Assateague National Seashore in Maryland
Assateague Island National Seashore
Paddlers - Topher, c2g Dave, McWood, McCrea
Boats Bell Rob Roy, Sawyer Loon, Kruger Sea Wind, Clipper Sea-1
We were looking for an opportunity to test paddle the decked boats with a load and in some adverse conditions, and a 3-day paddle-in camper along Chincoteague Bay behind the Assateague Island National Seashore proved to be an ideal test-paddling venue.
Arriving at the Ranger Station on the island we were disheartened to find that a Boy Scout troop was scheduled to fully occupy our intended destination at the Pine Tree backcountry site and a parking lot discussion about the relative merits of the Tingles Island site vs the Green Run site settled us on Tingles.
Off to the Ferry Landing put in, where, to my relief, a startling quantity of gear disappeared into our hulls. Accustomed to heavy-packing open boats I was pleased and surprised to discover that these closed-toppers could also handle a load.
I had coerced c2g into participating by promising that he could at least start off paddling in the Sea-1. I must have forgotten that promise, or perhaps that beauty of a boat just calls to me; whatever the cause I somehow ended up packing my gear in the Sea-1. Sorry Dave. No, really, I am deeply remorseful that I reneged on my promise and I was burdened by shame as that sleek water-rocket glided along with little effort.
The paddle in was quick and easy. The challenge of a moderate headwind meant little to the paddling performance of our test craft, a brief rain shower did nothing to dampen our spirits and we were soon at the front door to the Tingles site.
Gear hauled, tents and tarps up and camp secured we headed back out for an exploratory empty-boat paddle as the wind kicked it up a notch. Making up the rules as we went along we agreed on a test paddling rule for the duration You cant paddle the same boat two times in a row.
Expanding on this rule as the weekend continued I believe we each worked our way through the line up at least twice.
Heading south along the bayside proved a remarkable test paddling venue; the wind gathering strength just as the weather radio had predicted, blowing 25 knots, gusts to 30, straight up the bay on a long fetch, with the shallow Chincoteague bay producing short, choppy wave trains with occasional whitecaps.
Hop scotching from the lee of one peninsula to another we progressed south as the wind continued to increase. Wind driven water in this shallow bay is a force to be reckoned with, producing some nasty paddling conditions, especially at the outboard tips of the peninsulas, where the force of wind and wave combine to create an E-ticket ride.
The wind, depending on direction, also floods or drains the western side of Assateague; on the Squatter-led Duckhead trip two weeks ago the water was blown away from the island for a weekend of shallow water boat walking. Our conditions were exactly the opposite over the course of three days we had what appeared to be high tide, higher tide and really, high tide.
This abundance of water permitted us the luxury of gunkholing the guts and sloughs along the islands western edge. Espying the wind tossed water beyond a final peninsula muckle-up we elected to head east and explore the back of the Assateague backcountry.
One of the things I appreciate most about paddling Assateague is the variety of topography on such a slender spit of barrier island. Chincoteague Bay itself, ranging from calm and glasslike (rare) to windswept and whitecapped (frequent). The convoluted western edge of the island, with endless route choices in and out and through the sloughs, guts and channels.
The inner island, with the welcome windbreak of pine and scrub, basin ponds with reptiles and amphibians, birdlife from egrets, herons and eagles to warblers, sparrows and wrens. Not to mention wild ponies and sika deer.
The inter-dune zone, an undulating arena of off-worldly terrain, swept clean of even the occasional footprint each day. The Atlantic beachfront and surf zone, with the sound of waves, smell of sea, salt spray slowly permeating all.
Our gunkholing exploration took us towards a lone Dr. Seuss tree begging investigation. The tree in question was of less interest than the dead pony, only slightly bloated, lying in the marsh grass. We tried to get Mick to flop over atop her and force the air out, the trick he showed us when packing his drybags, but he determined that she still wouldnt fit in the Sea Wind even if fully deflated.
Wrapping our course back to the north and west we exited the Assateague backwaters and remerged onto Chincoteague Bay with a stiffening wind now dead astern.
