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Trip Report – Assateague April 2013




http://s1285.photobucket.com/user/CooperMcCrea/slideshow/Assateague Aril 2013

Wednesday April 3
Back at the old same place, my favorite place on earth. In the old same way, timed so that the Stars and Stripes were once again going up the flagpole as I arrived at the Ranger station.

The Ranger remembered my name, offered the now customary “Does your wife know how long you are staying?” and asked if I had my sail. Permitted and toot sweet down to the landing. And back to the Ranger station when I realized that amidst the banter I had not received a parking pass.

Grab the pass and once again toot sweet back to the landing, packed and paddling out into the windy, open bay, blowing NW 15-20 with gusts to 30 later in the day. I won’t be sailing in today, but the wind forecast looks promising for the next week.

Out past Great Egging Island, chuckling to myself about the “Do you have your sail?” question. As if I’d ever paddle Assateague without a sail. Of course I have a sail, and the mount is permanently attached to the boat.

And the Y attachment is back in the car. So much for all this toot sweeting. Back to the car.

The paddle in was another usual NW wind adventure. Out into the bay on a manageable SW angle against the chop and whitecaps, towards the marker the 2 miles out, turn and surf back SE.

Turn and surf back SE and holy moly is the Monarch weathercocking on the waves. I know the Monarch is sensitive to gear on the decks and I have some.

A lot of some. I have a number of gear experiments along with 9 days worth of food and water. The windchair is strapped to the front deck and a ThermaRest to the back. And I have an old VauDe internal frame backpack lashed high atop the gear behind the seat.

It wasn’t the toughest Assateague paddle, but it was in my top 10. The reward is worth it; there is but one other party in the Assateague backcountry, a group of 4 paddled into Tingles Island.

Pine Tree is empty, and should be for several days. There is some wind and rain in the forecast as a front moves through and the extended forecast calls for south winds in the teens to twenties.

Thursday, April 4
Rain overnight, drizzle in the early am and then partly sunny and windy. Camp is well sheltered, as is the insulated windchair. I forget how windy it is until I exit the windchair and walk out into exposure.

I now have 3 gallons of freshwater in a bucket, courtesy of the parawing and last night’s hard rain. I am amply supplied with fresh water and have no immediate need, but I’ll screw the lid on and save it for later.

A walk out to the beach and a stop to fetch the hidden “Assateague Cup” on the way back. The Assateague Cup is a 12oz Pilsner glass found washed up in the marsh last January. It has a 50’s look and was probably debris from some old hunt camp. When I left it hidden last January I also left a can of Pale Ale to keep it company.

Still palatable after a few freeze-thaw cycles.

Back at camp I geared up for a Map Quest. My oft-revised Assateague Paddler’s Maps are in need of extensive correction. Many of the duck blind structures washed away during hurricane Sandy, including my favorite wind respite, #14.

I launched intending to visit and mark the condition of a few nearby blind locations and discovered a suitably SW sailing tailwind. Five miles later I had marked every blind site on the sneak routes between Pine Tree and the Ferry Landing launch.

It was now late in the afternoon and 5 miles back to camp. Into the wind. I made it back to camp well after sunset, and by the time I was out of my paddling clothes the stars were out.

I had neglected to prepare tinder and kindling for a fire and it had rained hard overnight. I sacrificed the Style section of Wednesday’s Washington Post and some scrapings from a paraffin fire starter brick and was soon warm and dry. I guess I’ll never know if Beetle Bailey finally snapped and fragged Sarge.

Friday, April 5
A little post-breakfast saw work provided a tidy firewood pile and I will not be caught short today, or tomorrow. The early Assateague flies are out, and it could get interesting later in the week as it warms into the predicted 70’s.

I have company. The occupants of site 1 are a mystery. No boat, a bizarre tent (twice as tall as it is wide, and bent like a question mark), an assortment of odd gear including a surf rod lying in the sand. And whoever is on the site is never present.

