Visiting Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge with kids
The first thing you notice when you start to cross the bridge that connects Chincoteague Island with Assateague Island is the light on the salt marsh and channel beneath it. On a sunny day it feels as if the entire earth is being reflected back into your eyes, as if water and sky are merged, as if you are on the edge of all human existence. The bridge beckons saying, you know the ocean is out there somewhere, come and find it. It says cross me and you just might discover that time starts moving more slowly, perhaps even in reverse. It says maybe on the other side you’ll arrive at the source of all this golden light that permeates the air. It says this is a place of mystery. Who can resist an invitation like that?
Of course we crossed, the first time riding our bikes on the Friday afternoon of Columbus Day weekend. At one point I stopped, waiting for Matt and the boys to catch up. Sensing movement below, I peered over the edge just in time to see the tip of a yellow kayak emerge from under the bridge, its passengers two Mennonite girls in gingham dresses, their dark hair pinned neatly back under dainty white caps. Both of them smiled shyly and waved, their faces full of delight at my surprise.
Please click on photos to see full-size versions.
Ostensibly, once we arrived at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which takes up the entire Virginia portion of the barrier Assateague Island, we were headed for the ocean. It lies only about two miles directly to the south and east of the bridge. But first there was a striped lighthouse to climb, a lighthouse that nearly two centuries ago was next to the place where the open sea and the inlet to Chincoteague Island met. Now, thanks to the relentless motion of said sea and sand, it instead faces the channel between the islands. Its 142 feet are less dominant in the flat landscape than you might expect, perhaps because of the tangle of Loblolly pine trees that surround it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns the lighthouse. It is still in use and is gradually being restored. I don’t want them to repaint the weathered candy stripes.
The lighthouse is sculptural and graceful inside. Over 500,000 pre-shaped bricks were brought to this remote place from Philadelphia in the 1860s so that the sun might be allowed to enter and illumine the walls and curving stairs. Why else would a lighthouse need windows but for beauty’s sake?
At the top, large, lazy wasps scared my family back inside, but I ignored them, greedy for the view.
Resolute to make it to the sea, which I had only just glimpsed, we once again climbed on our bikes and headed through the refuge up Beach Road.
But before we got very far, we found ourselves on the edge of Black Duck Pool, where, as if solely for us, egrets posed, preening and brilliantly white against the shining water. A great blue heron meandered and fished, and off in the distance, a flock of the island’s wild ponies grazed under a stand of trees. Goldenrod swayed in the breeze.
A bit further along the road we picked out a family of painted turtles, sunning themselves on a tangle of logs. What to do but stop and look? And again when we reached Snow Goose Pool on our way toward the ocean, we found ourselves compelled to pause and observe the birds, the marsh, the sky. And then suddenly it was late, and we had evening plans. There would be no beach for us that day.
Saturday afternoon brought a new way to explore the refuge, as passengers on a shuttle bus tour run by the Chincoteague Natural History Association. At first I resisted riding in a container – I wanted once again to be out in the open with the birds and that great swoop of blue sky. But I soon discovered that the tour offered me many of the lessons I needed to understand this place including a long list of the island’s full or part-time residents: Monarch butterflies; white-tailed deer; Sika elk; diamondback terrapins; mud, spotted, box, snapping, and painted turtles; and black rat and hog-nosed snakes; to say nothing of many birds including bald eagles.
As we entered a portion of the refuge only accessible by tour buses, our driver pointed out the wild bayberry, singed sumac, Virginia creeper and the shiny orange persimmons that grow along the sides of the road. We saw open swaths of land that were once, long ago, farmers’ fields, back when people lived on the island too. We learned that when the island was abandoned by humans, the villagers floated a number of their houses across the channel to Chincoteague where you can still find some of them in use.
As we drove, our guide asked us to speculate about the provenance of the island’s wild ponies. Did they arrive via a Spanish shipwreck as legend says or simply because ornery farmers didn’t want to pay taxes on their livestock and found the island a convenient hiding spot? The answer was immaterial to us all once we happened upon the actual horses grazing by the side of the road. Our guide told us not to be fooled by their calm demeanor – the reason you see so many tails is that the horses turn their backs to you so that they can run away if they need to. Their bellies are round and swollen from the salt in the sea grass that they eat constantly.
The horses are owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which once a year in July swims them across the channel to Chincoteague where an auction is held to raise money for their care and also to cull the herd so that it stays at a sustainable number. These animals are like neighbors to the Chincoteague residents who know their names (we saw Ace and Mystery on our drive) and even some of their personalities.
Sunday dawned as cold and wet as the previous two days had been golden and warm. Even with a leaden sky and a cold, salty wind, the bridge to the refuge still beckoned us, although this time we crossed it in our car, finally driving out to the beach past cormorants and herons and egrets and possibly even a wheeling vulture (never have I felt my ignorance about the natural world more keenly than that weekend). It was too chilly and wet to enjoy the beach properly, but at least we could finally claim to have seen the open ocean, gray and seething as it was. We also saw the large silver tail of one of the endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels as it ran across the road behind our car – without our refuge tour on Saturday we wouldn’t have even known to be looking for it.
As we headed back toward Chincoteague, I found myself making a list of resolutions for our return: More time on our bikes. A good long walk on that famously shifting sand. The purchase of a birding book and new pair of binoculars.
Like these pictures? Like The Mother of all Trips on Facebook and see more!
For without a question, we will return to this place, which tells a continually unfolding story. It is not a place to visit once and then check off your list. Even over the course of a couple of days it became clear that you should dive into the refuge, embrace it, and return repeatedly if you can. It is as much a refuge for world-weary humans as for the migratory birds and wild ponies and other plants and animals it protects and nurtures. This is a place to revel in the generosity of nature, where a short ride across a bridge is all you need to be initiated into an island’s secret life.
- The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is open every day; exact times vary according to the season. It’s free to walk or ride your bikes into the refuge from Chincoteague; there is a daily use fee for cars. The refuge has a number of different roads and trails, some of which are only accessible on foot. Since it is very flat and the area is relatively small, everything is manageable even for young children.
- The refuge has two visitor centers, a larger one close to the entrance and a smaller satellite center out by the beach. The larger center offers a number of interactive exhibits about the refuge, including an “Eagle Camera” that offers a real-time chance to see one of the island’s bald eagle nests. Videos about the refuge – include one that tells the story of the island’s wild ponies – are available for viewing on demand.
- The Assateague Lighthouse is open from the beginning of April through the end of November; days and hours vary according to season. There is an entrance fee to climb up to the top. If your children are like mine, they will enjoy counting the steps. (I won’t spoil it by telling you exactly how many there are.)
- Two-hour bus tours of the refuge are run by the Chincoteague Natural History Association from mid-April through November. Although they are very informative, I wouldn’t recommend them for active toddlers, as you don’t get off the bus at any point. If your child really wants to get close to the ponies, this is an excellent and safe way to do so.
- Although the abundant wildlife on the refuge is definitely visible to the naked eye, you might also want to invest in a pair of kid-friendly binoculars. This is an especially good idea if you want to make sure you get a good look at the ponies, which may congregate some distance from the roads and trails.
Many thanks to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission for covering many of the expenses of our Chincoteague trip including the Assateague Lighthouse admission and to the Chincoteague Natural History Association for providing us with tickets for a tour of the refuge.