Assateague Island Trip Report: [Day1]

-- Last Updated: Jul-19-04 9:34 PM EST --

This is my trip report from my June trip (6/26-6/29) paddling the ocean side of Assateague. It's kind of long so I'll be posting it in stages.

Day 1:

The first day of the trip began with me in Pennsylvania and Dennis in California. He was catching the red eye to Baltimore and I was to pick him up at 6:30 AM so coincidentally we were both up at 3:30 AM our local times. I completely overestimated how long it would take me to get to Baltimore so I ended up sitting in the airport with an hour to kill waiting for his flight to arrive.

Once it did we met up in the baggage claim area, rejoiced at another meeting of us, gathered his belongings and headed east for Fenwick Island where we would rent a boat for him. It's nice when two real good old friends meet for there's none of the awkwardness of having to reestablish ties, you just slip into the friendship mode immediately. We spent the next three hours reconnecting and filling in the informational gaps of our lives that had occurred since we had last seen each other. Sleep deprived and unfamiliar with the area we didn't make the most efficient travel time but then again we really didn't care. We took it slow, stopping along the way in Trappe, Maryland (which is odd as I live in Trappe, PA) for an all you can eat breakfast at the Trappe Methodist Church. Neither Dennis or I are church goers but we preferred to give our breakfast money to a local organization that'll do good with it rather than some chain breakfast place such as Denny's or IHOP profit from our hunger. Plus, you just can't beat home cooking like that.

We eventually made our way to Fenwick Island and the kayak rental shop to get Den a boat. After about an hour or so of hemming and hawing over which one to select he settled on a Hobie Pursuit, a sit on top that had enough storage for his gear. He figured this would give him opportunities for surfing and I suspect, since he is a much better paddler than me, give me the ability to keep pace with him. (I paddle an Ocean Kayak Dawn Trekker, a little (11ft) pig of a boat that is not good for touring or surfing but which I have grown accustomed to doing both in and love her to death.) He was wrong on the second part, the guy is a machine when it comes to paddling. Anyway, happy with our selection we headed off to Assateague with a few stops for some items we had forgotten to pack (like a toothbrush). By this time we were fast approaching 3:00 PM and starting to get concerned about whether we'd be able to get our back country permits.

At 3:30 we strolled into the Ranger's office and were told that the closer campsite, Little Levels, which was 4 miles away was full and we'd have to camp at State Line, which was 12.5 miles away. I am going to make the assumption here that not a whole lot of people kayak the ocean side based on the surprised look the rangers gave us when we explained our intentions. Regardless, we were gleeful to get the permits and off we went to load our gear onto the boats. The long day catching up with us it was 4:30 before we had the boats loaded and hauled down to the beach for the start of our trip.

I love and hate the DelMar coastal area. It many places the break pounds right on the beach giving the double pain of a tough launch and no reward of good surf to play in after. The beach in front of the ranger station at Assateague is no exception. No 0 grade entry into this water, its a steep decline with waves pounding on the shore. Added to the mix are beach goers frolicking in the waves. The waves themselves are misleading, though they were small, one to three footers but since they cannot roll up onto the beach all their energy is released as they pound onto the shore. I went first and my plan was to pull the boat out past the breakpoint and do a quick wet entry in about three feet of water. The ocean had other plans. Perhaps the day was catching up with me but I wasn't paying as close attention as I should have and in comes a rogue wave, not that much bigger, perhaps 4 foot but packing enough power to literally tear the front toggle from my hand and send the boat crashing back to the shore right towards a woman and her daughter who were only saved by Den's quick action in catching the boat. To add insult to injury the back hatch blew off and the boat filled with water. Great, wet gear and we hadn't even started.

After apologizing to the lady and feeling stupid I gathered myself together for the next attempt. What an idiot, I've done this a million times, with shore pounders I always stand behind the boat and push it through the oncoming waves instead of trying to drag it through. The second attempt went fine and I was out in the water waiting on Den, who had no problems after watching my example. Bad times behind us off we start and we had not paddled 20 seconds when I hear a splash and look over to see an empty kayak next to me. Now, a little slow on the uptake I says to myself, there's something wrong about that empty kayak but I can't put my finger on it. Suddenly up from the depths emerges Dennis with a big sheepish grin on his face. "What happened?" says I. "I don't know," he replies, one minute I'm in the boat, next I'm out."