There are a lot of post-Sandy environmental experiments back in the woods and along the marsh guts; USGS stuff, NPS stuff, weird DIY stuff from various University investigators and students. I had seen a Ranger truck shortly before site 1 was occupied and assume the occupants were thus delivered. How else would that odd assortment of stuff have suddenly appeared?

It is a fine windy day for some my own experiments. I try two different “end caps” to augment the parawing, neither of which are satisfactory. The flat 8x12 tarp is awkward to erect and performs poorly as a wind shield. The old Eureka Annex, which works perfectly with the center lined Tundra Trap is insufficient enclose one end of the wing.

I’ll have to come up with a plan B to enclose one end of the wing.

A mid-day hike out to the beach and an afternoon day paddle complete another day of Assateague solitude. I still haven’t seen my neighbors on site 1.

Saturday, April 5
Long hike day. I always bring a small nylon daypack for day hikes. It packs down to nothing, but it isn’t very comfortable and doesn’t hold much. Today’s experiment is the old Vau De Asymmetric 40 internal frame backpack.

40L seems like overkill, but I filled it with a full day’s worth of supplies and gear. With that much food and fluid there was no turning back, and I spent the day wandering the sandy fringe of stunted pine at the eastern edge of the loblolly forest just behind the inner dunes.

A long day of wandering ensued, staying within the wind protection of the forest edge, and a dusk return to camp was followed by a night of lingering near the fire. The weather radio wind forecast for Sunday is the model of consistency: morning 10-15 south, afternoon 10-15 south, evening 10-15 south, night 15-20 south.

It beckons an early morning paddle south to Andy’s Beach or the old Jim’s Gut site, making map corrections on blinds 17 and 18 along the way, followed by a fast sail back to camp.

Sunday, April 6
Assateague is my favorite place on earth, but my favorite place on Assateague changes from trip to trip.

Sometimes it is hunkered down, sheltered in camp beside a fire. Sometimes it is wandering afoot , following animal tracks through the inner dunes by moon light. But most often it is day paddled away from camp to set out the windchair on a sheltered bayside beach to sit and listen and watch the tide move.

No people, no sound except the wind in the pines and the surf on the beach. Birdlife galore; every view of the sky or spartina grass offers a bald eagle, osprey, marsh hawk or egret.
Sometimes the great thing isn’t to travel, sometimes it is to sit quietly, watch and listen.

Eventually I do move, to prowl the marsh edge, progging for things interesting, useful or edible. I found all of those within 100 yards of my wind protected gut. An abundance of mussels, a desiccated Diamondback, the odoriferous remains of a cow nose ray and a rich clam bed.

I’ve had some memorable pots of clam and mussel chowder on Assateague, and with a surf rod or bay rod and a clam rake a man could live high on the fleshy hog hereabouts.

It is interesting to note what pops visually as the angle of the sun changes. A couple of hours ago the white roof of the vault toilet at Pine Tree sparkled like a beacon two miles distant. It is now indistinguishable to the naked eye and the duck blind structures further distant along the Tingles Channel have risen to dark mirage-like prominence, shimmering along the horizon as the tide recedes and the white sand beaches begin to repopulate the western shoreline.

I’m rapidly losing water depth and gaining wind speed. Time to pack up and go.

DAMN THAT WAS FUN. Two miles in just under 20 minutes. 6mph doesn’t sound like much until you do it in a small boat in wind and wave. Arriving back at Pine Tree I finally met the folks on site 1, two students from Salisbury University, Jared and Alex, who hiked in. I would say “backpacked” in, but neither actually had a backpack, instead carrying their gear in a variety of shoulder slung duffel bags.

Their tent was missing a pole (hence the question mark shape), their sleeping bags were giant cotton batting monsters bundled loosely and tied to the duffels, their surf rod turned out to have only 30 feet of line on it, their (empty) water containers were duct taped to the duffels and every time they picked up their “packs” something fell off.

