Assateague National Seashore
Bay Backcountry Solo Trip
Wednesday Nov 17th
The morning weather was so grand that I resolved to pack and go a day earlier than anticipated. All was going well and I was on schedule to leave around noon when the phone rang and the demands of my ordinary profession intruded. An hour and a half later I was done and determined to get down to the Island before another delay.
Packing in a hurry can be a real rush, but when youve failed to make a punch-list you really introduce the potential of overlooking some minor details. But Id only just returned from the Island two days prior, and I was quite practiced about packing for this type of trip. As I headed out the door I had that nagging thought that Id overlooked an important item so I quickly did a mental checklist:
Sleeping bag & mats, check; tent, tarps & line, check; stove, cooking gear, fuel & matches, check; hatchet, knife & pack shovel, check; clothing, outer-clothing, rain gear & waders check; first aid kit, check; lighting, & batteries, check; GPS, compass, map, binoculars & VHF, check; paddles, kneeling pads, bailer, throw rope, & PFD, check; chair & reading, check; camera, check: food, check: nice single malt, check.
Upon pulling away from the curb Id convinced myself that had I forgotten anything it could not be a critical item. Within the first hour of my 3+ hour drive my wife called to say that shed discovered that Id left my two Isotainers with 20 liters of water (I do believe in redundancy) near the front door. Mental checklist error, I should have said food & WATER! Mental relief, no worry for the beer as it was packed along with the food. Resolved not to loose the day by returning home, I decided to pick-up a 2 gallon jug of water when I stopped for gas in Cambridge, MD. After all, combined with the 3 liters of water that I already had on hand that should be sufficient for a 3-day solo excursion.
Approaching the Berlin, MD area I witnessed the beauty of another Eastern Shore November sunset - striated bands of color stretching across the Western horizon. However, the beauty of the sunset did not hide the fact that itd be nearly impossible to secure a backcountry permit for the day. The park rangers at Assateague do not openly condone night paddles, however if you arrive before sunset and are properly equipped for night running they may issue you a permit a bit after the normal cutoff hour. Arriving at the ranger station hour after sunset, I was unable to negotiate the backcountry permit and so elected to stay the night in one of the empty Oceanside loops.
The loops are actually rather nice in the off-season as the park attempts to recover from the ravages it suffers during the high season at the hands of car campers. During the night the sites are well traveled by grazing Wild Ponies and Sika Deer. The pound of the surf just beyond the low dunes makes for a soothing rhythmic tune and the same low dune helps to mitigate the ocean spray. That evening under the clear sky the bright rising waxing half Moon was sufficient light to establish camp without the assist of lanterns. By 11:30 the Moon had progressed into the Western sky and without the glaring brightness of the Moon the stars and planets had become far more apparent. Unfortunately, even an off-season Ocean City puts out enough light pollution to partially obscure the northern fringe of the eastern sky but the show is still quite impressive. Shortly after Midnight, I elected to turn-in for the night after having found myself slipping off to sleep in my chair.
Thursday Nov 18th
Around 4 AM I stirred from sleep as two bright lights were apparent through the misted window on the entrance to my tent. The lights in the East/Southeastern sky, one positioned nearly directly above the other, were bright enough to light the sky as if it were pre-dawn. I was in fact witnessing a peculiar alignment of planets for it was Jupiter, followed by Venus and finally Mars that were rising like loosely strung pearls lifted from the oceans horizon.
While wandering the beach at dawn, the mild north winds ceased and the ocean became as calm as a pond. The diving Gulls became the entertainment as they rose into the sky and then plunged into the sea. Feeding must have been good as the skimmers joined in the action and finally what might have been Loons arrived from the bayside to bob on the water and do their surface ballet.
By 9 am I was fed, packed and back at the ranger station to secure a backcountry permit. No challenges here as there werent any other campers in the bayside backcountry. It was to be a night at Green Ridge followed by a night at Pope Bay.
