The Washington Times - June 5, 2008, 07:41PM

By Cindy Cotte Griffiths, special to Donne Travels

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” – Rachel Carson

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The changing shore of the barrier island (Photo by Cindy Cotte Griffiths)

Known for its wild wonders, Assateague Island embodies the veiled undercurrent of life.

 

Both the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague National Seashore are located on this shifting, barrier island which embodies both the hidden and unhidden of our world, all waiting to be understood.

Exploration uncovers a wide-open, flat ecosystem used as a respite by migrating birds. Early spring is a particularly busy time for the resting birds. Although you will not swim at the beach, this is the best time to avoid the constant nuisance of biting insects which are notorious for ruining visits after the end of May, particularly if it is a wet summer. Although the upper portion of the Island is in Maryland, these words describe Virginia’s beaches, dunes, freshwater marshes, and maritime forests on the southern portion.

Wild ponies roam free on the land of the National Wildlife Refuge. Their presence is a mystery, either set free to avoid taxes or washed ashore from a Spanish shipwreck. Although no one knows the reason for their presence on the Island, they persevere. The females are separated into gangs, each led by one male. Roaming free, they are robust followers of the old norms of strength and rule.

Before the tourist season begins in April, the horses eat the marsh grasses and can be seen throughout the refuge as you walk, run or bike. The Refuge has only seven miles of paved trails, perfect for beginners seeking easy hikes and short bike excursions. When the grass starts to sprout in the fenced section of the Refuge in April, the males take their females to graze on soft grasses and you can see them from the tour bus run by the Chincoteague Natural History Association (http://www.assateague.org).


Horses in the marsh (Photo by Cindy Cotte Griffiths)

The seasoned tour guides call each pony by name and gossip about their past and current relationships with the males and each other. The social and family history of these horses is laid bare like a not-so-well-written novel, but interesting even so. The horses are smaller than you would expect due to the poor diet available. They eat constantly to survive. Their wild nature and willingness to kick and bite intruders, excites our imaginations after years of familiarity with docile, domestic horses.

The large-scale man-made management efforts in the Refuge create freshwater habitat for migrating water fowl, then migrating songbirds and wading shore birds. Although not noticeable to a visitor, the Park Service manipulates the water levels in fields and ponds in order to create the perfect place for each type of bird.

Both experienced and novice birders benefit from this endless opportunity for discovery. In springtime, large birds are so plentiful throughout the Island that they become common place. We saw egrets, ibises, herons, cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, geese, gulls, hawks, and eagles. Vehicles on the side of the road attract more curious gawkers. Fellow visitors are happy to talk about the bird spotted and where others are located, as if participating in a group scavenger hunt.


Wading Egret (Photo by Cindy Cotte Griffiths)

Six pairs of eagles are nesting and sightings are common. In the Visitor’s Center, a monitor displays one nest so that you can view this formerly endangered species thriving. The parents bring fish for the little ones who grow quickly. The Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel, Terrapin Turtle and Piping Plovers still struggle to survive. The Park Service fences off areas to prevent animals and humans from interfering with the Plovers when they arrive at the end of March. Tree boxes are visible in the maritime forests providing homes for the Squirrels.

Many other intricate pieces of the life cycle are barely visible. Oysters grow hidden beneath the waters. Ghost crabs scurry across the sand. Scraggily pines hold firm in shifting sand against the wind. Nor’easter and hurricane storms change the landscape and destroy nests. Footprints tell the story of the fox attacking the small Sita deer, but all other evidence is gone.

Jutting up above the trees, the red and white painted lighthouse reminds everyone of the maritime past. The stairway spirals round and round as a constant inner challenge to the top. The 192 slight fans of metal lead to the glass enclosure at the top where you can surround the two beacons and see the extensive bodies of water shimmering in every direction.

Lighthouse (Photo by Cindy Cotte Griffiths)

The town of Chincoteague is civilization to Assateague’s natural habitat. To reach the Island you must first go through Chincoteague, which is also an island. The hotels and restaurants provide the necessities, but this is predominantly a beach tourist town serving those who love the outdoors. Choosing fish and crab so close to the shore is wise and healthy choice. These small, standard eateries stick to the basics.

As often is the case with real estate, it is all about location. The newly-renovated Refuge Inn (http://www.refugeinn.com) provides pleasant accommodations right outside the entrance to Assateague. Bikes can be rented in the Inn’s parking lot. Whenever you step outdoors you can visit and feed the ponies in their private enclosure. Indoors the heated, enclosed pool and hot tub always hide in the mist. A complimentary breakfast includes soft waffles made to order, pastries, bagels, cereal, and muffins. The wildlife treasures of Assateague Island beckon travelers to stop, feel the hum of the ecosystem, and take a rest from hectic schedules. The tired fowl find rest and reproduce without knowledge of the complexities that exist in our society to create this inviting habitat. We can however appreciate the efforts and immerse ourselves in the iridescent light reflected off the many surrounding bodies of life-giving water.

More information:

Refuge Inn


Refuge Inn (Photo courtesy of Refuge Inn)

7058 Maddox Blvd.

Chincoteague, VA 23336

888-257-0038

757-336-5511

 

Chincoteague Natural History Association

8231 Beach Rd

Chincoteague Island, VA 23336

(757) 336-3696

Assateague Island National Seashore Visitor Services

7206 National Seashore Lane

Berlin, MD 21811

Assateague Island National Seashore (U.S. National Park Service)