With our share of embarrassing moments behind us we once again started our journey. It was a beautiful day and the first mile or so are spent paddling past beach goers from the campsites located near the ranger stations. We saw some ponies making their way along a dune and we fell into a rhytmic silence for a time. Assateague is a strange place, it is at the same time remote and accessible, repetitive and different. It was hard for us to conceive that the Park Service would go to the trouble of protecting this place from development but open the fragile shoreline to off-road vehicles. As one paddles the ocean side you can watch the dunes disappear off into the distance, repetitively yet as you approach each they become unique. Unlike their counterparts in Southern Jersey and Delaware these dunes are not continuous but broken so that each is a small island of grass and sand rising up from the beach area. In some areas they are bunched together, in others they are separated by hundreds of yards. The view, and this is just a personal reflection, was marred by the unbroken line of off-road vehicles backed to the water's edge, with their occupants sitting in beach chairs watching the lines they had cast into the surf. Every 50-100 yards was another vehicle, repetitive, and as you approached each, unique, here a Suburban, there an old beat up Bronco, now an F250. I didn't particularly blame or begrudge the individual owners of the vehicles, it's not their fault they can have access there, but I was hoping for more solitude.

Time passed and Den and I talked science (I explained Einstein's theory of relativity to him he explained the geology of sand), politics, acutely aware of the Patriot Act though and careful to temper our comments lest Mr. Ashcroft over hear and literature. I was explaining how Assateague (and the other barrier islands) once offered refuge to pirates, which led to a discussion of Treasure Island and the shocking revelation that he had never read the book. I spent a good portion of that first day recounting the story.

We were casually paddling against the current and though neither had a watch we felt as if we were not making good time. We passed the Little Levels site and estimated it was about 6:30. We decided to put things into gear and started paddling a little harder. It was at this point we saw, or probably more accurately noticed, our first pelican. I like pelicans as they rarely come north to the Jersey shore whereas Den was blase about them as he lives in San Fran and sees them all the time. But there is something cool about the way they glide in formation skimming the waters edge. Den made the astute observation that pelicans must have done something terribly wrong in their previous life to have come back to this as an animal whose means of feeding itself was to plunge from great heights face first into the water. After watching a pelican make a few unsuccessful attempts I began to think there was some validity to his comments.

We paddled for roughly another hour and then pulled up to make a plan. It seemed obvious at this point we weren't going to make the State Line camp site but we both agreed to give it the ole college try. We figured we'd get as close as we could with the remaining day light but that we would not want to do a beach landing (especially with this surf) in the dark. It was while we were having this meeting that we had a visit from a seal. He just popped up right next to our boats, looked at us and took off. I've never seen a seal in the wild before so it was a neat experience. Happy with our plan and with having the troubles of the day rewarded with a seal siting off we paddled. About 10 minutes later up popped the seal again. We thought we might have had a companion for our trip but that was the last we saw of him.

Long story short we never made the State Line camp site that night. It was about 8:00 and we decided to commando camp behind a pair of inviting looking dunes (inviting cause they looked like breast). Nothing like ending a day that began at 3:30 AM and was filled with driving for over seven hours combined, scurrying about Ocean City, Maryland and then paddling 10 miles with having to pull a water logged kayak 200 yards across beach sand and tire tracks. And this was not the end of our troubling day. We had entered the land of the flies. And they seemingly had it out for Dennis.

No sooner had we hauled the boats up and had just begun to set about making camp when out came the little black hordes. I became aware of their presence when the Lord of the Flies (Dennis) started yelping like a pup whenever one bit him. Our thoughts of a relaxing meal after a long day were dashed and we proceeded to set up our camp to the sounds of an ever increasing angry flea bitten Dennis.

I took inventory of my gear and found that my oldest dry sack had made it through the deluge unhindered, saving my solo tent and sleeping bag from getting wet as well as my camp clothes. Unfortunately everything else took the plunge, my camp book, the maps, the food, and my digital camera. With the sun almost down I set about putting my tent together. Wise people do not take joy at others misery as I was in Dennis' battle with the flies for there is a thing called karma in this world and it will come about and bite you in the ass. My bad karma arrived in the form of a fiber glass pole for my tent which as I was applying pressure to raise the tent snapped. Perhaps it was the sound of the pole breaking, perhaps it was my cursing that attracted them but whatever the flies suddenly discovered my exposed flesh and began their second course on me. Dennis in the meantime had switched to long pants and shirt and was only mildly annoyed by the pesky critters. Alas, I had not packed long pants. Man has never suffered such torment.