A ruddered boat, wind dead astern and, hmmm, whats this a golf umbrella. Damn, these decked hulls will flat out move under even a rudimentary sail. Ive umbrella sailed canoes at Assateague many times, but flying along under wind power in a decked boat with a rudder made a world of difference. Sail, rudder, sit back, relax and remember to wait up eventually for your companions. Now thats the life.
Back acamp, boat performance notes were written, ranging from Dependable Daves usual detailed and voluminous reports on every aspect of each boat (hes a lock for that Reviewer of the Year Award once again at the Christmas Party), to Micks thoughtful and intelligent head-to-head comparisons (Im mystified though, what did you mean by the repetitive comment But its still not a Pungo?), to Tophers insightful commentary, ranging from It didnt leak to Me like paddling. Despite his economy of written commentary Tophers a lock to have his digital photographs published with the review, so while Dave wins a cheesy wind-up duck toy as his reward Topher will be cashing a check from Paddler. Lifes like that sometimes.
After an assortment of naps and noshes we headed back out for an evening exploration of the guts and sloughs on the backdoor side of our campsite. At least that was my intention following Dave out towards the open water of the Bay he hit the gas and was soon a diminishing speck on the wave-tossed horizon. Topher and I muckled up, watched his stern disappear and, having complete faith in Daves open water paddling abilities, turned about to prog the wind-protected confines on the island interior once again.
One comment that was raised from time to time during the course of this trip having competent companions whom you can trust to make the right decisions about the conditions and an honest assessment of their own abilities permits the luxury of watching them solo off, knowing they are in good hands.
Our evening explore slowly twilighted into a gibbous moon night paddle and a return to a cheery fire back acamp for a fashion show that included Topher in a kilt and Dave in striking blue floor-length Dishdasha. And they wondered why I picked a tent site so far removed from the rest of camp.
After a hearty breakfast of instant grits, instant coffee and dried fruit bits (where oh where are Chef Davey and Chef Vic when I need em?) we launched into the bay for a long exploratory paddle with empty boats. Well, not exactly empty; I still carry enough stuff on day paddling trips that the narrowing cockpit opening of the Sea-1 made reaching the furthest away fore-stored gear a bit of a challenge. There, I finally found something I didnt like about the Sea-1.
Actually, I didnt start off in the Sea-1, as we kept to the day-old tradition of swapping boats throughout the day. I dont remember what I started off in; to quote Topher about our fine collection of decked boats Me like paddling...they were all nice boats.
Once more into the wind. Not being accustomed to a rudder, or a sliding seat, it took me a while to make the necessary adjustments and discoveries, like remembering to slide the seat forward to trim into the wind, and to realize that when heading directly into the wind the rudder was unnecessary and, quite literally, a drag.
South we went, into the 25 knot winds and rolling chop. Mick soon realized the value of keeping clean decks, as even the small lateral bungie cord stretched across his deck deflected spray into his face. Topher soon realized that he missed his bow-mounted dachshund spray deflector. C2g remarked that a Pungo wouldnt throw up spray off the bow deck like these darned composite boats.
South we went, seeking momentary shelter behind each peninsulas leeward hideaway. South we went until we came to a long peninsula fronting a large embayed shore and, peeking at the whitecaps between us and the Boy Scout camp we had set out to terrorize, turned east to head into some pine protected gut, seek shelter from the wind.
A quick check of the topo (a 20-year old taped together scroll of quads covering the entire Assateague shoreline, dog eared, repeatedly dampened and salt-spray covered the most memorable map I own) revealed that we might, in these wind-blown high water conditions, be able to work our way back into the largest inter-island lake & channel basin on Assateague, two miles long and nearly a half mile wide.
Paddling this hidden water has been a oft sought and oft denied target, but a combination of extremely high water and a willingness to repeatedly haul our boats across deep flooded marshland (Chota Mukluks are the best piece of boating gear in the last 100 years Topher) saw us through.