By 10:30 my Encounter was well packed but not being in any hurry I poked around the Old Ferry Landing for a half an hour before heading South. With only a mild Northerly breeze, the bay was flat and calm and the high waters of a few days prior had receded leaving water levels at average. The beauty of Assateague is its off-season serenity under the angular Sun. The casual nature of the horses grazing on marsh grasses, the lazy floating flocks of assorted waterfowl, the ragged dog-eared appearance of the bay shoreline, the Autumnal colors and tones and the big sky all contribute to this sense of serenity.
My first scheduled stop was at Pine Tree where Id four cache of firewood left from the Duckhead Gentlemens Trip. Entering the site was like entering a haunted house for the site still seemed to possess the shades of those Gentlemen whod so recently camped there. After recovering the firewood and packing the canoe I was off to Green Run.
Throughout the trip my vocal companions were the Loons whose two vocalizations are easy to answer, with each answer causing yet another call from one or more Loons. Midway through the long leg of the trip in the more open water portion off Fox Hill Level, the weather began to go through its changes. The winds intensified as they shifted to the West and finally Southwest. Of course, West winds develop clouds and rolling seas and so the bronco ride was on. Once achieving the narrow passage just inside the Pirate Islands, which mark the entrance to Green Run Bay, the fun of the bronco ride is behind as you regain the calm serenity of the smaller protected bay. About 3:30 I made landfall at the marshy edge that is Green Run.
While porting my gear to the campsite I happened upon a curious Sika Deer. The animal must have been perplexed as it simply stood there and stared back at me as I clunked along. It stood its ground until I was within about 15 feet at which point it came to its senses and noisily bounded away. I concluded that if this were any indication of the wary nature of the Sika Deer then their hunt must not be much sport.
Camp established and sunset approaching I was off for a quick visit to the ocean as it was only a few hundred yards to the East. Returning to camp at sunset I was greeted by the mottling of Sun and clouds in the Western sky.
That night after the clouds receded from the eastern sky I did return to the Oceanside to lie back and observe a far less disturbed night sky. Eyes acclimated to the night sky and monitoring the height of the Eastern sky I did observe 5 distinct meteor trails. Each meteor trail was its own unique colorful treat.
Arriving back at campsite it was time to sleep. One of the unique features of Green Run is the fact that youll not only be serenaded by the sound of the ocean surf but on occasion you may even feel the pounding of the surf as it transmits along the campground.
Friday Nov 19th
Today was my easy day. Reconnoiter the beach at dawn. Followed by a lazy breakfast, read and await the lull in the waterfowl hunting. By 11 AM its all quiet on the hunting front and so its time to push on to Pope Bay.
By midday the weather was changing. There was no breeze and moisture was building in the air as a haze obscured the November Sun. In the haze the landscape grew more monochromatic and the waterfowl took on a black shadow like appearance on the mirror surface of the water. The loons called out and their voices carried even further in this environment. Today the waters around Green Run Bay seemed particularly shallow and I could see the sandy/silt bottom through its 2-3 foot depth. As I approached the entrance to the Middlemore Thorofare I spied the intermingling of seagrass and sponges as well as the scattering of the shells of clams, both those partially dug in as well as those previously consumed. In the gray-tones of the day the orange shade of the sponges seemed all the brighter.
After entering Middlemore I was greeted by various groups of Wild Ponies as I paddle through the marshy areas on my approach to Pope Bay. Near my final approach on one particularly sharp left turn I surprised a small duck that had been hiding along the ragged marshy perimeter. The bird flapped its wings and slapped at the water with its feet in order to do an emergency lift-off in advance of my oncoming bow. Near to 3:30 I made landfall at Pope Bay and established my last campground for this trip.
Since the forecast included the increasing likelihood of rain after midnight I opted to deploy a VCS tarp over my cooking area. With the cooling of the day, the haze had lifted and the clouds had coalesced into a series of puffy blankets and I was treated to another of those mottled sunsets.