Meanwhile Dennis began cooking our dinner of Chef Boy R D on the camp stove. I fumbled with the tent using my headlamp but soon gave up and trying to ignore the flies and by doing so hoping they would go away sat down next to him and we ate an exhausted sullen meal. The sun sank below the horizon and darkness fell on us. Suddenly we both noticed the flies were gone. Could our bad luck have finally changed course? Our answer came in the unmistakable buzz of the order of Diptera of the species Culex, yes, none other than long piercing, sucking, proboscis using mosquito. We had been beaten. Dennis dove into his bivy sack and I took some spare line and rigged my tent as best I could, crawled in and spent an uncomfortable night dozing in and out of sleep to the sound of the waves pounding the shore.

Day 2
Day 2:

Memo to the creator: The birds at Assateague are not aware that they are not suppose to rise until the sun does. I’m lying awake with a partially collapsed solo tent over me listening to some song birds do their morning ritual. Oddly enough except for being a little tired I’m not that sore from the previous days paddle, even the tendonitis in my shoulders isn’t acting up.

Depending on the situation my being a light sleeper can be a curse or blessing, in this case it fell into neutral territory. It was a curse because, unlike Den who was blissfully snoring in his bivy sack nature’s morning chorus easily woke me up when I could have really used the extra sleep. On the other hand it was a blessing because I got to explore this little section of Assateague in complete solitude. Grabbing a Naglene bottle of water I first circumnavigated the dunes behind which we had camped. As I mentioned earlier the dunes on Assateague are not continugous like on most beaches, here they rise up out of the otherwise flat landscape like the tips of sunken mountains. They are held together by sea grass and other plant life and there is a theory that they are not continugous like in other barrier islands because the ponies on both Assateague and Chincoteague make the sea grass a staple of their diet, thus destroying what holds the dunes together.

My walk about this set of dunes didn’t reveal much, sand and shells and a collection of some animal bones bleached white by the sun and wind, probably a gull or something since they were quite light. I decided to head over to the neighboring collection of dunes and see what was there. My walk across the open space took me over several tire tracks and then more poignant reminders that this place is not as wild or as remote as initial appearances give. A plastic liter oil bottle here, a piece of muffler there, some discarded rope and plastic, beer bottles. Some of the flotsam without a doubt would be junk washing up from the ocean, some of it would be accidental littering, hit a bump and some trash in the back of the truck falls out but we were above the high tide line and it was just obvious that a lot of this stuff was dumped because the bubba’s who drove their off road vehicles here have no respect for the land.

Annoyed I backtracked and headed inland to see if I could find the Dune Trail. Turns out we had spent the night camped next to a weather station which itself was right next to the trail. Pleased with my Daniel Boone like abilities at finding the trail I headed south along it. Back here small bushes rise to about waist high and head off west towards the marshes. Further back a tree line rises but the only option to get back to it was bushwhacking, which didn’t seem appealing as I was wearing shorts. One of the things I’ve neglected to mention is that Assateague is covered in horse shit. Huge clumps of it are everywhere. One of the saving graces is that because there is little shade on the island most of it dries up quite fast but one still has to mind one’s step. The dune trail was no exception and in fact seemed to be a favorite place for them to crap. The flies showed up for their morning meal, which I think consisted of bits of my flesh with whatever brand of bug spray I had put on to try and fend them off. I would wager that deet is now part of their regular diet. But they weren’t coming in the hordes like they did yesterday, just ones or twos which were annoying but tolerable.

The Dune Trail would be a hard hike in my opinion. No solid footing but mile after mile of sand which is tough walking alone, kind of like walking in snow, totally miserable with a pack. I tried to imagine walking it with a back pack, under the noon sun, plaqued by flies and mosquitos and it just didn’t seem like a good time. I’ve hiked in the Sahel, the semi arid transitional area just south of the Sahara and that was easier than this, there the sand is in most places hard packed from the Harmatten, the seasonal winds that come just before the rainy season in West Africa. Here it was hard packed in a few spots but for the most part it was just an endless stroll through loose sand. I walked the trail for a bit and cut back to the beach through another opening in the dunes.

