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Connecting with Nature on Chincoteague Island

Connecting with Nature On Chincoteague Island

"We need the tonic of wilderness. We can never have enough nature." Henry David Thoreau

Natalie with Captain Barry, 2005Zoe and I were ready for nature's "tonic" as she spread several pictures on the kitchen counter. "Did Natalie really hold that big crab Grams? Was it alive?" My 7-year-old granddaughter's excitement grew as she looked through the old photos of her cousin Natalie's trip with me to Chincoteague and Assateague islands that grace the Atlantic coastline of Virginia and Maryland.

That was back in 2005.  Now, I was looking forward to sharing the same island adventure with Zoe. "I want to do everything Natalie did," Zoe said with wide-eyed enthusiasm. I, too, anticipated another chance to create more memories at the resort island - and even booked a room at the same hotel. Zoe would turn seven in two days, and the trip was a birthday gift.

Come sunrise, off we went! During the three-hour drive,  I mentioned that the island didn't hold the thrills and frills of a traditional boardwalk - no win-a-prize carnival games, no cotton candy, and no carousels with colorful ponies.  "The only ponies you'll see are the wild ones roaming free on the island," I explained.  She was okay with that, as long as we walked in Natalie's footsteps.  Hmm, I sighed in delight! Following those footsteps meant that Zoe was in for a total digital detox!

The islands are known for their glorious sunrises and sunsets, and the unspoiled nature of trails, tranquil beaches, marshes, sand dunes, and forests - all teeming with wildlife.  But the most popular inhabitants are the legendary wild ponies which have roamed the islands for centuries. Visitors have been lured to the islands since 1947 when Marguerite Henry's book, "Misty of Chincoteague," shared the heartwarming story of a real-life foal.

Comfort SuitesAlong the way, we played "I spy," just like Natalie and I did years ago. A few minutes from our destination,  Zoe spied an eagle perched high in a tree. Excited, I turned around and pulled over on the side of the road but couldn't see it.  "That's because I have eagle eyes Grams," she said with conviction.

The Comforts of Home Plus!

When we arrived at Comfort Suites on Chincoteague Island, she was eager to see if our room had a balcony with a water view, like the one where gulls stole a chunk of Natalie's donut one morning.  Suzie, the front desk clerk, welcomed us and was attentive to Zoe, assuring her that "yes," all rooms come with a balcony overlooking the water.

I chose this hotel again, after 13 years, because the staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful during the previous visit.  Nicole Miller, director of sales and services, said the hotel draws many families each year.  "Our main focus has always been customer service. Our staff is awesome.  We send them on field trips and tours so they can understand the experiences and share them with our guests. They put themselves in the shoes of our guests, imagining how they'd want to be treated if they were on vacation. That goes a long way. Each room accommodates up to six guests, which also appeals to families," she said.  The hotel recently won the "Ring of Honor," an award given to the top 1% of all Comfort Suites. "We're at the top of our brand because of our staff," Legendary PoniesNicole said.

Salt Water Pony Tour

That afternoon, we took the Salt Water Pony Tour with Captain Henry, cruising through the back bay of Chincoteague and Assateague islands.  With great insight, he talked about the area's rich history, and of course, the celebrated Misty, as we navigated the bay. Zoe was the only child among the six passengers, and though she showed interest in the captain's historical information,  I don't think her mind really snapped to attention until he slowed down and skillfully maneuvered the boat close to a small herd of ponies.  We watched them snack on salt marsh grass and the surrounding brush, hoping they'd lift their heads for a nice picture, but they just kept on nibbling.

Majestic EagleWe moved on.  A few minutes later, Captain Henry stopped the boat.  "Look up there," he said pointing to a bare tree branch where a bald eagle perched.  But none of us could see it - except Zoe who snapped a few pictures and showed the group where to look.  "I told you I have eagle eyes Grams," she said with pride.   Before leaving, we all spotted the eagle and then cruised on to see another pony herd and several shorebirds. It was a great afternoon on the bay!

