Sunday, November 10, 2013

Assateague Island

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Since I've been on a vacation photo kick lately, here's another slideshow from coastal Virginia, this time from the south end of Assateague Island National Seashore and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge next door. After I checked in to my Chincoteague Island hotel, I decided I wanted to at least dip my feet in the Atlantic a little, so off to the beach I went. Assateague Island is the ocean-facing barrier island due east of Chincoteague Island, and the two are separated by a channel of shallow water and salt marshes. So it's a bit of a drive, with a few sights here and there to stop and take photos of, which I of course did. At the beach itself, well, I'm not really keen to be That Guy who lugs a big camera around at the beach, taking photos of who knows what. That's right up there with White Van Metal Detector Guy in the rogues' gallery of suspicious-looking beach denizens. So I switched to phone photos, and didn't take a lot of those either, since I actually don't like having people in my photos and it was hard to avoid there.

Atlantic barrier island beaches like this are all variations on a simple theme: Long flat straight expanses of sand, a low rise behind the beach with some low shrubs (assuming developers haven't had their way with the place), and behind that a wide expanse of salt marsh between the barrier island and the mainland. So the beach here reminded me a lot of the Canaveral National Seashore down in Florida, which I already had photos of. I did the toes-in-the-nice-warm-Atlantic thing though, which was the main goal here. Ahead of photos, even, if you can believe that.

If the names "Assateague" and "Chincoteague" sound familiar, it's either from avidly reading my other blog posts here of late, or more likely from the famous series of young adult books about the islands' wild ponies. I never read any of the Misty books as a kid, but I seem to recall grade school classmates being obsessed with them. And then begging their parents for ponies of their own, probably. The books, while fictional, were based roughly on real people, horses, places, and events. If only I'd done a little more research ahead of time, I would've learned that two of the famous horses, "Misty" and "Stormy", were taxidermied and are now on display at the ranch where they once lived. This seems like a hilarious bit of macabre bad taste. If only I'd known, I would have carved out a bit of time to go visit the former children's book stars in their, um, retirement. I mean, where else can you see something like this? It's not like they've taxidermied the former stars of the Harry Potter movies, at least not so far. Not giggling would be the hard part. Or at least not giggling to a disruptive degree.

Every year, ponies from the island are herded and made to swim across the channel to Chincoteague Island (even though there's a perfectly decent bridge they could walk across) to be auctioned as a fundraiser for the local fire department. This has become the area's largest annual tourist event. I understand the need for some sort of herd management. As in the Western US, wild horses are an introduced species with no natural predators. Furthermore they're an introduced species that the public has become attached to, so removing them isn't a viable option. Thanks to the lack of predators, the unchecked population grows until it outstrips the local food supply, and the public won't stand for starving horses any more than it would accept the absence of horses. So they've taken to auctioning "excess" horses every year, to keep the herd size manageable. (Which is what the BLM does in Oregon and other western states, somewhat controversially.) The pony herd on the Maryland part of the island (kept separate from the Virginia ponies by a fence) is on birth control, believe it or not, which keeps the size of the herd down in a somewhat less picturesque way.

This business about ponies is not really a digression, because one of the books ("Stormy, Misty's Foal") centers around the real-life Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which also played a key role in the protection of the National Seashore. Much of the island had been platted for development, roads had been built, and some construction had begun when the storm swept through and flattened everything. Instead of rebuilding everything at taxpayer expense, which is what usually happens, the federal government acquired the island and handed it over to the National Park Service to run as a public beach park. Possibly this was due in part to sentimental attachment to the ponies. It's not clear what would have become of them if Assateague Island had been converted into vacation homes and trinket shops.

The adjacent wildlife refuge protects an extensive area of salt marshes, along with the historic 142' Assateague lighthouse (both of which I have photos of), and inland parts of the island where the local pony herd tends to hang out, which apparently are closed to the public. The lighthouse was closed for renovation when I was there; I didn't really mind since I've never really had a thing for lighthouses. I'm not going to make fun of people who do, though; I have wayyy too many posts here tagged 'bridge' for me to go around casting that particular stone.

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