They were hale and hearty and have a fine time. As they were packing up that afternoon for the hike out I invited them to stop by camp for a copy of my Assateague map. They stopped by and we shared a little of this and that and, upon hearing that the mussels were edible, they returned to the bayside and came back with a quart pot full, steaming them over my fire.

Sensing that they were hungry I pulled out everything that could possibly be added to a mussel meal. A can of New England clam chowder. A can of whole new potatoes. A can of black eyed peas. A can of vegetable chili.

Alex, the cook amongst them, shucked the steamed mussels, added them to all four cans of extra provender and the three of us (mostly them) ate every morsel. It was pretty damn tasty. Those boys were hungry. Thirsty too, as we proceeded to put a dent in my remaining beer and bourbon supplies.

Towards dusk, still dawdling around the fire with Jared and Alex, who had intended to start hiking out hours ago, a voice behind me bespoke “Hi Mike”.

Friend Chip Walsh and companion Andy. When they had arrived at the Ranger station they had asked if anyone was in the backcountry and, being told “One guy on Pine Tree for 9 days” had inquired “McCrea” and received an affirmative.

We now had three aging retirees and two twenty somethings, all great spirits. Late into the night Chip called it quits, and rounding midnight the boys allowed that they should probably start hiking out so they could make class the next day.

Having filled them with food I filled their bellies and canteen with water for the hike out, and concurred that if they simply kept the ocean on their right they would eventually find the parking lot with their car.

What I later heard from Chip, and from Andy, and thought myself was “I admire their spirit”.

Everyone starts with what they have, and refines the art from there. Well done boys, well done.

Monday, April 7
The weather radio forecast is astounding, and not what I am prepared for. Monday, highs near 80f, nighttime lows mid-50’s, Tuesday mid-80’s, Wednesday warmer still. SW winds 10-15 for the rest of the week.

I have one tee shirt, no shorts and a winter sleeping bag. WTF?

No matter; the ticks and mosquitoes are just barely out and for a change I begin to seek out shady spots exposed to the breeze. It takes me a while to figure out that my ass is damp because I am still sitting on the insulating Ridgerest pad in the windchair.

Eventually the hammock beckons, and I finish Gabrielle Walker’s “Antarctica”


and begin David Roberts “Alone on the Ice”


(Both highly recommended)

Tuesday, April 8
With both vestibules wide open last night to catch the breeze the low of 50 was pleasant with the winter bag unzipped and draped over me. I began shedding wake up clothes at 8:30 and by 10 was down to lightweight pants rolled to the knees, tee shirt and flip flops.

Andy and Chip stopped by on their way to the take out, wearing, respectively, a wet suit and full dry suit. I nearly suffered heat stroke just looking at them.

As I watched them paddle steamily away I realized that I should have offered to take their trash or other expendables, so that Chip at least would have room to stow the dry suit. They’ll have a wind assisted ride back, but there is no shade out on the bay.

It is fully 80 degrees in camp, and I drop a thermometer into the channel. Even a foot down the water temp is 58. You couldn’t get me into a drysuit today at gunpoint.

Back to the shaded hammock to finish Alone on the Ice. Jared and Alex have left me a slender volume of fiction; fortunate because I burned the remains of last Wednesday’s Washington post last night.

Wednesday, April 9
Slow down, you move too fast, got to make the morning last.

Up with the dawn and I don’t want to leave until near high tide at 1:00pm. It may be a 3-cup morning dawdle while I slowly pack up and move gear down to the landing.

Time to take stock. Between the always-filled canteens and the remainder of the dromedary bag I have perhaps 4 quarts of water left. One package of freeze dry (beef stew, my least favorite). One cup of instant coffee.

And four packs of instant oatmeal. (I couldn’t imagine choking down another oatmeal this morning – I need to start bring grits and hot sauce or dried fruit as an alternative)

I could eek out another day, but with a high near 90 freaking degrees today I want to be out on the water where it’s cooler.

I waited until high tide and then sailed from Pine Tree to the Ferry Landing with the perfect tailwind. Zero north outboard past the Tingles Tump, 30 NE to the old ferry landing launch, done solely by maintaining a deck compass heading with the rudder while making further corrections to the annotated paddlers map.

