Saturday, October 24: This morning, Mike and I drive about 3 hours from Virginia to Maryland and back to Virginia as we make the circuitous route to the Maryland/Virginia Eastern Shore. After our drive, we arrive first at Assateague Island, a thin ribbon of sand 37 miles long that extends from Ocean City, Maryland to just past Chincoteague Island. According to Moon Handbooks: Virginia, “the entire spit has been designated a National Seashore, and Virginia’s end of the island was set aside in 1943 as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to protect dwindling habitat for migrating snow geese.”
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visited refuges in the United States and includes “more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest.”
When we arrive at Assateague Island, we head first to Bayside Drive, where we park and get out to stretch our legs by walking along the Chincoteague Bay beach.
We’ve made this special weekend trip to celebrate my birthday, and it’s a big one. 🙂 Our destination is not as exotic as most of my travels over the last seven years, but it’s a place I’ve never really explored in-depth. It seems exotic to me.
The bayside beach is quite pretty against a backdrop of blue skies dotted with dappled clouds.
I love the gnarly pines and other trees silhouetted against the sky.
We find some bushes with fuzzy blooms that look like fluffy dandelions.
We also find some artsy driftwood.
I love the golds, reds and browns of autumn.
After our short stroll, we get back in the car and drive to the ocean side of the island. Neither Mike nor I have been to any of Virginia’s beaches in years.
In the midst of the dunes, we take the 1/2-mile Life of the Dunes Nature Trail. The park’s brochure on the trail says: “Behind the primary dune lies a tentative environment influenced by salt-laden winds. Plants and animals must adapt to this unsettled land of shifting sands. Some thrive here, some compromise, some merely survive.”
“The dunes protect plants from saltspray, allowing beach grass, poison ivy, hudsonia, and northern bayberry to dominate the interdune area. Vegetation builds up organic matter in the soil and provides food and cover for many creatures. The bayberry’s berries persist through the winter providing food for birds, fox, deer and other mammals. In fall, thousands of tree swallows gorge on bayberries, fueling their southern migration.” Seaside goldenrod adds an autumn dose of color (National Park Service: Assateague Island Hiking).
“Pioneer plants create the conditions that enable other plants to get a foothold. American beechgrass and woolly hudsonia (beach heather) playing a major role in building and stabilizing the dunes. These plants form an underground network of stems that anchor the sand” (National Park Service: Assateague Island Hiking).
Continuing on the Dunes Walk, we skirt the edge of a forest of highbush blueberry, bayberry, wax myrtle. wild black cherry, sumac, holly, loblolly pine, and red maple. A wealth of food and cover for wildlife can be found in the thickets.
Oh how I love taking walks outdoors on cool, crisp fall days!
After we finish our walk, we begin our hour-long drive to Chincoteague from the Assateague Island park entrance. Our hostess, Barbara, at the Channel Bass Inn, where we are staying tonight, has phoned to recommend some dinner places and volunteers to make dinner reservations for us at the Village. We need to have time to get to Chincoteague, settle in, and get ready for dinner.
As we drive on the road out of Assateague, we come across a few of the wild ponies that the islands are famous for. It’s not certain how the ponies came to the island, but there are several theories. One legend is that a Spanish galleon carrying horses wrecked off the island in the 1700s, and some of the horses were able to swim to shore. Another theory is that they are descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague in the 17th century by Eastern Shore planters when crop damage by free roaming animals led colonial legislatures to enact laws requiring fencing and taxes on livestock (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Chincoteague Ponies).
This pony is standing like a statue and totally ignores us as we approach him. We do keep our distance, as the National Park Service warns against getting too close to the ponies. It is said that they bite and kick in response to crowding or competition for food. Also, each band has a harem stallion whose job it is to protect his mares, and most bites are by stallions. Many visitors have been bitten or knocked down and stepped on when the horses have been spooked or reacted suddenly.
One thing that is certain about the ponies is that Marguerite Henry made these ponies famous with her book Misty of Chincoteague.
Today’s ponies, descended from those domestic ponies, have become wild and have adapted to the environment. “Prior to the refuge’s establishment in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continues ownership to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge land through a Special Use Permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service” (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Chincoteague Ponies).
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “a fence along the Virginia/Maryland State line (the northern refuge boundary) separates the island’s ponies into two herds. The Maryland herd is owned by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and is grazed in two designated compartments on the refuge.”
After leaving Assateague Island, we drive inland and south for less than an hour to reach Chincoteague. There, we easily find the Channel Bass Inn and check in. Before dinner, we have some wine in the sitting room.
At the Village, we order another glass of wine and a bowl of oyster stew to share. I eat some delicious broiled crab cakes and Mike enjoys some single-fried Chincoteague oysters. We’ve been looking forward all day to eating fresh seafood, and we truly enjoy every bite!