VA - Virginia Barrier Islands - 2002/10/19 to 2002/10/21

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The Virginia Barrier Islands is an interesting area. We spent three days and two nights exploring Hog Island by kayak from Oyster

Editors Note: Apparently little of the 60 miles from Assateague Island to Fisherman's Island is now open to campng. See Some islands are open for day use during certain portions of the year and from my observation are heavily used by those with little respect for the environment. Given that such restricted priveledges appear to be abused, it is probably for the best that camping is not allowed. But it is also a shame that an entire section of Atlantic coast, the only remaining area for hundreds of miles where such activities might be possible, all other places also being off limits, has to be restricted from use by those with responsible outdoor ethics and skills. Perhaps it is necessary because of the pressures a large population puts on the environment, but it is sad to find that a closer and more intimate relationship with this area is only practical for those who will utilize gas guzzling oil polluting conveyances to get out there.

The Virginia Barrier Islands have a varied and interesting history. Characterized by large open shallow bays between the pine covered mainland and the low lying grass covered barrier islands, the nearly uninhabited area provides opportunities for extended kayak trips. We planned for 4 days and three nights making an 85 mile circuit of many of the islands in the area. A decidedly unfriendly weather forecast forced us to shorten that to 3 days and 50 miles. But more on that later....

Steve and I left Bel Air at 5:30 PM and arrived in Cape Charles City on the tip of the Virginia portion of the DelMarVa peninsula some six hours later. We were surprised to have been delayed by traffic at the West side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a common result in the middle of the summer, but unusual this late in the season. With a reservation at the Cape Charles Days Inn some 5 miles south of our intended put in point in Oyster, VA, we had little to worry about the delay. Most of the accommodation in the area are found in Cape Charles City with some others further north near Exmore.

The next morning we arose to a cool morning with fresh breezes. After a satisfactory breakfast at the motel restaurant we headed back up Route 13 and turned east for the short drive across the peninsula to Oyster, VA. This small waterside village has a few small white clapboard houses, a large seafood processing/shipping building and a nice landlocked harbor with a large parking lot and three concrete boat ramps and two floating docks. Overnight parking is allowed, but no camping. Two under maintained porta potties sit at one end of the parking lot.

Kayak stuff
All this stuff

Oyster VA harbor
Yep, it is going to fit

We unloaded all our gear onto the side of a small beach. It was high tide so the water came almost to the edge of the blacktop. There was a small crescent of bleached oyster shells where we laid our kayaks and began the task of stowing away three days worth of camping supplies. It did not look as if it would fit, even though we had trail packed it all in the days before leaving. After much stuffing and shoving, arranging and rearranging, both kayaks were loaded and ready to go.

Several fishermen were unloading boats on the ramps and 5 or so boats unloaded while we were getting our gear ready on the side of the parking lot. This included a Carolina Skiff with a local waterman who then loaded about 50 crab pots onto the front of the boat. I took the opportunity to ask him about the tidal currents in the passages marked on our chart. Our chart was about 4 years old and he informed us that the channel was no longer in the place on the chart and that all the buoys had been moved and renumber. As we found out later, the chart was printed about one year before the markers were changes and has since gone out of print. We stopped at several places after the trip to get an updated map and none were available. New maps have been on order for several month at one tackle shop.

We paddled out into the harbor, passed a shrimp boat tied up to the a dock in front of the seafood shipping building and out the narrow channel into the marsh. It was just past high tide as we left harbor and we hoped to ride the fair current out toward Cobb Island and then angle up toward Hog Island.

Sun glint and Mariner kayak
A good start

The channel twisted through low marsh grasses that soon opened up to open bays. The sky was partly cloudy, but the sun was shinning as we began our adventure. The air temperature was a cool 50 degrees, but the water was a balmy 67 degrees. The wind was from the south at about 15 knots. Our old chart caused a few problems but with a nautical chart showing the outlines of the above water marshes and Steve's GPS we were soon headed directly for our evening camp on the south end of Hog Island. The strong breeze at our backs pushed us along and we rode the waves to great effect. See map of trip.

beach at Hog Island
The beach at Hog Island

We arrived on the southern tip of Hog Island in about 5 hours, having only stopped for about 30 minutes on a small oyster shoal for a break. The favorable wind and current had pushed us along at a brisk pace. The open bay we had covered was quite shallow even at high tide. Clearly some of it would have been too shallow to cross even in a kayak. The only assured passage is the deeper channels marked on the maps. But these can required extensive detours and add considerable mileage to a trip compared to the straight line distance.

marsh on Hog Island
Grass on the low lying island

As you can see from the picture above, the tide was low when we arrived at the island. The water was a long horizontal distance from the high water mark, even though the vertical distance was only about 4 feet. Apparently all the islands near the inlets are quite low. The back sides of the islands are lined with marsh and one can not approach the high ground from that side. The dunes at many of the inlets are absent from the ends of the islands and only start once you have rounded the inlet into the ocean. Weather and most particularly surf can make it hard to get to these areas as well. There is very little flat ground for a tent on the dunes in any case. The high water mark reached to the base of the dunes so finding a few square yards of flat sand to place a tent is a problem.


