Assateague Island

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Assateague Island National Seashore-

Assateague State Park (MD)

 

“Beauty & the Beast” – September 27-29, 2002

The Assateague Island Adventure and

the Invasion of the Blood-Sucking Musca

 Now, I have to be honest with you; I am a “beach bum”. I love the beach, the ocean and just sitting quietly at night and listening to the waves crashing on the shore. I just find it totally relaxing. So, when my wife (who can actually take or leave the beach) suggested a camping trip on Assateague Island, I was all for it. This was going to be a blast though the terrain would be nothing like anything we would experience on the AT. But, it would be a wonderful diversion and a chance to work on my tan.

 Now, we had heard the horror stories about the mosquitoes on the bay side of this island; swarms so large, obnoxious, and aggressive that more than one person had cut short their excursion to the island out of the shear frustration of not being able to hide from their onslaught. So, we came prepared with plenty of DEET and mosquito nets for our heads thinking that, as a more advanced and intelligent life form, we had come upon a way to defeat a mosquito invasion of any size. Right! But more on this later.

 Arriving late on Friday night, at the Assateague State Park campgrounds, we located our tent site, quickly set up our tent and then rushed to find the nearest bathroom. The typical summertime, Friday evening bumper-to-bumper traffic from Annapolis, MD, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and to the park took a toll on our kidneys. Having made this trip numerous times before, on our way to Ocean City, we should have known better than to try to make it without a scheduled pit stop.

 We had a peaceful night’s sleep with a gentle rain dancing off our tent. Our only fear was that this rain would continue through the morning and derail our canoe trip, across the bay, to the tip of the island. What a relief to wake up to sunny, though quite blustery weather and to the sounds of the Assateague horses wandering through our campsite. We could have done without the aroma of their early morning constitutionals right outside out tent, but hey, this was the “great outdoors”. 

 We broke camp and obtained our backcountry camping permit for Assateague Island National Seashore, then found our way to the canoe rental office and eagerly proceeded to load our canoe with all the necessities for beach camping. Now, except for an ill-fated trip with Georgia in a two-person kayak on Deep Creek Lake (where I we ended up in the drink as Georgia attempted to demonstrate that kayaks were more stable than canoes), a few excursions in a canoe around the reservoir at Black Hill Regional Park, and what little paddling skills I has retained from my years as a Boy Scout going through the rapids on the Delaware River, we really did not have any experience canoeing down the bay. Especially, when we would be doing it after the announcement of “small craft warnings”. How small of a craft were we talking about here, anyway? Surely they would not allow us to go if it was going to be dangerous, right? And just why did we have to sign that liability waiver, anyway?

 Since the island has no fresh water, we had with us, (2) 5-gallon plastic containers with more than enough water to last the weekend. We still have not determined how the horses on the island survive without fresh water but, I suppose we will have to live with the fact that maybe we are not as evolved as we think and that these horses have learned how to live off brackish water.

 Undaunted, we finished loading the canoe with enough gear that its combined weight represented that of a third person which, from a physics perspective, should have us riding a bit lower in the water and offer us some additional stability in the choppy water. But, then again, you had to move that extra weight through the water and with the small craft warnings brought on by a 30-knot headwind, this extra weight oftentimes felt like more of a detriment than and advantage.

Georgia typically does the logistical planning and map reading for our trips and I trust her judgement unflinchingly. But this time, with the wind and choppy water, I had to voice my opinion that I felt her desire to do 12 miles was a bit aggressive and that we should look at a place to put ashore much earlier than that. As it turned out, this insight on my part turned out to be right on target. The tide went out leaving us hung up on sands bars more than once and we were constantly paddling into a headwind. In an effort to take a shortcut so we could arrive on land before midnight, we got lost. Funny thing about maps pertaining to bays and oceans; the few patches of land and their locations on the map look nothing like what they actually do when you are riding 10” above the surface of the bay. There is just no real frame of reference to figure out where you are; it all looks the same. Thankfully, being summer, the day was long so even with six hours of paddling, we still would have enough time to hike the two miles to our campsite before it got dark.

 With our arms growing weaker by the minute, our tempers reaching the boiling point and our will running on empty, we finally reached our destination and all of the past turmoil was forgotten. The feeling was reminiscent of that which you get when you play 17 holes of golf, shank every drive into the woods, never make a decent putt and then, all of the sudden, on the 18th hole, you drive the green and sink a birdie. All those other shots are forgotten and you are ready to do another 18.

 As we approached the tiny strip of beach where we would disembark and leave our canoe, we donned our mosquito netting and covered every visible area of exposed skin with DEET. Come on, you filthy bloodsuckers! We are ready for you!