Of course, a 2 mile long exposed lake oriented to the wind proved to be as choppy, if not choppier, than the bayside, and the water itself seemed to be flowing, not just wind driven. So, eh, whatta ya say we turn and run with the wind.
Understand here that I wasnt exactly sure where we were on the topo. A 20 year old topo of a constantly shifting barrier island is more of a suggestion of possibilities that an accurate guide. And a high water flooded marsh doesnt much resemble past recollections of the area.
Not that we were lost you understand. We were somewhere on the bayside of Assateague. That I was sure of. I would occasionally consult the map and smush a finger into it, declaring Were right about here just to reassure my companions. Right about here, somewhere on this island. I think.
Having decided to run with the wind to the end of Lake Longsought I fiddled with this and that and, my companions having pulled well ahead, pointed the nose of my boat (the Loon, I think) into the wind, dropped the rudder, unfurled my umbrella and, laying back, paddle stowed, drinking a beer and steering with my feet as the wind-filled umbrella hustled me along, passed a Rob Roy, a Sea Wind and Sea-1 in short order. That look wasnt smug; it was the face of contentment. OK, with a little smug.
Approaching the end of Lake Longsought I realized that I still wasnt entirely sure of where we really were. But, catching a glimpse of open water beyond a flooded fringe of salt grass to our west I deduced that, if we had first paddled south up the bay, then paddled and portaged east into Lake Longsought, then run north with the wind, a third change of direction to the west ought to put us back on open water.
Exploring the inter-island lakes and sloughs is usually a matter of aural navigation; listen for the sound of the surf thats the Atlantic edge. But with the wind and wave filling the air with bayside music the sound of the surf was lost. Not that we were lost. I knew right where we were. Somewhere on Assateague.
As I hauled my boat across yet another flooded marshland I heard an excited squeak from astern. The horse, the horse cried Mick, spotting his beloved dead pony pal festering in the marsh. We had done it, the first circumnavigation of Dead Pony Point. I expect my admittance letter to the Explorers Club shall arrive in the mail any day now.
Back on the open bay I could see, faintly in the distance, the Tingles Island campsite marker and once again unfurled my umbrella sail and surfed waves until the wind became too strong and threatened to destroy my $7.99 sail rig.
Ive said it before and Ill say it again I want an easily unfurled, easily stored, hand held sail rig based on a freaking umbrella. Maybe a different shape than a circle, maybe a transparent panel so I can see where Im going, definitely a stay-stop to keep it from fully inverting, but screw all that set up and mast steps and lee board and crap I just want to capture the rare tailwind and I can do that with an umbrella. Add in a foot control rudder and woo-wee, I still have one hand free to hold a beer.
Camp once again. Topher and I set off on a beachwalk, heading south along the surf line before turning west to poke about the inter-dune otherworldliness. We soon spotted c2g and Mick, strolling the beach like some perverse Cialis advertisement, no doubt discussing the purchase of a Pungo built for two.
Interrupting their romanticizing boat design fantasies we returned to camp for an evenings paddle, this time probing back into the far reaches of the guts and sloughs to the immediate south of our campsite.
Probing the far reaches of a barely boat wide channel Mick proved that he was smarter than he looks by not attempting to back the 179 of Sea-1 out for a quarter mile, c2g demonstrated the little recognized ability of the Sea Wind rudder to collect squaw wood for the fire and Topher challenged an Assateague stallion for herd dominance. I of course was the very picture of proper deportment as usual.
Heading back out the gut we spotted an abandoned hunt camp, hidden in the piney wood, dilapidated and falling into disarray. Irresistible, even if it meant another series of flooded marsh drag overs. Knowing that any hunt camp must have had easy and open access to the bay we headed west after our dilapidation exploration and were soon back on Chincoteague Bay, roiling back to camp with the wind and waves once again behind us.