Historic Main Street

That evening, we browsed through a few shops on Historic Main Street where we purchased a glittery pair of squishy mermaid dolls; Zoe assured me that they were destined to come home with us. So they did! After a leisurely crab dinner at Don's Seafood Restaurant, we wandered around the waterfront park. Zoe posed in front of the same "Misty" monument that caught Natalie's attention years eaerlier. Four giant Adirondack chairs, each featuring a letter to spell "LOVE" invites those passing by to sit a while and enjoy the seaside. Later, we took a dip in the hotel's indoor pool and then headed to our room. Our plan was to hang twinkling lights on the balcony and listen to nature singing beneath the moon. As I hung lights, Zoe went inside to slip into her pajamas. When I came in, she was still fully dressed, cuddling up with the mermaids with a bit of glitter kissing her cheeks. I imagined her dreams swimming among rainbows in the sea. It was a great day! Smiling, I turned out the lights.

The next morning,  shortly after sunrise, we sat on the balcony and watched the quaint fishing village come to life.  Within minutes, the seagulls came, screeching for a bite to eat - no doubt drawn by the cheese crackers in Zoe's hand.  She was willing to share a few bites - not a good idea because the greedy gulls wanted it all!  It was quite a thrill for Zoe to see the birds close up, but later that day, we learned that it's not good to feed the birds. So, we limited our snacks to the room.

Captain Barry's Back Bay Cruise

Captain Barry greets us at the dock.After a huge breakfast in the hotel dining room, we headed to the bay to meet Captain Barry for his Back Bay Cruise, a hands-on, eco-expedition, and the most talked about tour on the island.  It's easy to see why; the captain is a memorable character. His enthusiasm for the island's history and marine life is contagious, and his sense of humor is amazing!  In 2005, Natalie and I ran into one of his tours while climbing the 175 spiraling steps to the historic Assateague Lighthouse. He kindly invited us to join the group, and we fell in line. Now, 13 years later, I looked forward to taking one of his tours with Zoe.

Captain Barry, often called the "Indiana Jones of Chincoteague," greeted us at the dock wearing his trademark outback hat. Justin and Amy Gindin joined us with their children Hunter, 6 and Tessa, 3. The captain reminded  us to smother ourselves with sunscreen and asked if we were ready "to get our hands dirty and our feet wet." Yes, we were! He asked for volunteers to be his "mates" for the morning. Hunter and Zoe eagerly agreed to take up and put down the anchor at every stop. The captain blew his conch shell horn, like a ceremonial trumpet, and the great adventure began.  It was a surprising thrill to hear the soundtrack from Raiders of the Lost Ark blaring across the bay as we cruised along with a breeze playing on our faces. The weather was perfect, letting us focus on the holy grail of nature, using all our senses.

During the adventure, we got off the pontoon several times to experience the life of a Chincoteague waterman.  First stop - a marsh where we removed our shoes and let the mud ooze through our toes as we explored the area. "Every day is different out here. There are different creatures to catch and release, depending on the tide," the captain said. That morning, comb jellyfish were feeding on plankton at the water's edge. The captain scooped one into his hands, and the kids were delighted to take turns holding the delicate, translucent sea creature.Zoe and Hunter pulling up the anchor

Next up, we saw an abundance of periwinkle snails feeding on cordgrass in the marsh.  Captain Barry explained their importance to the ecosystem and encouraged the kids to slip a few from the tall grasses or a closer look. They were excited about their spiraled-shell finds, and Zoe got hers to come out far enough so we could see its stalked tentacles. She smiled with pride when I called her an "eagle-eyed snail whisperer!"

We cruised on to learn about Fiddler Crabs, little critters that burrow tiny holes into the sand. The captain brought one to the surface to show us how swiftly they move. "See how they go sideways? Lobsters go straight," he said. The kids were curious about the tiny piles of sand close by. "Those are spitballs from the crabs.  They sift through the sediment here to find food, like algae. They eat the good stuff and spit out the rest," he explained.

