Jim Dawson - July 2010


Camping on Assateague
Jim Dawson


Recently I went on a camping trip to Assateague Island which, is just off Maryland’s coast about an hour and a half from Talbot County. I didn’t expect any calamities, but you never know.
There were four of us: me (the driver), Mike (the fisherman), Mike’s brother Pat (the chef) and Pat’s wife, Holly - who supplied whatever sanity and maturity that the rest of us were sadly lacking.
Astonishingly enough, traffic was light on Rt. 50, so we made good time. We stopped at a roadside stand and stocked up on ultra-fresh sweet corn to go with the steaks that Pat brought. Mmmmm, good!
Then it was over the bridge to the island and the ranger station, where we registered. Several of the Assateague ponies were standing around in the parking lot, half dozing but obviously aware the tourists might have food with them.
There were signs warning us not to feed the ponies, and we didn’t, but obviously enough people had, so these ponies were the product of many generations of moochers, to put it bluntly.
No one is exactly sure how the ponies came to be on the island. Legend has it that they are the descendants of castaways from a Spanish shipwreck hundreds of years ago. The more practical story is that in Colonial days people kept them there to avoid paying taxes on livestock, or having to erect fences. Whichever it was, the ponies have been living there as long as anyone can remember.
I used to think that an island of wild ponies was unique to Maryland, but on a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina some years ago, I was astonished to find that they have their own pony island there, too. They also have their own Spanish shipwreck legend.
But, shipwreck or tax evasion, take your choice. The ponies don’t care. It’s their home, and don’t you forget it.
Since the sparse dune vegetation can only support a limited number of them, each July, tides determining the exact date, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department organizes the famous pony swim. This event is witnessed by as many as 40,000 people each year. In order to thin the herd, select horses are made to swim across to the mainland, where they are sold at auction. Proceeds go to the fire department. Marguerite Henry’s famous book Misty of Chincoteague, written in 1947, is based on this event.
But back to us.
Since it was mid-August and probably peak season, Pat had called ahead to make reservations. We chose to be in the more primitive tents-only section, so for $30 a night we got a campsite to call our own, along with our own standing grill and picnic table. The facilities were a nearby portable toilet, a communal faucet and a small cold-water shower. Emphasis on the cold water.
The parking area was just over the dune and, while it wasn’t really that far away, for anyone not used to carrying camping supplies by hand while slogging through sand and over dunes, the distance grew longer with each trip. And our stuff grew heavier.
We eventually got everything set up, aligning our respective tents according to the lay of the land in an attempt to find places that were as level as possible, but still in the breeze that kept the bugs away. Unlike camping on the mainland, at least there were no roots or rocks to liven up the sleeping experience. But if you’re not used to sleeping on sand, it is not quite as soft and comfy as you might think, even with a ground cloth and sleeping bag. And if you lie there out of plumb on the ground, you’ll spend the night feeling like you’re about to roll out of bed.
After set-up it was down to the beach, which was just a few hundred yards away on the other side of another dune. It was midsummer and a very sunny day, so the sand was astonishingly hot to walk on. But the water was too cold! I know - picky, picky, picky.
Mike was born to fish, so he began casting into the pounding surf and soon caught several croakers. Not having a creel to put them in, he dug a hole just out of reach of the waves that kept them cool, moist and safe until dinner time.
I’m not much of a beach person, and I don’t like crowds, so I much prefer Assateague to Ocean City. Fortunately, I’m in the minority, so this beach wasn’t crowded at all. Not like OC, where you could accidently impale someone just trying to open a beach umbrella.
Incredibly, in the 1950s, part of Assateague was slated for a 5,000-lot development. Talk about building your castles upon the sand! But nature, in the guise of the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, had other plans and swept what houses that had been built out to sea, never to be seen again. And for once, the powers that be made a wise decision and decreed there would be no more houses at Assateague, so the entire island became a National Seashore Park.
The first time I was at Assateague was just after that storm, but before the bridge that connected it with the mainland was finished, so it was a short ferry ride out to the island. You could still see street signs poking up in various places around the dunes, which gave an odd post-apocalyptic look to the place, since there were no longer any houses or streets that needed to be marked. I wish I could remember some of the street names. I wonder what they could have been. Crab Alley? Bounding Main St.? Churchill Dunes?
