Assateague Pony
Kayaking the Assateague Island Back Country
William G. McArthur, April 2-5, 2001
    Bruce Jenkins posted an invitation on the Jersey Shore Sea Kayak Association (JSSKA) bulletin board on January 3, 2001, asking if anyone was interested in a camping/kayaking trip on Assateague Island in early April. A few of us replied and had a chance to meet at a JSSKA meeting in Belmar on January 27 following a cold paddle of Shark River in which Bruce and I and some others participated. This prelude to the meeting involved standing barefoot in snow to change into wetsuits, so I knew that Bruce was my kind of paddler. Through emails and the JSSKA bulletin board, a group of five emerged who were interested in the April trip: Eric Fleming, Steven Fries, Bruce Jenkins, Bill McArthur, and Mark Rogers. We met for a get-acquainted paddle and meeting on March 11 and did some paddling against a pretty stiff headwind on the Egg Harbor River. This was a good opportunity for us to observe that there were no whiners in the group as we battled the wind and chop on the river. Bruce had prepared a folder for each of us containing charts, tide tables, itinerary, and agenda for our meeting. We discussed the upcoming adventure and decided how to organize the transportation and what each person was responsible to bring. We were to meet again at 7:45 AM on Monday, April 2 at my home which is close to the Cape May/Lewes Ferry which we would board for its 8:40 AM sailing.

    Bruce had created a website for trip preparation which included charts and equipment checklists. Because of the early April date for the trip, we would likely encounter cold weather, but more importantly, we would not encounter any of the infamous Assateague Island insects. This trip is described in the book, Sea Kayaking along the Mid-Atlantic Coast, by Tasmin Venn. Bruce also provided us with a link to the very informative National Park Service website for Assateague Island. Preparing for this trip was an interesting challenge. We were to spend three nights in remote campgrounds with nighttime temperatures in the low 30s, so we needed camping gear and clothing for winter conditions. There is no fresh water at the backcountry campgrounds, so we needed to carry all of the water that we would need. Bruce estimated that we each needed a gallon of water per day for the four day period of the trip. Firewood was not guaranteed at the campgrounds, so we each were to carry two Dura-flame logs in order to ensure that we could have campfires. We also needed to bring whatever food we intended to consume for the four days. A kayak provides a lot more carrying space than a hiker's backpack, but space is still very much limited. In addition, anything packed on or in a kayak must be protected from getting wet. I once heard someone say that all boats leak; this was certainly true for my kayak. At the end of this article I provide a detailed list of the items that I brought on the trip with some comments about the appropriateness of the items. I have collected a good set of backpacking camping gear over the years and have some experience with camping with a bicycle, but I had never camped using a kayak. My kayak, a Necky Dolphin, has three hatches. The center hatch is circular with a radius of about 8 inches; this was the difficult hatch to use. I had to pack items in small plastic pouches in order to store them in the center section of the kayak. I spent a good bit of the afternoon of April 1 test-packing the kayak to see if everything would fit. I had intended to bring six gallons of water, but had to settle for four gallons due to space limitations. I also had to tie my tent and air mattress to the rear deck of the kayak. After figuring out a packing plan, I put all of my stuff in my Jeep Wrangler and tied my kayak on top. I was ready for Monday morning.