Further down the bay, the captain showed us how to trawl for fish, using a large net. A school of silverside minnows was feeding on algae and plankton nearby; Zoe and Hunter were amazed at their catch and gently held a few minnows before releasing them back into the bay.  After that, the captain moved on to his crab pots and let the kids hoist one in. He talked about their importance for a healthy bay and taught us how to hold the feisty critters without getting pinched.  Eventually, we landed on Shell Island where we gathered oyster shells along the beach.  Zoe also found a "mermaid's purse," which we learned is the discarded egg case of a skate fish.

Around the last bend, Captain Barry guided the pontoon into shallow water so we could get a good view of shorebirds roosting or foraging for food.  A few weeks earlier, several baby seagulls had hatched, and their parents were swooping and squealing above, chasing away an eagle who was trying to raid the nests.  During seaside vacations, tourists often enjoy attracting the gulls with scraps of food, according to the captain. "Gulls will eat anything, even if it's bad for them and makes them sick. Eventually, they'll become dependent on handouts and can get aggressive. It's best to let nature take care of nature," he said. 

Zoe and Tessa watch a wiggly Fiddler Crab.It was time to head back to the harbor.  During the entire adventure, Captain Barry kept us engaged in bay life activities as he shared his passion for the environment. Zoe was so "plugged in" to nature that she asked if we could "go again" before the captain even docked the boat.  But his cruises for the day were already booked or we would have stayed on board! It's not unusual for his guests, especially children, to yearn for more knowledge after their first time out, according to the captain.

"Many kids today have nature deprivation disorder. It's not their fault; they have more entertainment options through technology, so they're not outside as much. But as soon as they're turned on to nature they're amazed and want to know more. I believe it's today's generation that will help our planet heal. Our parents were unaware, and Baby Boomers were too busy buying things. Kids today might not play outside, but they're more aware of pollution and what's needed to keep the world clean. I want to keep the love of nature alive through my tours," he said.Periwinkle Snail

If you're looking for a family adventure filled with a bit of humor and a wealth of insight on the relationships between living things and the world - all wrapped in a few hours of unplugged fun - then Captain Barry's Back Bay Cruise is a must! It was the highlight of our vacation!

Assateague Island National Seashore

After we disembarked, we savored a seafood lunch at the Ropewalk Restaurant and talked about the cruise. Zoe's favorite part was "all of it,"(although she did talk about the Fiddler Crabs making spitballs for quite a while). Most memorable for me was watching the seagulls fiercely protect their chicks from a hungry eagle.

Later, we headed to the Assateague Island National Seashore where the wild ponies often play on the beach. The ponies were elsewhere that day, but we had a great time paddling out and riding the waves to shore. Shortly before sunset, we drove to the Assateague Lighthouse, a famous landmark which offers a panoramic view of the islands, the wild ponies and beyond.  The forest trail offered an easy climb to the magnificent red and white striped structure gracing the open sky. Zoe wanted to climb the same 175 steps that Natalie once took, but the lighthouse had closed for the day. After the energy we spent at the beach, we probably didn't have the pep to climb the steps anyway.

No more handouts!On to ice cream! We drove to Island Creamery, known for its hand-made frozen desserts and freshly baked waffle cones.  Locals and tourists say it's "a must!" But not for us that night; we were simply too tired to stand in the long and winding lines. On the way back to the hotel, we spotted Mister Whippy, another local favorite, known for its soft-serve ice cream. The M&M Cyclones we ordered, with extra sprinkles for Zoe, were yummy.  But Zoe was too tired to take more than a few bites.

When it was time to pack for home, Zoe tucked a few souvenirs into her suitcase - a pile of surf-tumbled oyster shells, the mermaid's purse she found on Shell Island, and the pair of glittery mermaid dolls. She'll enjoy her island treasures for a long time, but I believe that memories are the best souvenirs you can give a child. I hope Zoe remembers the "tonic of nature" we shared the summer she turned seven on Chincoteague Island.

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