Some come for the peaceful beaches, others for the pristine landscapes, but what most people remember most from visiting Assateague are the wild horses — sitting right next to you on the beach.
It was ironic that I was visiting Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge when Ken Burns’ six-part series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” happened to be airing on PBS. As I was watched, I couldn’t help to marvel at how he was once again opening our minds and hearts to a part of American that many of us take for granted. Just as he did with the Civil War and baseball, Burns was making an often overlooked feature of American heritage come alive by focusing not just on incredible visual images, but by breathing real life into the people who made it all happen.
Assateague, where I began my trip, is a barrier island that stretches 37 miles along the Maryland/Virginia shore, and was very close to not being a national park at all. In 1962, after being pounded by days by the infamous “Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962,” the island was a complete loss for the scores of developers hoping to turn the pristine coastline into valuable vacations estates. The federal government soon took the land over from the bankrupt speculators and designated the entire area a national park. Today, sitting on an undeveloped beach where wild horses and deer roam freely, a visitor can look north into the distance beyond the park’s borders and make out the towering hulks of hotels and resorts in nearby towns, grateful that someone had the foresight to protect the space.
Following Labor Day, the ocean waters are still warm but the summer crowds have long departed. Camping is allowed on the Maryland part of the island, and it is probably one of the few places in the world where travelers have the chance to be woken up by one of the wild horses that roam freely, scratching themselves — and often relieving themselves — against your shelter. The island is famously home to a feral population of horses. Descendants of 17th-century domesticated stocks, the National Park Service manages the Maryland herd while, curiously enough, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd.
Those who remember reading Marguerite Henry’s, “Misty of Chincoteague,” during childhood — a telling of the annual swimming of the of Virginia herd from Assateague to Chincoteague Island where the young foals are auctioned off in an effort to maintain the size of the herd — will be glad to know the famous swim still takes place on the last Wednesday of every July. It is a raucous event, with crowds and parades taking part for days.
For the curious, the park service maintains a visitor center crammed with information about the area and the wildlife. There are numerous trails for independent hikers and bikers and, although harder to come by after the summer months, eager guides who will lead nature walks and instructional sessions throughout the park.
On one of our hikes near the beach, a helpful — and perhaps bored — Park Ranger spent a good 20 minutes describing the habits of shellfish and crustaceans, patiently explaining what fish should not be put in a holding tank with which others. He also gave us tips on how to avoid being bitten by the starving mosquitoes: “Don’t smell like a person.” Easier for some of us than for others, but his point was that there are some good natural bug repellents, most of which contain lemongrass that mask our human odors and keep the nasty critters away.
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55 miles south, in the easternmost portion of Virginia, is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the lower half of the Assateague National Seashore. The road to Chincoteague passes through NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility, a center for aeronautic research that operates a small visitor center. The island of Chincoteague itself is home to a touristy village, but since there is no camping allowed in the refuge, it’s little more than a useful stopping spot for food and rest. Despite this, it’s still quite an abomination that the last food service in town, right at the entrance gate to the preserve, is a McDonald’s.
The park service’s stated mission for the refuge is “to protect native and migratory species of wildlife and their habitat,” and does it ever. Wherever you go the bird viewing is simply amazing, with blue heron, snowy egrets, hawks, eagles and a prodigious variety of ducks quickly becoming commonplace sights.
The visitor center is full of exhibits, interpretive sessions, movies and helpful park rangers. One long trail permits vehicles only from 3 p.m. until dusk, the perfect mosquito-free alternative so long as you remember not to roll down the car window for that perfect photo.
Although I usually stay away from guided tours of any kind, we did meet up with a local boatman, a fourth-generation islander with a rich local accent — something like a cross between the deep south and Old English — who took us around the island and peppered his talk with references to what “used to be here,” or “burned down there,” or “went bankrupt over there.” He showed us close-up how shellfish are collected and held in watery tubs until time for harvesting, and he suggested some good places to eat fresh seafood.
The lower Assateague beach area in Virginia is even more pristine than its Maryland neighbor. The horses on this side are fenced in and not allowed to roam freely (read, poop-free sand), and state-of-the-art porta-potties are the only touches of civilization. Off-road vehicles are permitted on the southernmost end of the island, but they don’t interfere with the views of the pelicans and porpoises cavorting in the surf. It is a great beach for reading, nature watching, and especially napping.
Those days communing with nature and watching the Ken Burns series made me curious, so I Googled “National Parks,” and was surprised to find that within a 500-mile radius of my home, there are 140 different parks, monuments, battlefields and historic sites. I have my work cut out for me, but I’d love to explore them all. Who knows what kind of wild animals I’ll run into next time?