Map Quest Epilogue:

I need to make dozens of post-Sandy changes to my Assateague Paddler’s Map. Many of the duck blind structures are gone and will not be replaced. The long impoundment sneak route is shallower than ever with overwashed sand and only useful at high tide combined with strong westerly’s. Various NPS backcountry markers have been moved or replaced.

Thanks to a kindly NPS Ranger who was scouting the pony herds I know the locations of additional derelict hunt camps. And I still need to spend more time between Pope Bay and Green Run along the south end of the island, annotating maps.

I guess I gotta go back. Next fall/winter that is. The tick and mosquito population is about to pop at Assateague, and I’m gone ‘til next November at the earliest.
Jun 12, 2012
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Appleton, Maine
"Sometimes it is hunkered down, sheltered in camp beside a fire. Sometimes it is wandering afoot , following animal tracks through the inner dunes by moon light. But most often it is day paddled away from camp to set out the windchair on a sheltered bayside beach to sit and listen and watch the tide move."

I grew up close enough to the south shore of Long Island to remember days like that myself. I enjoyed that report, your hospitality to the college guys was neat, now I'm going to open a can of clam chowder and try to grab the moment!



Assateague Oceanfront Thermocline

Assateague Oceanfront Thermocline

During Tuesday’s 80f hike on the beach I experienced a beachfront thermocline. With the warm south breeze blowing directly parallel to the oceanfront there was an abrupt and distinct temperature line along the beach.

Within 20 yards of the surf it was cool, damp and comfortable as the wind carried off the Atlantic. Beyond 20 yards from the surf it was hot and dry as the wind blew across the sunbaked sand and dunes.

The line was very distinct. Two steps to the left, cool and damp, two steps to the right, hot and dry.

I’ve encountered this once before at Assateague, with a mid-Island fog that was literally a visible wall. I could stand a few feet away and see a vertical wall of fog in the moonlight. If I walked three steps east I was in it, damp with limited visibility. Three steps west and it was starry night dry and clear.

I love weird weather stuff.
Oct 5, 2012
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Genesee Valley, Western NY
I have never experienced a vertical thermocline. I would think I'd have to run in an oscillating parabolic wave along the beach...I'm in, now I'm out, I'm in, now I'm out. I have experienced a horizontal line. Head and shoulders were above the fog yet I could not see the canoe Iwas sitting in.

Weird weather is cool.


I have never experienced a vertical thermocline. I would think I'd have to run in an oscillating parabolic wave along the beach...I'm in, now I'm out, I'm in, now I'm out.

That is essentially what happened at first. I was walking on the beachfront at low tide on the firm sand close to the ocean in the cool and damp and suddenly felt a blast of hot air and thought to myself “Well, that was certainly odd”. And then it happened again, and then suddenly it was all hot and dry.

The oscillating wave was only a few feet across. It took me a bit to figure out that I had been “walking the line” for a spell and then had crossed fully over into the hot zone as I edged a few feet further up the beach.

I have experienced a horizontal line. Head and shoulders were above the fog yet I could not see the canoe Iwas sitting in.

I get that a lot on my local homeriver. It is dam released from tubes deep at the bottom of a large reservoir and comes out at around 55f year round. On hot summer mornings there is often a 3 or 4 foot layer of dense fog hanging above the water. (An added benefit is that the top 5 miles or so rarely ices over in the winter).

When the temperature and dew point are just right it makes for a special dawn paddling phenomenon. I know that river very well, but it is still disconcerting to hear the sound of rushing water and not be able to see if it is a riffle or small drop, or a new riverwide strainer looming unseen in the fog.

I’m often in the company of polers on that river, and looking ahead to see their ghostly upper torsos makes for an enjoyable apparition. That poler’s above-the-fog perspective is one of the few times I wish I had the durability to occasionally fall into or out of the canoe (my durability, not the canoe’s) to stand and pole.