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January 13 – 16, 2006
Paddlers: Topher Reynolds, Canoeswithduckheads, Don Sandwich, BoozTalkin, Stephen Grant, Paddler01, Mike McCrea
Boats: Onetonnah (20’ wood & canvas), Esquif Prospecteur 17 (Royalex), Bell Chestnut Prospector (BlackGold), Nova Craft Prospector SP3 (Superlinear polyethylene), Clipper Prospector (Kevlar/duraflex).
Up at 4:30 Friday morning I found Topher already unloading gear in my driveway. Racked and packed we motored eastward through the dense fog, arriving at Assateague shortly after the Ranger station opened to pick up our permits.
A slight bit of semi-deliberate chaos in the paperwork process ended with a spare entry and parking permit being issued, a most fortunate coincidence, since CWDH and Don wouldn’t be arriving until well after dark.
Staging gear at the Old Ferry Landing I was thankful that we had the Onetonnah and three Prospectors – packing in all the potable water and a massive load of firewood added to our already abundant supplies. This is not a high-speed, low-drag canoe camping cohort.
Just when it looked as though everything would indeed fit comfortably in our combined 66 feet of boat space it was revealed that Paddler01’s wife had packed Alan’s gear for him. Not only packed for him, but packed two of everything for him; two tents, two tarps, two weather radios, two pairs of pink jammies with fuzzy bunny ears.
Alan was oddly proud of his wife’s packing abilities, reminding us throughout the weekend that Mrs. Paddler01 had selected and packed his gear. How come Diane doesn’t pack my gear for me?
Stashing some of Alan’s excess in the Bell we were off, into the still foggy Chincoteague Bay. Despite the generally foggy conditions, both mentally and atmospherically, we discerned the back sneak route into the Tingles Island site and were soon trudging through the marsh unloading our tonnage of creature comforts.
Camp established, tents and tarps bloomed and a hike to the beach was undertaken. As evening drew on we set out again, swapping canoes for some empty hull test paddling.
This evening trip had a secondary purpose as well; to erect navigation beacons to guide Tom and Don into camp. A combination of cyalumes, bicycle strobes and reflective tape laid out an illuminated path from point to point, stretching from the Ferry Landing to Tingles.
Exiting the ferry channel en route back at sunset Topher and I somehow ditched our paddling companions by taking a peculiar outboard course, out and around the western edge of Great Egging Island. The lighted beacons soon had us back on track and our companions emerged from the darkness as we swung back eastward towards Lumber Marsh.
Back at camp the usual joviality and conviviality commenced, as we huddled around a roaring campfire in the strengthening wind. Near midnight the expected driving rain and thunderstorm rolled in and we rolled off to our wind-buffeted tents.
Unbeknownst to us the storm rolling in coincided with Tom and Don finally rolling up to the put in. Undaunted by the wind, rain and (thankfully brief) lightning our stalwart lads loaded their craft (Esquif Prospecteur 17) and set off to follow the beacon-lit trail to camp.
Saturday morning saw us with a full complement of companions, CWDH and Don having successfully (more or less, a bit less) followed the lighted beacons into camp, arriving, um, before dawn anyway.
With the weather radio predicting the noon arrival of a front featuring west winds blowing 30, gusting to 40 this was deemed a perfect opportunity to investigate the sea worthiness of our Prospector fleet. Not surprisingly that was less than a consensus opinion, but with Topher, CWDH and I constituting a quazy quorum we set off south, Topher poling the SP3, Tom and I tandeming the Esquif.
(I’m hoping Topher will add a few words about the poling capabilities of the SP3, and about poling Chincoteague Bay in general. He was impressive in standing proud throughout most of the weekend)
With a west wind piling water onto the bayside of Assateague the sneak route into Pine Tree was open far to the north and we opted for this easier route to our destination. Securing our boats we elected to dodge the wind with a leisurely hike across the island to the more sheltered leeside of the Atlantic beachfront.
Sheltered indeed. Returning some hours later to the bayside we discovered that NOAA’s prediction was on the money. Blowing 30, gusting to 40. Ooops.
Or perhaps not really oops. We all knew what we were getting into when setting off and I think we were all ready for an epic return trip.
And epic it was. With west wind building waves across the full fetch of Chincoteague Bay one glance told us that we stood zero chance of returning by any normal outboard route. We’d have to sneak the full distance by picking apart flooded guts, channels and basin ponds on the inland side.
The now fully flooded sneak route presented a series of increasingly daunting challenges, beginning with simply getting back into the interior of the island.
The wind and wave was absolutely screaming down the channel towards the interior, and, with Tom paddle hard bow and me buried in a right stern rudder it was all we could do to hold even a minimal ferry angle. If I’d ease off the rudder for even a second the Esquif would come about broadside to the waves as it hurriedly weathercocked.
Downwind ferry successful, into what lee we could find to rest and kvetch and strategize with the map. And then, once more, into the breach dear friends, once more. It wasn’t the siege of Harfleur; it was the blasted besiegement of the bayside.
Fighting our way up the back channel, thankfully unaware that this was, in fact, the easy part, we would pause at each open gut, gaze out at the whitecapped bay and renew our conviction that there was no way, no how we were heading out to open water.
Up the channel ‘til the water ran out, then manhaul the boats overland across the marsh to the nearest inland basin pond. Paddle across the pond and drag some more.