Monday, April 2
    It was raining when I awoke at 6 AM even though Channel 10's Live Doppler Radar showed it clear here. I packed the last few items into the Jeep. Bruce, Mark, and Eric arrived around 7:45 AM. Steven came a few minutes later and moved his kayak and gear to Eric's truck. We left for the ferry around 8 AM in the rain which ended by the time we disembarked the ferry in Lewes, DE. We drove our three vehicle caravan to the backcountry office of the National Park. It was partly cloudy, in the low 50s, and with a slight breeze. We went to Ferry Landing and spent a while packing our kayaks. We all wondered if our kayaks would float! We launched* in early afternoon. Conditions were good as we paddled south down Chincoteague Bay. Mark had done a great deal of preliminary work with charts and setting GPS waypoints in his role as our official navigator. We began to experience the typical terrain on the bay side of Assateague Island: salt marsh meadows and islands surrounded by very shallow water. Often these meadows were occupied by the famous Assateague Ponies. We saw numerous Bufflehead Ducks out on the bay. Egrets (Great and Snowy) and Great Blue Herons were plentiful. We saw Ospreys over the water and Hawks over the land. I had brought a fishing pole and supplies with the hope that I could catch a nice fish for dinner one night. I tried trolling* several times and saw some baitfish, but there was no evidence of anything bigger. As we got close to the campground, Eric spotted a pair of Bald Eagles. I saw an American Oystercatcher and some Willets at about the same time. We arrived at the Green Run Campground at about 6 PM. We struggled to haul our kayaks away from the edge of the water. Each of the backcountry campgrounds had a chemical toilet, picnic tables, and a fire ring. The living area of this first campground was a couple of hundred yards away from the water's edge so we unloaded our kayaks and carted gear to the campsite before dragging the kayaks the rest of the way. Bruce is an experienced camper and willingly lent a hand and advice on tent pitching. There were lots of ponies near our campsite and I don't think that they went far away. After we ate dinner, we walked about 1/4 mile to the beach and had a long walk along the water's edge. We saw a weird orange light that looked a bit like a flare out over the ocean. We had a good campfire* when we got back to camp. I was in my sleeping bag by 10:30 PM. The night somewhat cold so I wore socks, long underwear, and a fleece in my sleeping bag which was zipped tight only exposing a small circle of my face. There were interesting sounds of wildlife during the night. We heard geese, ponies, birds, and, just before dawn, two Owls chatted back and forth. We could also hear the roar of the ocean surf as a constant background. In spite of all of these wonderful sounds to listen to, I slept very well during the night.

Tuesday, April 3
     I awoke at 6:11 AM to a cold morning with a dim predawn light. I was the first up in the campsite, so I got a fire going using pine needles as a starter. I had a hard time getting the fire to get to a decent size, so I tossed a Dura-flame log on to sustain it.

    I had brought a luxury item with me: a french press and a pound of freshly ground Starbucks coffee. I knew that Bruce really loved a cup of freshly brewed coffee and so did I. I had brewed coffee before dinner yesterday, this morning, and at every convenient opportunity during the trip. I hate to admit this, but if I was forced to leave behind either all of my food or my coffee supplies, I would have chosen to keep the coffee. The others in the party straggled out of their tents and to the breakfast table. Bruce had brought a two-burner Coleman stove on the trip which made packing his kayak even more difficult, but also provided an effective means for boiling water. There were three smaller stoves which worked less effectively. Each of us had a different strategy for meals. Eric subsisted completely on a variety of snacks and a vast store of "ready-to-eat" meals which heated themselves after a rip-cord was pulled. I had prepared a package for each day's rations in double zip-lock bags. In the package was: a supply of vitamins and herbs, 3 envelopes of instant oatmeal, 1 apple, 2 packs of chewing gum, and a pack of non-fat crackers. I varied the meal for the oatmeal between breakfast and dinner and ate the apple the other meal. For lunch, I always had some crackers. These meal rations worked very well for me.

    The day turned dreary as we broke camp and repacked the kayaks. The wind picked up a bit and it was tough getting into my damp wetsuit again. I felt chilly most of the day. We were all pretty bundled up as we departed mid-morning. Since we were mostly paddling in creeks and bays among small islands and fingers of land, the water was smooth for most of our short trip to our next stop, Pope Bay Campground. The landing at the campground was a fallen-down dock which was awkward for arriving and departing. Our campsite was closer to the water this time, so we could drag our kayaks right up to our tents before unloading. We set up camp, had some coffee, and relaunched our kayaks for an afternoon's paddle around Pope Bay. Mark made a thrill ride out of his launching and successfully slid down across the dock into the water. When I tried to follow suit, I got dumped from my kayak (no picture available). The only consequences of my dip were a bit of embarrassment and a soaked wetsuit. As we neared the duneline at the back of the ocean beach, we saw a modern looking house on top of the dunes looking both interesting and mysterious. A favorite book of mine is the Outermost House, which I reread every year; I could envision living here on the dune in a similar manner. When we got back to the campsite, a light rain was falling. I got out my raincoat, but didn't have to put it on. I was cold, so I donned my down-filled coat and winter gloves over long underwear, jeans, T-shirt, and fleece. After dinner, we took a walk down the beach a mile to the fence at the Virginia state line. The house we had seen from Pope Bay was now visible from the beach just north of the state line on the Maryland side. The moon and stars came out as we walked and I finally warmed up. We had a good campfire, aided by Eric's heroic effort* to cut a large log with my dull hatchet. Steven produced a MagBoy, a massaging device containing two magnet balls. I used the device on a sore spot on my left shoulder and the soreness dissipated. The sound of the surf was especially loud as I went to bed at around 11 PM.

