into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  Pay your five bucks, which allows you passage on and off the island for a week.

Get out your binoculars and mosquito repellent.  For you have come to a National Wildlife Refuge, established by Congress in 1943 to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds, and to a Mosquito Breeding Sanctuary, though this latter designation is my own, not that of Congress.

Soon, pull off to the right.  Take the short trail to one of the oldest operating lighthouses in America, built in 1833 to diminish the large number of ships foundering on Assateague’s shoals.  Then hike the Woodland Trail to find the rotting hull of a hundred-foot-long ship, now up to its gunnels in sand.  But you have to know exactly where to find it, or just stumble upon it as I did.  Here’s how:

Walk the Woodland Trail loop with the folks looking for the Assateague wild ponies.  But then, on the way back, duck off to the right, down a sandy trail marked “Tom’s Cove.”  After some 200 yards you’ll arrive at a secluded beach, where oystermen work their beds in the distance.  An old house stands on stilts a furlong from shore.  Stroll east down the beach, to your left, and within another 220 yards you’ll find the hull of a wooden ship and be able to imagine the storm or the mistakes that landed it there.

The wild horses, legend says, first swam ashore after escaping a shipwrecked Spanish galleon and have thrived ever since.  On the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of each July, members of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company round up a portion of the herd, drive them across the shallows to neighboring Chincoteague Island, and sell them at auction to raise money for their work.

From a distance the ponies look like any other horses, though slightly smaller.  But if you can get up close enough you’ll find that, unlike domesticated steeds, these will bite and kick the affectionate tourist who attempts to pet them.

Other mammals inhabit the island as well, most notably sika, small Asian elk introduced to the island in the 1920s. And river otters, voles, rabbits, raccoons, white-tailed deer, and an endangered tribe of fox squirrels.  Missing mammals include the Assateagues.

A “Brief History” from the Chincoteague Island Chamber of Commerce tells us that after years of battles with settlers, the chiefs of the Assateagues and Pocomokes signed a treaty calling for a League of Peace and Friendship between them and the Englishmen.  But the peace did not last.  Maryland officials got wind of a planned uprising and “shortly afterward managed to dissolve the Indian empire.  Records do not indicate how this was accomplished.” But we can guess.

For those wishing to view wild nature, Assateague’s greatest draw—next to the migrating Homo sapiens found on summer’s dune-lined beaches—is avian, both indigenous and migrating.

The island lies in the Atlantic Flyway, where, in spring, birds return north from warmer climes and, in fall, retrace their journey.  Shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds abound.  Eagles, hawks, ducks and geese; herons, egrets, sandpipers and plovers; gulls, skimmers, terns and more soar, paddle, and wade about.  I saw brown-headed nuthatches, northern shovelers, bald eagles, ospreys, brants, glossy ibises, lesser yellow-legs and yellow-rumped warblers.  With the foaming sea, brackish wetlands, and freshwater pools, Assateague is a paradise for birds and bird-lovers alike.

Furthermore, Refuge literature boasts of its harboring three species of American ticks, the dog, lone star, and northern deer, the last of which may carry Lyme disease.  But after hiking all day, I found only three examples of the dog tick on me.

Bring your bicycle.  Assateague contains miles of flat roads and bike trails.  Do not bring your pets or your beer—neither is allowed.  But pack your fishing gear, clam rake, and crab net.  Surf fishing, clamming, crabbing, and oystering are permitted.  As is searching for seashells, though Assateague is not known for great shelling.  But the Chincoteague Bay waters are said to be ideal for kayaking and canoeing, particularly at the Maryland end.

If you wish to camp, you’ll have to patronize a commercial campground on Chincoteague Island or go to the Maryland side of Assateague, where you’ll find campgrounds run by the National Park Service and by Maryland, in its Assateague State Park.

But if you’d prefer to watch the sun setting over the bay from your own private deck, try the motels along Chincoteague’s Main Street, just a five-minute drive from Assateague.  You’ll also find Main Street restaurants where you can eat local oysters, clams, and flounder as you watch fishing boats return to port, escorted by laughing gulls and great white egrets.