These days, the cars are parked out of sight on the other side of a dune, so it really did seem like we were in the wilderness. The beach wasn’t crowded because visitors are limited by the available campsites and parking spaces. Some of our beach neighbors had made the most amazing creation: a dragon made of sand lying there on the beach with his tongue stuck out. Here be sand dragons!
Before we knew it, it was dinner time and we were hungry. There is nothing like the proximity of sand, sea and surf to whet the appetite (sorry about the terrible pun).
Pat got the grill fired up, and except for one steak that flipped out of his grip to land smack down in the sand, all went well. But we were on a barrier island made up of approximately five bazillion grains of sand, so where else was a nice, juicy steak going to fall? He washed it off as best he could and reserved it for himself. He even made homemade bread from frozen dough he brought, so we had a delicious dinner - but no fish. Mike had laid his catch on a picnic table in a nearby vacant campsite, and when he went back for them, they were gone. Vanished! Kaput! We never knew what happened. Maybe a marauding sea bird filched them.
At dusk we took a pleasant walk on the beach. Just by chance, we were treated to a full moon that rose pumpkin-like out of the ocean. That, along with the evening breezes and the pounding surf, made it seem like a tropical paradise. The place was just lousy with nature.
Off to bed we all went. Or rather, to tent, but not perchance to sleep or dream. As I lay there, wide awake, I amused myself by watching the translucent image of the moon creep its way across the roof of my tent. And with full moonlight on sand, it was surprisingly bright outside. Then there was that pounding surf. Romantic to think about, but perhaps a tad noisy when one tries to sleep nearby. But I could sleep any old night, best keep awake now just for the experience. I was camping at Assateague! Something I didn’t know I wanted to do until I did it. Oh, I know I may have snoozed occasionally, but certainly not for very long.
I’m not normally a morning person, but I was up at dawn (much easier to do when you’re awake anyway) and strolled down to the beach.
There, I was lucky enough to see a sight I will treasure for the rest of my life. Just by chance, I caught two ponies asleep on the beach, just above the wave line. It was beautiful and comical all at the same time. They were hunched down on their bellies; one pony had its chin resting on the sand while the other had its head lying sideways flat on the beach, while behind them the sun rose straight out of the ocean into a scattering of pink morning clouds.
I had my camera and got some great shots. You’ll never see a sight like that in Ocean City! Soon the ponies woke up and were sporting around on the beach, running in circles and rearing up at each other in mock combat.
Back at camp, I found out that Pat and Mike had been up in the night helping some of the other campers keep the ponies away from the food stores. I hadn’t heard a thing. The ponies I’d seen on the beach had been taking a quick nap, exhausted after a long night of looting and pillaging. I guess I’d slept more soundly than I thought.
We had a leisurely breakfast and sat there sipping coffee while seagulls wheeled overhead in the bright air. Or were they Assateague mosquitoes?
And then it was time to leave. I didn’t realize how much sand I would be taking back with me until I started rolling up my sleeping bag and packing my tent. It was everywhere. Shake it off one thing and you’ll get twice as much of it on something else. And, oh great! I spilled my pills. I noticed that my gear seemed pounds heavier, probably because of all the National Seashore Park I was lugging back home with me.
As we trudged back to the car, there were the two ponies I’d seen on the beach, now wide awake and caught in a mid-morning raid vandalizing one of the other campsites. They had nosed aside the tops of coolers and wedged their muzzles into every available space looking for campsite treats.
We had been warned to keep all food locked up, but these two guys, whom I will name The Artful Dodger and Fagin, would have put any human pickpocket to shame. They’d already trashed most of the campsite while foraging and must have made a good deal of noise in the process. There were pots, pans and tinfoil everywhere.
Amazingly, the campers were still dead asleep in their tent, oblivious to everything. Not so their little dog, a smallish black lab, who was cowering, silent and wide eyed with fear, under the picnic table where it had been tethered. We shooed the ponies off but, judging by the trail of scattered snacks and hoof prints, it was pretty much too late by then. We wondered what the campers would think when they finally woke up. And their poor dog would certainly have to go into therapy after its harrowing ordeal. What were those giant, four-footed monsters anyway?