The Chincoteauge and Assateauge Islands, the barrier islands which lie offshore of the U.S. mid-Atlantic between Maryland and Virginia, are remote backcountry destination little-known in winter to other than local sika elk and waterfowl hunters, a combination of the obscure and the familiar I discover one morning at dawn when I’m jolted out of sleep by a shotgun’s blunt explosion. I’m kayak-camped on the narrow spine of the island north of where it widens into the broad shoulder of Chincoteague, its cousin. February is a good time camp here, during that brief time between the first flocks of birds’ desultory departures and migratory season’s full flower.
The area where I’m camped is remote. Yet the past few days, my tent has been stealthily trod past by hunters hiking the nearby tidal sluices. After they pass they hunker down in low clumps of brush where the national park service has built numerous duckblinds. Lead shot was banned here long ago, which means they hunters have to shoot more often: steel shot, while less environmentally damaging, isn’t as effective on bringing a bird down. The hunters’ trucks bumped down along the sand road each morning, the beds filled with sacks of decoys.
Two roll past in an impeccably cared-for pickup this morning. The sun had just begun to pry open the lid of the night sky, and a livid orange glow is beginning to seep out from beneath the horizon like gas from a valve. Their little black Lab jumps down from the truck, runs over to me for inspection.
They left Annapolis at two this morning, they tell me. After waiting an hour at the ranger station fifteen miles north, where they put in their number for the duckblind lottery, then drew a spot. They unload their equipment , binoculars and scopes, boxes of ammunition, camo gloves, hip waders, jackets. It takes a hearty toughness to squat out there in the marshes all morning in the cold, as much to lug all that gear back out at day’s end.
Even though I’m on this frigid island also, having paddled here by seakayak five days back, these two seem to have more of a purpose here, companionship as well. After the sun goes down they probably have families to return home to. Me, on the other hand, I’m out here hundreds of miles, several days, a passage in life, almost, from family and home.
The fellows ask me how I got here. I point to my kayak and tent and tell them I’m waiting for a break in the weather so I can paddle back to the mainland. Last night, I tell them, the wind blew so hard the pine boughs swayed and creaked overhead, dropping skittering clumps of deadfall. The wind has quieted but, if the past five days are any proof, only temporarily for a dawn lull. By mid-morning each day the wind has blown like stink, in excess of twenty knots, too much for me to paddle alone. The dog wags his tail. The leaves and brush and bushes and trees around us are motionless, but won’t be that way long.
Shouldering their sacks of decoys and hoisting their guns and daypacks over their shoulders, they slosh off down the sodden path worn into the thicket of dense marshy bramble. The dog barks. The woof is muffled: the density of the woods. This seems a fine way to spend a cold day outdoors.
After they’re gone, I hike out of the woods into the high dunes on the eastern side of the island. I watch the sky spill open. By now, long streaks of red and orange and chunks of blocky cloud have seeped in from beneath the low horizon. Then the looming of the rising sun makes its distinct shift from glow towards dome, overspreads, and begins to expand massively upward. The sea turns yellow, green, blue, and now it’s morning.
The place where I have camped has a harsh, desolate beauty. Some afternoons its atmosphere is as unforgiving and barren, yet enticing and intoxicating, as a desert — boundless — where rain has fallen, leaving the ecstatically opportunistic plants to swell and bloom.
The wind scours the dunes’ thistlely fields and finally begins, again, to comb the tufted brush- mounts growing of the dunes’ hollows. Another hard and dry northwest wind building, another offshore gale. I won’t be leaving today either, from the looks of it.
I wander north, along the beach’s long and sweeping curve. The beach’s seaward slope, its high berm, is unchanging, curving downward. Although I’m tempted to imagine that around the next bend dramatic changes lie in store, a beauty less monochromatic, a landscape less subtle, or even a landscape whose character and aspect are simply other than the same for mile upon mile upon mile, a place with a mood less somber, I’d be callow, naive, or inexperienced to think so. Beaches are what they are, mile upon mile. And the tenor of companionship changes, can change, will change, and should, even when the character of a landscape won’t.