Wednesday, April 4
    I awoke at 6:11 AM. It was pretty cold. I used dead pine boughs with their brown needles still attached and 1 match to build a roaring fire. I rigged a line and hung my wetsuit near the fire to dry it out from my dunking the day before. When Bruce awoke, we strung a line behind the fire to hang wet gear for drying. After breakfast a pony strode into our campsite and defecated in front of us (no picture available). "My house!", he seemed to be saying to us. The northeast wind started to blow pretty hard as we prepared to depart. I wore my rain jacket over my wetsuit to help to break the wind. Mark did some very slick navigating to keep us inside of the islands as much as possible as we paddled north into the wind and chop. My hands stayed cold all day inside of my warmest winter kayaking gloves. We finally had to paddle in more open water as we neared our lunch-stop: Green Run Campground, our first night's stopover. We saw a huge eagle's nest in a tree as we paddled away from our lunch-stop. There were Royal Terns flying over the bay as we went. Finally, after what seemed like a lot of hard paddling against the wind and waves, we saw the sign for Pine Tree Campground and arrived at about 5:00 PM. The wind dropped as we arrived and it became very pleasant. We pitched our tents and ate dinner*. We saw another awesome sunset over Chincoteague Bay just after spotting a Pine Warbler flitting in a nearby bush. We had to walk a half mile to reach the beach and then we walked north along the beach for three miles. The moonlight was dancing on the waves and we saw an increasingly bright glow in the sky from Ocean City, MD as we walked. I saw that weird orange light in the sky once again and still don't know what it is. By the time we returned to camp, we retired without lighting a fire. I heard the distant roar of the surf as I awoke a few times during the night.

Thursday, April 5
    I awoke at 6:08 AM. Everything outside of the tent was dripping wet with condensation. I watched the sun come up reflecting on the misty creek leading toward the beach. I used a Dura-flame log to start a big fire and noticed frost on one of the logs. I listened to the weather forecast on my marine VHF radio: sun, light wind, and temperature in the 60s. I enjoyed hot oatmeal as my stove's butane cartridge died out. Bruce got up around 7:00 AM. We shared some Starbucks coffee. I made three more batches as the other guys arose. I decided to wear my (dry) short wetsuit based on the forecast for the day. Bruce set up his tripod for a formal departure photo* and then we departed at around 10:00 AM. We started on an inside course, guided by Mark, and saw lots of Egrets and Great Blue Herons. The sky stayed bright blue as the temperature went up. I was very comfortable paddling in my short wetsuit without hat and gloves. We landed at Ferry Point around noon. We unpacked our kayaks into our vehicles and went back out to paddle for another hour. It was really gorgeous! Then we came in, loaded our kayaks on the vehicles, and changed. We checked-out at the ranger station where I spotted five Brown Pelicans flying toward the beach. Then we drove to the nearest set of fast-food restaurants on route 50 in Berlin, MD. Eric devoured three meals, I ate some crackers, and the others ate something in between the two extremes. On the way to the ferry terminal, we stopped at the Lewes Bake Shop for some coffee. We had a smooth crossing on the 5:00 PM ferry. I left my gear in the Jeep for the next day. I ate left-over pizza for dinner and welcomed the feel of my bed when I retired later in the evening.

    I unpacked the Jeep, washed up my gear as appropriate, and hung it to dry. I ordered a MagBoy on the Internet to massage the pains I get from paddling, running, and doing aerobics. I had a chance to reflect on the trip and come to some conclusions. Bruce did an outstanding job of planning and leading the trip; Mark did an equally outstanding job navigating. Anyone planning to go on a similar trip should ensure that they have good leadership and navigation available. We were very lucky with the weather. We didn't encounter heavy rains or thunderstorms. The week before our trip, the area experienced a strong nor'easter and this time of year, thunderstorms are very common. Conclusion: It was a very good way to spend a week.

What I Brought
    I had some light experience with camping and some good advice from Bruce to help me in planning what to bring on the trip. Here is a list of the items I brought with some comments.

*Indicates a photo by Bruce Jenkins.
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