Since we had arrived so early we decided to paddle around Rogue's Island and return later in the day to a small patch of sand we had located above the high water mark. We investigated a beach on the south side of the island but there did not appear to be any land that would not succumb to the high tide. On the north side of the island, there was an oyster shell beach with signs of water inundation in the recent past, but we were not sure how long ago. We decided that it was better to return to the area we had located before that clearly had not been wet in the recent past. there we set up one tent on a bare patch of sand, pulled the kayaks up past the highest line of sea grass and reeds, and used the already placed logs and boards of a previous encampment as our kitchen.

We were careful to avoid stepping on any of the grasses and plants as we made our way from the kayaks to the camp with our gear. We also spent a half hour collecting plastic bottles and other bits of trash that had floated in the inlet and washed ashore. We easily filled a large garbage bag with the careless discards of a wasteful society. The collection of the garbage was easy, however the disposal of the garbage was another matter as kayaks do not have a large cargo capacity. Steve strapped the large bag on the rear deck of his kayak where it resided for the next two days.


Our neighborhood was populated by tough shrubs, salt grasses and low vegetation seeking tenuous foothold in the shifting sand behind the beach edge. We could not have been more than 1 or 2 feet above the highest water mark. The terrain and its vegetation spoke of the shifting nature of life on a barrier island. Many butterflies flopped around in the bushes and landed on the tall stalks on golden flowers. Several flocks of thousands of sparrows roosted in the low shrubs and would all take off at the same time, wheeling in unison as they headed south along the string of islands. Several Vs of Canadian geese, some a mile or more long were also headed south high overhead. Their honks were easily heard even from their great altitude.

The next morning the sun rose quickly through an opening in the clouds. Most of the sky was overcast. The morning glow turned the underside of the clouds a bright salmon color.

broadwater Tower
Houseboat and Broadwater tower

We broke camp, packed away all the gear, swept our tracks, smoothed our camp site to leave as little trace as possible and were on the water by 10:00 AM. We headed north along the inside of Hog Island and soon came to the tower located on the southern end. There several houseboats were moored on top of the marsh grass apparently as residences for researchers in this area. There was no one about. The old Coast Guard building could be seen at the base of the tower on the ocean side of the island. We did not get out to investigate but continued on down along the marsh toward Quinby Inlet.

Most of the area is very shallow, interspersed with oyster beds. These beds appear dark and have clusters of oysters thrusting their sharp edged shells up to where scratches on the kayaks bottom are unavoidable if you are going to kayak this area. Most substantial beds are marked by poles with signs presumably indicating the licensee who has the rights to harvest them. Smaller numbers of oysters can be found along the marsh edges. There are small mussels buried in the mud among the marsh grasses. there is considerable shell evidence of cherrystone and chowder clams that must abound in the sandy bottoms near the islands. With proper equipment, it would be possible to have a nice seafood tour in the region. However, we were lacking all this equipment and had to be content with the dried and packaged food that we brought with us.

Quinby Inlet Coast Guard Station
Abandoned Coast Guard Station at Quinby inlet

We continued north through a twisting channel in the marsh until we reached Quinby Inlet. There is a large abandoned Coast Guard station there and we saw a Coast Guard boat with three officers on board in the marsh near here. However, they soon passed us and went out Quinby Inlet into the ocean, turned south, and we saw no more of them. We had arrived at the inlet just before the low water slack. We stopped on the beach at Quinby Inlet for some lunch and to look at the ocean conditions in the inlet.

The surf was quite low as the wind had been dropping for the past hour and was nearly calm at the moment. There was no surf on the north bar of the inlet. The passage between the islands is quite deep in most of the inlets in the barrier islands. Quinby Inlet and Great Machipongo Inlet have depths between 40 and 60 feet. However, out to sea the sand carried by the swift current through the inlets is deposited in a horseshoe shaped ring extending almost a mile from the inlet itself. The shallowest portion of the channel through the inlets is well out to sea. This means that in strong swells the inlet can be unapproachable because of breaking waves on the shallow sand bars ringing the deeper channel itself. Currents in the channel can be swift. Waves rolling in from the sea against an ebbing tide can produce large standing waves.

The controlling depth at Quinby Island is 6 feet at low water. But today there were no problems, as we had arrived as planned at slack current and the wind had died. There was little surf on the bar as we headed out the inlet for the 10 mile paddle in the open ocean on the outside of Hog Island back to Great Machipongo Inlet. We turned south as we cleared the inlet and followed the southern unmarked channel as it was not as far as the main marked channel which heads directly east from the inlet. We paddled steadily south with a light North wind pushing us along several hundred yards outside the surf zone.

Night Camp
Camp at night. Note reflector on back of my kayak.

We arrived at Great Machipongo Inlet just before 4 PM, and the channel from the north was free of any surf. The tide was flooding so the current was with us as we entered the inlet. On the southern most tip, two bald eagles sat on the beach, taking a break from their daily food hunting. We pulled our kayaks onto the beach and relaxed at the end of a good 6 hour 20 mile day. We found a patch of smooth un-vegatated sand above the high water mark and pitched both tents, cooked our packaged meals on our camp stoves, and once again turned in as darkness came early. Once again we would not be able to see the full moon as low clouds blanked the sky.

The rain and wind started at 3:30 AM and by 6:30 AM was driving a steady rain at 20 knots from the northwest. the marine forecast called for winds increasing to 20 to 25 from the northeast by evening and all the next day. Seas were to build to 6 feet in the ocean. Our plan called for this day to be a long 25 mile open ocean paddle to Smith Island and Cape Charles light. The following day would be a 16 mile return paddle Northeast to Oyster. We decided to change our plans and shorten our trip by returning south to Oyster via the channel along the mainland. The weather precluded our original destination of Smith Island and this plan would avoid the long upwind paddle on our last day.

Bad morning weather
A windy start

We dressed inside our tents for a cold windy day. Breakfast would also be cold this morning as we did not feel like cooking in the rain. We packed our kayaks which was more difficult than the previous days as everything was wet and took up more room than when dry and nicely folded. We had more water than we needed as we had not used as much as we had provided for and we were shortening the trip by a day. Emptying some of it provided the necessary room to fit everything in. It also made our kayaks lighter for the carry to the water.

Visibility was less than a half mile in the driving rain so we could only see two buoys in the channel to the west of the island. We had decided to head upwind in the main channel and connect with a marked channel for the long downwind run back to Oyster. As we were unfamiliar with the territory we decided sticking to the channels would be safer as we would be paddling during the low tide period. We began our 3 1/2 mile upwind paddle into 20 knots, moderate rain, three foot seas and an opposing current.

After twenty minutes of hard paddling, it was clear we were not making any progress. We decided to angle off the wind and head across the channel to shallower water where the waves would be smaller and the current less. We made good progress at this and soon picked up a line of buoys marking the channel we should have been in in the first place. We had headed too far north on our initial heading somewhat as a result of our out of date map.

After two hours of paddling we gained the downwind channel. The waves were much smaller in the more protected channel and the wind had abated. The rain had stopped and the days paddle changed from a struggle to an easy float down wind.

Steve put up Julio's sail and I tried to draft behind him using the transverse wave of his speeding kayak. I could not keep my rudderless kayak steady enough in the following seas to keep my bow tucked up next to his stern in order to fully utilize the drafting effect. With my kayak swaying back and forth and his rudder positioned to scar my bow, I decided to drop back and keep up as best as I could. With the sail Steve kept up a pace of about 5 knots until he caught a wave and then he would shoot ahead. Even catching an occasional wave myself I could not keep up even paddling hard. The sail definitely was a big advantage. Still he had to carry the whole trip also and it looked tricky to use.

Calm ending
Calm at the end

The wind continued to abate and we finished the trip on nearly flat water. The clouds remained but the rain had stopped and a few patches of blue began to appear in the west. The currents through the channels back to Oyster were in the two knot range and we had favorable currents until within a half mile of the harbor. We arrived at low tide at 2:05 PM. The bleached shell beach we had landed on was now well out of reach, replaced by a muddy slippery slime covering the ramps and the shell beach. We pulled over to the floating docks which were well padded and conveniently low. We easily got our of our kayaks and walked stiffly up the ramp to the concrete pier. It took over an hour to unpack and load our kayaks onto the car. Everything was soaked and sandy. We were cold and wet and a change into dry cloths felt so good.

We began our drive back home after Steve satisfied a serious Jones for a Big Mac. The sun came out and the wind dropped. The next day dawned clear and cold but with winds only 5 miles per hour from the west. The forecast was way off. But we had played it safe and had a good time gathering experience in an area that I am sure we will revisit.




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