Interspersed with the marsh dragging and pond puddles lay the real challenge, open guts stretching out westward to the windswept bay. Open guts with invariably funnel-shaped mouths, swallowing wind and wave and concentrating into one malevolent hurtling mass of water.
Dragging boats to this churning water’s edge Tom and I would discuss the “plan” for crossing the maelstrom of wind and wave.
Tom: “Right, take a sighting off the meniscus of Zephyrus’ left testicle, towards the hypotenuse of the calamitous contortion of clams and the mountainous mound of mustachioed mussels, we’ll head for a 30 degree angle off the Neptune’s nebulous neutrality”
Mike: “Right. Get in the boat, paddle like hell for the far shore and try to stay upright”
That the wind was blowing 40 mph and I could only hear every other word Tom said didn’t help. Or maybe it did.
Adding to the challenge was the difficulty of navigating from the inland side, an unaccustomed proposition at best, and made more confusing by the flooded conditions in the marsh. I think that the third time I looked at the map and declared a distant duckblind to be the familiar landmark for the entrance to the Tingle Island narrows the fellas begin to suspect that I had no idea where we really were relative to our campsite. T’was true, too true.
That the sun had fully (and seemingly quite suddenly) set before we crossed the last raging gut pushed this outing into the epic category. Topher led, and instantly disappeared into the darkness. Tom and I followed, as best we could, overshot Topher’s landing on the far side and had to come back into the wind. Whatever reserves of strength and fortitude we had left were fairly well expended on that maneuver.
Fortunately we had, unknowingly, managed to land on the backside of our campsite, and one last stumbling drag through the marsh and over the dunes saw us safely home.
Back safe and sound from our epic 3 mile 5 hour windfest, surrounded by our dear friends Sailor Jerry and Mr. Guinness, we hunkered down around a fire until the relentless winds, now blowing 40 and gusting 50 according to NOAA, finally drove us into our tents.
And later drove several of us out of our tents as the wind yanked at rainflys and pulled stakes from the ground. When the windward side of my tent blew free I puzzled for a moment just how I was going to get out and restake it in the dark when the only thing holding it down was me. Fortunately I was using a 2-door, 2-vestibule tent and had spare sand stakes in the vestibule, so I was able to restake the corners without actually leaving the tent. Next time the forecast calls for 50 mph winds I think I’ll run some additional guy lines before retiring for the night. Duh!
Sunday’s forecast, courtesy of Alan “Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” Reid told us in an instant that we wouldn’t be paddling out on this day: Winds still 40, gusting 50, gradually turning from west to northwest to north by nightfall.
But, the good part, the part that makes having a weather radio such a critical piece of equipment for paddling barrier island bays, was Monday’s forecast – winds diminishing throughout the day to 5 mph light and variable by afternoon.
No point in trying the impossible, we’re windbound for the duration of the day, let’s set up a couple of wind break tarps in a small hollow and break out the bocce balls.
What followed was the finest all-terrain bocce tournament yet played. 53 “holes” completely across the island from the bayside to the ocean. Some of the shots had specific stipulations – “Leap over the pile of pony crap, perform an airborne demi-plié, release the bocce ball and land with both feet in the mud puddle”.
There were water hazards, piles of pony poop hazards, even pony hazards. Approaching the middle of the island we espied a couple of ponies ahead and continued the game in their direction, until an object ball shot landed but a few feet away.
At which point the closest pony ambled over, nosed the ball abound curiously, decided that it’s was not in fact edible, turned in disappointment and deposited fresh offering beside the ball. Closest to the object ball wins? Maybe not on this shot.
Another memorable feature of this bocce game was the increasingly hysterical color commentary from all players involved, describing the conditions and play of the course in terms usually reserved for Augusta or the British Open (“It plays left to right, but he’ll have to watch the soft sand just beside the second pile of pony shit”, “Oh, he missed his demi-plié, but he stuck the landing in the mud puddle”).
Game complete, with Topher and I crowned champions of the Assateague Open by a wide margin, we returned to camp to make every effort to reduce our provisions in preparation for the morrow’s paddle out. Since some of the remaining provision were of the distilled variety this task was turned to with gusto.
This gusto did have some familiar consequences, as a certain alliterative associate performed a full Ghendri on Don’s tent, reducing several of the poles to a less than functional pretzel shape.
I have to hand it to Don; he has paddled with the Duckhead twice now, first on a brutally long and cold day of canoe orienteering set up in March and now on a windy January Assateague trip. He’s got good mil-spec gear, a great attitude and an even better sense of humor. Anytime you want to go paddling Don, just say the word.
Monday’s pack up and paddle out was a leisurely affair, as the winds continued to diminish throughout the morning. We pulled out of camp pre-noon, paddled (Topher poled) into the lee of Great Egging Beach and let the benign breeze blow us into the Old Ferry Landing where our vehicles awaited.
A couple of stops on the way home to miss rush hour traffic; The Unicorn Rare and Used Bookstore to browse for old paddling books (successful), Holly’s Restaurant for a heaping helping of cream of crab soup and diner grub (filling) and we were home again, home again just after sunset.
That was a fine trip gentlemen. The Assateague backcountry in January – it could be the start of a new tradition.
Link to Topher’ photos: