VA - Chincoteague - 2002/06/23 - 26.5 miles

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Famous for its wild ponies, Chincoteague is a low marshy island along the Atlantic Coast. Beset by high temperatures and clouds of insects in summer, a circumnavigation of the island provides an opportunity to see the famous equine inhabitants and enjoy a challenging paddle. Tides and currents are big factors in any trip in this area.

By Hank McComas

I left from the state park at Assateague Island where I was camping for several days. My plan was to circumnavigate Assateague's sister island, Chincoteague, the island made famous by a pony called Misty. The 26+ mile trip should provide a full day adventure.

It was a hot sultry morning. The mosquitos had bloomed after the previous weeks rain. Maryland's barrier islands can grow them large and numerous. The green head flies had also started to appear. Today was predicted to be close to 100 degrees with a 10 knot southerly breeze. I brought extra water and sun screen for this day's anticipated 9 hour paddle.

The drive from the northern end of Assateague to Chincoteague is three times as long as the 20 mile distance down the beach of Assateague. With four wheel drive and a permit, one can drive along the beach all the way down. The southern end of Assateague lies below that of Chincoteague. But to go by paved road, one must head well inland, turn south and then back out toward the ocean. The hour and fifteen minute drive passes Snow Hill and parallels the Pocomoke river, both interesting paddle destinations in their own right.

The road out to Chincoteague passes Wallops Island and the Navy testing center for the Aegis air defense system. A long causeway and bridge provide access to the island itself. There are three ramps listed in the Maryland ramp guide. The first is just one block south of the bridge just as you get onto the island. The second is near the southern end of the island of the western side. The third is in the middle of the island on the eastern side. I stopped at the first ramp. A large parking lot and hard surface ramp required a permit for use which must be purchased from the town offices. The second ramp was at a marina and also required a fee. However, just a couple of blocks south of the first ramp was an open unpaved parking lot owned by the city with free parking. On the north end was access to the water on a small beach perfect for canoe and kayak access. This is where I parked.

I unloaded my gear from the car, got the kayak down from the roof rack, and loaded it up on the oyster shell beach. The mosquitos were not too bad, but the green heads were persistent. My plan was to go around the island in a clockwise fashion, using the southerly wind to push me up the wide bay where currents would be modest and then to ride the ebbing tidal currents out the narrow channel between Assateague and Chincoteague. This is where the annual pony roundup crosses.

The water near the island itself is shallow with a large mud flat exposed at low water. Since during my launch the tide was nearly high, the water came all the way to the weed line. The docks in this area extended a great distance from shore in order to reach the deeper water. I cut under several before reaching the channel. I was going north toward the bridge and causeway I had just driven over. As I passed the ramp just south of the bridge, I saw two kayaks on top a van. Before I could get over to the dock to tell them about my discovery of the great free launch, the two guys headed to the street, no doubt to pay for a permit. Too bad.

I continued up the deep water channel right along the shore of the town of Chincoteague for about two miles. Then the development began to appear. Some very large houses built on stilts are being constructed on the north end of the island. These monster vacation homes looked to be in the $500,000.00 range. None of these homes had ever seen a hurricane and I wondered how they would fare when one finally visits the island. Ii also wondered who could afford such large and expensive part-time homes.

At the very north end of the island there is only the marsh of a bird sanctuary. Large blinds spoke of very heavy duck hunting activities taking place in the fall hunting season. The juxtaposition of bird conservation areas with warning signs to stay out for the protection of the birds and large structures who sole purpose is the killing of birds seemed ironic at best.

I rounded the northern tip of the island and headed south. The wind no longer was behind me and the increased apparent wind felt refreshing in the muggy heat of mid day. The current was now with me as I had anticipated. I paddled past several island with fishing camp buildings squatting on low marshy island. Some looked quite old and I wondered how they had survived hurricane seasons which they must surely have witnessed. Some other cabins are succumbed to the ravages of time and neglect.

Over on the eastern shore lay Assateague island, a large herd of horses was grazing, sleeping and trying to find relief from the flies. Their skins shook in attempts to keep the flies from biting and their long beautiful tails, actually reaching the ground, could flick flies off the hides at their shoulders. The pests seemed to prefer the hocks and the horses continuously moved their feet to shake off the bugs. I pulled close to shore to get a picture and one horse got a little too curious. I had to backpaddle to a greater distance, as these are indeed wild animals and unpredictable in their behavior.

Half way down the creek between the two islands, a bridge crosses from Chincoteague to Assateague, giving motorized access to the southern portion of the Assateague National Seashore. I passed under the fixed bridge and saw the first PWC of the day. The backside of the town of Chincoteague was on my right. I passed the ramp at a small park that was the third listed launch site. On my left many old rotting pilings marked the position of docks long gone from a commercial fishing industry no longer viable. The waterway looped back and forth as it wandered toward the ocean inlet. I cut across a shallow sandbar and was temporarily grounded.

The currents were strongly ebbing toward the inlet and the open ocean as the waters of Chincoteague bay squeezed past the southern end of the island As I rounded the final point the current reached over 4 knots even close against the shore and my progress was painfully slow as I forced my way back north. Several hundred yards from the point the current slowed and I was once again able to make reasonable progress.

I reached my car at 3:00 PM with the beach a hundred feet from where I had launched on the high tide. My trip had taken 5 1/2 hours thanks to the favorable wind going north and the favorable current going south. Had I chosen to go around the island in the opposite direction it would have taken over twice as long. A little over an hour later, I was once again hiding from the mosquitos at Assateague campground.




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