|Editors Note: Apparently little of the 60 miles from Assateague Island to Fisherman's Island is now open to campng. See http://www.deq.virginia.gov/coastal/seasidewatertrail/visitationpolicies.html. 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.
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.
All this stuff
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.