Assateague Island

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Assateague Island is an Atlantic barrier island off the Maryland coast just south of Ocean City. Home to herds of wild ponies most think live on its developed sister island, Chincoteague, this 27 mile long island provides diverse opportunities from crowded sun worship to lonely vistas of scrub and dunes.

I like going to Assateague for many reasons. The wide beach is more remote than the crowded and commercialized beaches of Ocean City and the other sea side communities in Maryland and Delaware. Except right in front of the two parks, one National and one State, the beaches are fairly empty, at least on weekdays. On weekends many four wheel drive vehicles come out onto the sand and set up for surf fishing. Though fairly numerous, they spread out on the 7 miles on the north end of the island and the 14 miles down to Chincoteague Island. leaving lots of empty beach in between. There are more sea birds here, plus the deer and ponies wander in among the campsites and walk up an down the beaches.

Horses and people share a long expanse of beach in the early morning

The Assateague National Seashore makes up the bulk of the Maryland portion of Assateague Island. The Virginia Maryland state boundary passes through the middle of the island. Chincoteague Island and the southern portion of Assateague lie in Virginia. The island can be reached through te town of Chincoteague and there is a park there as well. The main camping facilities and visitor center of the National park are on the northern end of the island. The park has camping spots on both the ocean side and bay side of the island. Bath facilities are primitive with cold open air showers and portable toilets. There are several boat launches, exhibits and trails in the National Park.

North of the National Park is the State Park with nearly as many camp sites and large bath houses with flush toilets and hot showers. Both of these parks are frequently full during summer months even on weekdays. Before and after the public school season however, it is easy to get a spot on weekdays. October is a particularly good time to visit as the insect population, green flies, deer flies and mosquitos are greatly reduced. The water is warmer than in June and nearly at the peak temperatures of September. A warm spell in this month is my favorite time to visit.

On the mainland, the national Park has a visitors center with displays of shore ecology and a small theatre showing videos of Assateague. Ranger walks, talks and activities start at this location. Assateague has a bike lane that begins here at the center and a separate bridge over the bay to the island. Bicycle riding is pleasant and safe here.

The bridge over the bay is named after the famous Italian explorer, Verrazano. New Yorkers will be familiar with the name as it is the same one as the very much larger bridge into Manhattan.

Assateague is home to two herds of wild ponies, the southern and northern herd. The southern herd is infamous because of the roundup and swim each year over to Chincoteague island made famous by the children's book, Misty of Chincoteague. Each year the fire company rounds up the horses, swims them across the channel and holds an auction to raise funds for the operation of the fire company. The remaining horses are driven back over to the island. The auction maintains the herd at sustainable levels.

The horses have had a deleterious effect on the sand dunes that protect the interior of the island from the pounding surf of winter storms. They eat the dune grass that help stabilize the sand and mechanically breakdown the dunes by crossing over to the beach. To counter these effects, the state has rebuilt the dunes by dredging and pumping sand into new dunes, erecting snow fence to keep the horses out and planting dune grass onto the newly formed dunes.

The horses invade the grass where there is a break in the fence or where sand piles up so much as to top the fence. They rip the grass out by the roots from the lose sand instead of just clipping the blades, thus eating the entire plant and leaving nothing to grow back. Some plans have been formulated to reduce the population of the herd in order to allow the dunes to recover. The popular horses enjoy the favor of the visitors and it is unlikely that the park Service will be allowed to cull the herd. They may be allowed to give the mares contraceptives to reduce births. I have not heard whether this plan had been put into effect or not, but this year I saw only one or two colts, so perhaps they have got the system in place. There were a lot of horses there this year. One morning I counted 47 on the beach in front of the State park. The horses seem to concentrate in the State park instead of the Federal Park. Whether this is because the Federal Park has had a dune protection program for much longer than the State program or because the patrons of the cushier State facilities are more likely to feed the horses, I don't know.

And feed the horses people do, in spite of pleas by rangers to not do so. The practice is bad for the horses as the food proffered is not good for them (or us either for that matter). It makes them dependent on the handouts they get instead of the natural and quite abundant food sources. It also makes them pests as they wander through the campsites looking for unattended opportunities. The quite picturesque ponies taking the popcorn handout one minute is the destructive marauder ripping a screen tent to get the left out potato chip bag one hour later. The handouts make them aggressive and a little dangerous.

The island is also home to a small deer called a Sitka deer. About half the height of a white tail deer, these stocky little deer never lose their fawn like spots. They wander through the tents sites in the early morning and late afternoon, browsing the dune plants. Frequently infested with ticks, the backs of their ears are sometimes completely covered with ticks, leaving them hairless, bloody and raw. This poses some risk of Lyme disease for visitors so be sure to check for ticks on yourself. Insect repellant will probably be on for reasons other than ticks anyway and this will help repel these little blood suckers.

But there are plenty of other blood suckers about that will make your stay at Assateague memorable. The morning and evenings are filled with the hum of hunting mosquitos, large and numerous. In mid day their numbers are reduced but seldom unnoticeable in mid summer. Deer flies and green flies are other annoying pest in the campground. Beach sites are less buggy than Bay side camp grounds. Forested hiking trails can be awful for insects when the more open area are manageable. A breezy beach is the best refuge from the biting insects. The horses know this as well and are often out on the sand and near the surf seeking a respite from their tormentors. The insects of course follow the herds and you will notice an increase of the population in the vicinity of the animals. Their exceptionally long manes and tails help them combat the little pests, but the poor ponies are constantly flicking, shivering and stamping to keep the flies off of them.

The shore abounds with birds. In the morning one can observe them running along the surf line, probing the sand for small bits of food. North of the State park is a nesting site which is posted to keep beach walkers from disturbing the ground nests. Please respect the signs as much of the rest of the beaches along this Atlantic coast has already been commandeered for our use. It is little enough to let them have a few miles of sand to keep their species alive.

From the state park, the island extends north for 7 miles to the inlet at Ocean City. On the other side, the busiest part of the Ocean City boardwalk begins. The contrast between the two sides is quite striking and worth the walk. There you can also observe the westward shift of the beach as the southward transport of sand is halted to the south of the inlet jetty. The sand builds up the beach on the north side of the inlet, making the beach broad and extending it out toward the ocean. On the other side, the beach is narrow and recedes back toward the mainland. Plans are under discussion to pump sand out and around the inlet in order to allow the sand to resume its natural course down the beach as it did before the inlet and jetty were constructed.

There is a boat launch across from the visitors center and a boat launch in the National Park, both providing access to the bay between the island and the mainland. The bay is shallow with a marked navigation channel down the center. Several interesting day trips are possible. There are also a number of campsites on the bay side that can be reserved at the Visitors Center. They are located in pine groves in the marsh. Although I have never seen many mosquitos while out paddling in the marsh, the clouds of insects await at the campsites. The National park has a $10.00 entrance fee. Hand launches at the ramps and beaches are free as of this writing. The State park has a $3.00 day use fee or you must reserve a campsite at $25.00 to $30.00 a night. Kayaking off of the beach is allowed in the area away from swimmers. Surf can be rough here and the shore changes each season. Sometimes the surf comes in long and controlled and sometimes there is a big dumping surf right on the beach. Your mileage will vary, so check conditions carefully before paddling out. Also remember that your activities will draw attention and some of that will be uninformed, so watch out for people who come into the surf to get a better look.

Assateague provides a wide range of options for recreation at the shore. Give it a try.




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