It was here that I saw what appeared to be a pile of drift wood and as I have a Pooh like curiosity I made my way over to it. Not until I was almost on top of the object did I realize that it was a dead sea turtle and a huge one at that, probably five feet in length. The poor thing was on its back and starting to decay, the head was missing and someone had spray painted an X on its soft underside and smashed it open, I’m assuming with a hammer or sledge. I looked at the off road vehicles which were beginning to make their way onto the beach with even more disdain. What a beautiful creature this was when it was living. My hope, since it was so big, was that it had died a natural death and its desecration had only occurred after.

I made my way back to the campsite where Dennis had finally woke from his slumber. The wind had shifted and was coming in off the ocean so the fly issue had receded and we lounged around a bit discussing the upcoming days plan. We decided to just play things by ear, head down to State Line, set up camp and see if the surf would be good for playing in and if not figure out something to do otherwise. Den sauntered off to find a place to meditate and I proceeded to take stock of my belongings. Since Den is meditating I’ll take this time to list my inventory of supplies:

Solo tent (1)

Sleeping bag (1) - it’s not really a bag but a blanket with a zipper, great for mild nights but not for anything below 55 degrees

Blanket (1)

Sleeping Pad (1)

Telescoping poles (2) - a foreshadow of my genius

2 gallons of water

2 32 oz Naglene’s of water

1 64 oz camelback of water

Various food (I’ll inventory later)

headlamps (2) (1 water proof)

water proof matches (1 case)

sun screen (1)

first aid kit (1)

book (Sky Captain and the Flying Machines - bought at a pharmacy before heading out, it sucked big time).

toothbrush and toothpaste

camp clothes (a dry bathing suit, 1 long sleeve cotton tee, 1 short sleeve cotton tee)

wet clothes (a wet bathing suit, tank top, capilene long sleeve shirt. (I have found that capilene works great on the water, keeps you warm but not too hot.)

map case (1)

camp stove (1)

cylinder of camp stove fuel (1)

mosquito netting (a big one, large enough to drape over a four person tent) (1) (genius of me to bring)

ground tarp (1)

bug spray (useless) (1)

cooking pan (1)

bowls (2)

plastic forks (bunch)

leatherman (1)

dry bags (3)

Den’s meditation done we had a breakfast of granola bars then we did some exploring around the site together. I pointed out the dead sea turtle which he absentmindedly strolled past without noticing earlier. We took a GPS reading and found we had paddled 10.2 miles the day before, quite respectful in our opinions, consulted the map, and broke camp. Rested and with no pressure to be anywhere our entry into the water was much smoother than the previous day. The sun was out and the waves were only 1-3 footers so paddling was easy. I had expected us to see dolphins at this point but so far we were disappointed. Southward we went and covered the two plus mile in good time. The State Line camp is perhaps 1.5 kilometers from the Virginia/Maryland border and we were told by one of the rangers that the fence line that separated the two horse herds extended into the water. If we hit the line we had travelled too far.

One of the things about paddling on the ocean, if your not in big waves, is you can see objects at a great distance. It can be pretty annoying because you are moving at a snails pace on the water and the object of your destination never seems to get closer, despite all your efforts. So it was with the fence line. Paddle as we would it never seemed to get closer, time rolled by, the ocean rolled by and yet the damn fence got no closer. Of course you are getting closer and eventually we began to scan the coastline for any indications of a campsite. The rangers had told us the campsites were difficult to find from the ocean but we had seen Little Levels yesterday with no problems and now we could easily see the signs designating the State Line site.

There are three things that distinguish the back country camp sites on Assateague. There’s a sign that says this area is a camp site, there is a picnic table and a port-o-jon. Other than that we could have been at our commando camp site. No sooner had we beached than we were accosted by the flies so there must have been a wind shift. First order of business was to get the mosquito netting up. Here is where the telescoping poles came into play, we rigged a nice little system using the paddles and the poles, some pressure, some parachute cord the kayaks and picnic table. After a few engineering failures we had a nice anti-fly enclosure. Other than the 20 or so which got caught inside the netting as we set it up we were no longer bothered by them. And those twenty met a terrible faith, killed by us and then carted off by troops of red ants to no doubt take part in some pagen red ant worshiping ritual.