Back in camp the usual shenanigans transpired. Beers were drunk, Sailor Jerry was bid adieu. We spent a short rain spell huddled under Tophers disco tarp a lightweight Cooke 10x10 decorated with various colored glowsticks. A fire was raised; a game of great moments in Pungo history was played - George Washington crossing the Delaware in a Pungo. And the Lord said to Noah, build me a Pungo 40 cubits by 80 cubits and gather together two of every pumpkinseed. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzpungo. Damn the Pungos, full speed ahead
About the time we had a good blaze going someone (I think it was me) decided to go have a look at the boats by moonlight. Were not going paddling; were just going down to look at the boats.
Heading down to the launch Topher remarked, Yeah, well just look at the boats and proceeded to walk to a boat, hop in and paddle out into the bay. And one by one we all followed. Just a short paddle, not far. Yeah, right.
Damn those decked boats are fast and easy paddling next time I looked up we were halfway to the town of Public Landing on the western shore. Not that I dont think about visiting Public Landing when I look across the bay, but, uh, well gee I wish I at least had a PFD on. And maybe some cash there might be a bar in Public Landing.
Reduced to making logical decisions, following my head instead of my heart, we turned about and headed back to camp.
Awakening Sunday morning to sunshine on my tent and birds chirping in the trees I realized that there were four beautiful decked boats waiting for an early morning paddle and, since we were in no rush to depart, turned over and went back to sleep.
Eventually rousing myself from the comfort of my Thermarest and sleeping bag I shuffled slowly around the campsite only to discover that my companions were already breaking camp and half packed. Or, as they say, half in the bag.
Not wanting to miss the sight of Mick getting frisky with his drybags I packed it up and hauled my gear down to the landing. Calculating my boat rotation based on the cant paddle the same boat two times in a row stipulation I realized that I was slated for the Sea-1 again. Well whadda ya know, youd almost think I planned it that way.
Packed, loaded and back on the water our route out would be all running with the wind. I took this opportunity to get deliberately sloppy with the return route in the Sea-1. Paddling open boats in the Chincoteague chop often means employing a series of chess-like strategic moves in sequence Head a few points off the wind here, hit the tip of that peninsula just outboard, tack back in, and hide in the lee there
Instead I just let her go, put her sideways in the waves and chop and was pleased to find the Sea-1 still performed beautifully still solid, still fast, still dry. And yeah, Im sticking with that story I deliberately got sloppy and sideways to the waves to test the Sea-1 with a load in adverse downwind conditions. Yeah, that it, I didnt just space out and end up sideways in the chop it was a test.
Arriving too soon back at the Ferry Landing we were greeted by a hot French-Canadian stripper. Uh, I mean we were warmly greeted by a French-Canadian woman paddling a strip-built kayak. Nicely constructed with beautiful sleek lines. The kayak was nice too.
We unscrolled the topo and showed her the various designated campsites and wind-sheltered routes and wondered why oh why we hadnt planned to stay an extra day. As they say, Cest la vie. Also Cest plus quun crime, cest une faute. Also Let me show you a trick for deflating drybags OK, pretend Im the drybag
Packed and racked and on the road, no trip to the eastern shore is complete without a stop at the Unicorn Rare and Used Book Shop, where the entire back row is old and out of print nautical books, with the occasional odd canoeing or kayaking book or river guide mixed in. Once Mick found the woodworking section I thought wed never leave, and I forced myself to avoid the map room upstairs.
The Unicorn is a traditional stop for me en route home from the shore, as is a stop at Hollys Restaurant for some calorie-packing home cooking to carry me across the inevitable bay Bridge traffic jam.
Assateague backcountry sites are provided with picnic tables, fire rings and composting or porta-john toilets.
Decked canoes (review outing with Clipper Sea-1, Kruger Sea Wind, Sawyer Loon and Bell Rob Roy)
$5 entry fee for National Seashore, $5 backcountry permit for each group.
Take Rte 50 east towards the Atlantic Ocean to Rte 611. Take Rte 611 south onto Assateagie Island.
Park handout maps are sufficient and are marked with GPS coordinates. A topographic map is essential if you intend to try for the hard-to-find Pope Bay site.
- Sport/Activity: Canoeing
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Water Type: Open Water/Ocean