 In the time it took us to unload the canoe and put our gear on a nearby picnic table, our packs were completely covered with mosquitoes and, what is this? These guys are Patagonia-impervious! We were being bitten right through our clothes! Oh man, one of these guys have to be carrying Lyme disease or malaria or the even the plague! We are doomed! We turned over the canoe in a secluded spot with our water containers underneath, put on our packs, and headed for the ocean-side of the island, all the while sweeping these pesky critters off of us as if we had the DTs. Finally we reached the windward side of the island, where there was a steady breeze, and the mosquitoes disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Relief! Funny thing though; it was as if there was this invisible line that the mosquitoes would not cross. Stay on the windward side of that line and you were fine. Cross it, and you were again under attack. We made sure we stayed on the human-friendly side of that line as much as we could, but even then, we had to deal with carnivorous flies.

 Now this is what I had been looking forward to; waves crashing on miles of deserted beach, dunes, the ever-present Assateague Island horses wandering the beach and, what’s this? A 30 mile per hour wind kicking up sand like the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 30’s. We were being sandblasted with every step we took. Well, at least the bugs will leave us alone; well most of them, anyway. We made camp, pitched our tent behind a dune to keep us out of the wind as much as possible and then decided to cook some food on the only vestige of civilization on this beach: a lone picnic table. After some struggling to light our MSR Whisperlite and having to concoct a makeshift windscreen, by digging a whole in the sand for the stove, we completed cooking our meal and decided to do some sightseeing. We just wandered the beach like members of the cast of “Lost” and periodically tempted fate by stepping into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. The rest of the day was made up of total relaxation and reflection.

 As evening crept over our little oasis of solitude, several other campers began to arrive, having come down the less aggressive and less treacherous beach route, and we were entertained by watching them set up tents of every imaginable size and design. What we also found humorous was watching as each group inadvertently crossed that mosquito demilitarized zone looking for a tent site. By 8:00 p.m. our little secluded patch of heaven on earth had become a seething world of humanity and by 10:00 p.m., rangers showed up to inform many of the campers that they were camped outside the designated camping area and would have to break camp and move. There were some heated words between the rangers and campers, but after all, there were numerous signs indicating the area that campers could use, so the scofflaws really didn’t have a leg to stand on. In addition, had they actually read their backcountry permits, it states very clearly that you must stay in the designated areas. There seems to be a mind-set among some hikers and campers, that since you are in the wild that rules do not apply.

 One of the inescapable travails of wilderness camping, is that proverbial late night trip from the warmth of your sleeping bag out into the night air to relieve yourself. Just the thought of having to make this trip oftentimes forces you to develop ways to retain bodily fluids well outside the scope of physiological design just so you can stay in the warmth of your tent. Unfortunately, these techniques always keep you awake, so you arise at sunrise not only still having to pee but tired on top of it. The best thing to do is just bite the bullet, take care of business as quickly as possible and then return to the warmth of your bag to try to get your feet warn again. Or, you can develop the mindset that this late night trip into the chilling blackness will offer you an opportunity to view a part of life that few, except for those who work the graveyard shift or cowboys on the prairies of Montana, get to see.

 As I arose to make my ill-fated trip to the nearest dune, which would serve as my urinal of choice for this trip, I stepped outside our tent to be greeted by the most extraordinary sky I had ever seen. Being miles from the nearest town or city, the affects of ground lighting were non-existent and I looked up to see more stars than I had ever seen before in my life. What an incredible sight! I just stood there, plumbing in hand, and was mesmerized by this awesome display; the result of God’s hand. Wow!    

 We woke the Sunday morning fully rested, ate our breakfast of Tang, breakfast bars, oatmeal and coffee and headed back to the canoe to get more water. This was pretty much the extent of any mandatory physical activity for the day and we spent the rest of our waking hours just walking the beach or reading. Now, this is what life should be all about!

 Monday morning was just beautiful with the morning sun lighting up the waves as they melodiously touched the beach. We reluctantly packed up and made the hike across the island to the canoe for our return trip. With memories of the journey to the island still fresh in our minds, it was not a trip that we were necessarily looking forward to but we trudged on like the good little soldiers we are. The mosquitoes were not quite as bad this time of the morning so the walk back to the canoe was exceedingly more enjoyable than the previous day’s walk to our site. As we arrived at the beach where we would put into the bay, we were welcomed by calm water and just a mild breeze. Our trepidation about the return trip disappeared and we actually looked forward to a relaxing paddle back to our car.

 This time we put the map away and simply picked a large island off in the distance as our focal point. This served us well and as we reached the edge of this island, just around the corner, we could see our final destination. A trip that had taken us six hours the day before only took us three hours this day; what a difference calm water and no wind makes. We arrived back at the canoe shack so early that we decided to spend some time watching wind-surfers and walking the nature trail located there. Sunburn and aching arm muscles aside, it was a wonderful and exciting trip; one that we would probably do again some day.  

 LESSONS LEARNED:      Never over-estimate the number of miles you can travel in a day; especially if it is a trip that is totally new to you.

 

 “To waste and destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.”

 

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