And there we sat. In the sun. Gazing at the sea. Fortunately the picnic table provided some shade and the mosquito net filtered out some of the sun and we had a decent breeze. Comfy in our little Shangri La, we decided a nap would be in good order after our morning paddle. We woke and figured by the position of the sun it was lunch time and feasted on beef jerky, pistachios, M&Ms and some more granola, this time slathered with peanut butter. With enough protein in us to satisfy, um, something that likes a lot of protein, we decided to check out the surf and our skills.

It was high tide so the waves were not breaking right on the shore, now they were breaking 30 yards from the shore and were still only 1-3 feet. Den had trouble adjusting to his boat and initially took a couple of spills but he got his groove on and we started surfing the small breaks. We soon grew tired of 5 second rides that required a lot of strength to pull out of before hitting the shore or plopped you back up on the beach requiring you to the do the more time consuming and energy draining effort of getting back out into the break water.

We decided to do some more exploring and head across the state line to Chincoteague. The paddling initially was easy and just into our foray I noticed a large brown creature that had been swimming just beneath the surface in a wave. I called to Den and thinking it might be a turtle we started looking about for it. Den then caught a glimpse of it, agreeing it was brown but we still couldn’t determine what it was. I gotta tell ya this gets the juices going. We had no idea what it was but it was huge, without exaggeration 5-6 feet in length. I love this stuff. Once I was paddling and had a brown shark swim right along my boat for a half minute or so. Scared the hell out of me but was also a great rush. (I’m not that brave, I initially thought it was a dolphin and if I had guessed otherwise would have broke the land speed record for getting a kayak from the ocean to the shore). Well our blood was pumping and the hunt was on. We spent a good ten minutes with no sign of the creature and Den and I were separated by about 30 yards when he yells out. “It’s a ray, a giant ray.” It passed right under his boat and made a bee line for mine. What a rush, it passed right beneath me. The ray had to have a wing span of four or five feet. It was a cow nose ray, one warm summer along the Jersey shore I saw lots of these but they were small, maybe with one foot wing spans. This was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea big.

Anyway, another nature thrill behind us we focused our attention on the fence and the state border. Den was training for an iron man event and wanted to use the paddle as part of his cross training regime we so started to paddle real hard. As I mentioned he is a machine, he kayaks most every weekend, runs iron mans, marathons, what not. Whereas I use to kayak every weekend but since the kids came along my kayaking time has diminished greatly the past four years. So he easily began to leave me behind. At the same time the wind shifted and we were soon paddling into I would estimate a 10 or 15 mph wind. I have no idea of knowing what the wind speed really was but what was once a gently rolling ocean now had white caps here and there and when I was in the trough of a wave I would lose site of Den, which made me think the waves were running about 3ft+. I don’t want to over exaggerate the conditions, they really weren’t that bad except the wind, I’ve been in worse. But when the wind is against you in a kayak you become a big ole sail pointed in the wrong direction. Combined with the current and the fact that we were sprinting, ok, Den was sprinting I was doing my impersonation of someone who wants to sprint the paddle though short was more tiring than the previous days 10 miler.

Anyway, we eventually crossed the state line and beached the boats. Chincoteague is a wild life refuge, not a national park and therefore has different usage rules. There were no off road vehicles to be seen but at the same time it didn’t seem as nice as Assateague. We counted seven tires strewn about the beach where we stood and there was other trash in the tide lines. In the island’s defense I am sure there are parts that are pristine and nice and sometimes the furtherest boundaries of a protected place doesn’t get the same TLC as the rest. Regardless, we stood there for about five minutes and kind of shrugged our shoulders and decided to head back. But not before we checked out the abandoned houses. (Guess I should have mentioned those before this point).

Sometime in the history of the island people had attempted to build a development but for some reason, financial or otherwise, the effort failed. From where we stood we could see two abandoned houses, one on the Chincoteaque side, the other on the Assateague side. We decided to take a closer look at the Assateague house so we climbed through the fence (it’s really just telephone poles and thick wire cables to keep the horse herds from mingling) and walked up to the house.