As the darkness grew I decided upon a shellfish dinner menu. I donned my waders, paddled over to where the marsh perimeter was well flushed, exited the canoe and with the help of my Gerber River Runner made quick work of liberating 50 nice sized Mussels from their marsh side lair. Within an hour, cleaned, scrubbed, and four flushes later they were ready to be cooked. Following Tophers tested recipe I sacrificed one bottle of beer into the cookpot. Brought the beer to a boil and plunged the Mussels into the pot. A quick stir or two and like a bird watch thermometer the shells popped open to reveal their plump juicy delights. The Mussels on Assateague are quite juicy and briny and remind me far more of Oysters than of Mussels. A meal of Oyster-like Mussels, cornbread and beer beside a nice campfire, could one ask for anything more?
Saturday Nov 19th
Today I was to paddle out but the waterfowl hunters seemed particularly active this morning as the pop of shotguns reverberated across the marsh. The midnight rains had not occurred and as the clouds had cleared thanks to the winds that were now blowing out of the South. I opted to spend more time on the Oceanside and defer breaking camp until the late morning.
After a bit of a walk I arrived at the beach and set up an observation point. I mounted my 12-36 x 70 zoom binoculars on a walking stick and began a low magnification scan of the ocean. What a treat as several pods of Dolphins played in the waves as they paralleled the beach while making their way North to South. The Gulls were back as well, but today was a day for the skimmers rather than the divers. The skimmers surfed the wind currents, which were just above the waves, as they plucked their food off the surface just past the crest of the wave. The Sun was growing higher and so I returned to camp for my own breakfast.
Packing to end the trip seemed to go quite slowly. It is quite hard to willingly return from the serenity of the shore. As the last of the 2 gallon jug of water was consumed and I was down to only about 2 liters of water the need to leave became quite clear. By about 2:30 I was finally loaded for what should have been a 3 hour paddle straight back to Old Ferry Landing.
Within the first 1/2 hour the weather had changed as an occasional sprinkle could be felt and the favorable Southerly winds had shifted to the Southeast. The effect of the stern quartering winds and rain would become more pronounced as the day progressed. By sunless sunset under the rainy skies I was resting just offshore of Pine Tree snacking while preparing for night running. Navigating the Tingles Narrows is always interesting on a moonless night as you combine your sense of smell of the mud and hearing of the slap of the water with the map plotted by your GPS. At least one gets quarter from the wind while in the Narrows and I took this opportunity to call home, share Havdallah and advise my wife that Id be home late that evening. The call ended just in time for me to prepare for the oncoming squall. Paddling through the squall, an hour later, I had finally made it across the rolling waters of the two mile wide shallow bay, found my way through the shallow marshy channel and achieved landfall at the Old Ferry Landing. In the constant rain I began packing the car but did take the time to fire up the stove to prepare a light meal and some coffee to warm my innards before the long drive home.
The current Deer season ends in mid December, maybe
Drive-in camping loops on both Ocean and Bayside have fire rings bayside and grills Oceanside. Loops have portajohns and showers.
Backcountry sites have fire rings bayside and permit beach fires within the tidal zone Oceanside. Camp areas also provide portajohns but no water supply.
Best piece of gear used on this trip REI Ultra light Jacket A great lightweight shell that kept me dry and was breathable enough to keep me reasonably comfortable. The hood was easily adjusted and the pit zips allowed for additional ventilation when necessary. I chose a XXL for my XL frame and found it capable of slipping over my PFD or adjusting to fit for use without the PFD. Very packable as it packs down in its own sack to a size not much larger than my hand.
$10 park entrance fee or $20 annual pass, additional $16/day fee for drive-in sites or $5 trip permit fee for backcountry use.
Additional photos can be viewed at: http://community.webshots.com/album/225738482cuVBBv
Maping GPS is highly recommended and a Compass and topomap is an advisable back-up for backcountry paddling trips.
Assateague info: http://www.nps.gov/asis/