There was a sign warning us of an endangered species nesting area. The species the signed referred to was the Piping Plover. I use to surf my kayak at the Nature Conservancy Preserve over in Cape May, NJ and learned a lot about them from the volunteers who worked there so I had a pretty good idea of where to avoid and since it was early summer we were in no danger of damaging any eggs or chicks. Up we walked to the house which had a big “No Trespassing NPS Property” sign on it. We wondered why the NPS hadn’t used the house for some purpose such as a research station or something. Now it was just a liability.

It was a two story structure with a lot of the windows knocked out, either from the wind or knuckleheads and some of the exterior was damaged. The strange thing was that it was still furnished, as if someone left in a hurry. You could see books on the shelves and furniture. I got to admit when I was a kid we use to break into abandoned houses all the time and I had the desire to do so now, if only to see if I could get better reading material than what I brought. But the paddle down had turned into a tough one and we still had to return, though we would have the current and wind with us, and there didn’t seem to be any easy access. Though neither spoke a word I imagine we both felt that it just wasn’t worth the effort to get in.

Back to the kayaks and a paddle back to our camp site. Don’t remember much about the paddle back or that afternoon, which I believe was filled with naps and reading. The sun went down, we had a late dinner and settled in for the night. And here is the biggest reward I got from this trip. In the middle of the night nature called. I got out of my tent and while answering that call looked up to be greeted by millions of stars. I live in an old farm house on an acre plus lot and have a great back yard where I can see lots of the constellations but you don’t get the same effect when you can’t see the lesser stars filling in the background. It all seemed to be in 3D, the main stars so much more brilliant than the lesser ones and seeming to hover over them. Even when I was in Africa I did not get such a view as the smoke from the fires in the villages and the sand in the air would haze out some of the brilliance of the night sky. This was phenomenal, there was Draco the Dragon, Virgo, Cassiopeia, Hercules, Arcus Major and Minor, Boothes and other constellations. I sat for a while gazing up and then heard a bell off in the distance. Looking out to sea I saw two ships slowly passing by, probably fishing vessels, lazily making their way northward. Disney could never do something like this, ever. Contented I crawled back in my tent and dozed off.

I just discovered your thread, so congratulations on having a genuine Assateague “summer experience”. All that blood and flesh helps to support the next generation of flying fiends.

As Mike had suggested, I too prefer the cold, wind and wave of the November-Early March Bayside. Paddle down the Bayside and hike along the winter beach. Shorter days, yes but little to no “blood sucking” insects. Arriving between deer hunting seasons you may find yourself uniquely alone within the park. On warmer days a few hardy mosquittos may buzz about at dusk, but they quickly recede as the evening cold sets in.

Occassionally fisherman will 4x4 down to about a mile or so south of Little Levels and the horseback riders may also make short forays from the ranger station, but by and large most fair weather travelers will stay home and with lighter use, the park will revert to an even more sublime state.

The winter skies are even more amazingly beautiful and there’s nothing like lying upon the beach at midnight, sipping a fine Bourbon, listening to (and feeling) the pounding winter surf and viewing the depth and immensity of a crystal clear sky.

The winds tend to diminish after dark and so night paddling exploration of the marshes becomes quite inviting. Quitely sliding through the marsh waterways can reward you with curious stares from the animal populations that tend to congregate along the marsh perimeters after nightfall.

In November even those elusive dolphins seem to be ever present along the oceanfront as they play just beyond the nearest breaking waves.

I hope to be able to make two trips down to Assateague this November. Traditionally the park is closed to camping during the one week Muzzleloading season (usually the third week in October), during the one day Junior Sika Hunt (middle Saturday in November @ 13th this year) and during the two week Shotgun/Muzzleloader season (begins the day after Thanksgiving). Although, as of today, the park has yet to confirm these seasons, I plan to Bayside Backcountry camp 3-4 days begining around the 5th or 6th of November and again begining the 19th or 20th of November. Likeminded paddlers are welcome to cordinate a trip.

PS. Is there a day 3 report? The story’s been entertaining and has rung true to form so far. I’ll echo Mike’s kudos on a tale well told…

Working on Days 3 and 4
But stupid work stuff is getting in the way. ; )

Hey Alan!
There is a possibility that I may be able to do Assateague in November. A REMOTE possibility. i still have a pending construction project to deal with, so my usual October vacation appears to be nixed. I will possibly make Raystown, but it looks as though Jocassee is out. I’ll kep in touch!