Paddling North to Assateague's Pope Bay
November 11-14, 2004

By Chip Walsh with pictures by Scott Brody

When paddling to Pope Bay, bring your most detailed chart / topo, something with a scale 1:50,000 or better. You might be able to find the Pope Bay site by dead reckoning, and then again…

On the way in we sailed with a moderate southerly breeze pushing us from Chincoteague out through Oyster Bay, Assateague Bay, and west of most of the islands in Chincoteague Bay. Even with good maps, it took Greg Welker’s GPS to confirm we were paddling east between the correct set of islands. Then Sherry Brody’s eagle-like eyesight and binoculars picked out the sign for Pope Bay camp site over the marsh.

I nominate Pope Bay as the most interesting of the four paddling destinations at Assateague. The area is a virtual labyrinth of marsh islands, wooded islands, cuts and creeks.

The Pope Bay Five
Greg Welker, Scott Brody, Sherry Brody, Chip Walsh, and Steve Grant at Fir Landing Boat Ramp

The camp site itself sits on a 50-yard wide pod of land at the junction of two creeks. The marsh edge is cut down at the landing leaving a sloping "ramp" of sand and grass very close to the tent sites. There is a fair amount of brush and vegetation to provide limited shelter from the wind and guy points for erecting tarps. For shelter, tarp hanging potential, and wood foraging, I rate the site as only fair, the worst of the four paddle-in sites at Assateague. The Pope Bay site is closer to the Ocean than the other three sites, but if you follow the road it won’t seem so because the road takes a half-mile jog to the north before it cuts through the dunes.

Pope Bay Campsite

There was a new moon during our trip. We had two clear nights of spectacular starry sky. I stepped away from the fire Thursday night to see how dark it would be once my eyes fully adjusted. I was surprised how well I could see. Steve joined me and we walked out to the beach without tripping over anything, bumping into trees or stepping in puddles. The sky is bright at the horizon line on all sides but east, and particularly so to the north (Ocean City), so I conclude that light pollution has changed the darkness of night at Assateague.

Greg left on Friday and I paddled part way out with him. We went south through Pope Bay, which lies between Assateague and Pope Island. There's a "secret" passage, a back door, on the west side that lets you paddle south inside Pope Island. At the far south end of Pope Island we went west and then north out Virginia Creek, which leads out to Chincoteague Bay south of the State line. I bid safe passage to Greg as we passed an extreme example of the many dilapidated buildings we passed out in the marshes. This one had rotted down to the foundation. It took a few looks to recognize the most prominent features were the rusted iron frames of two beds around which the walls had all vanished.

We took this same route out on Sunday, only continuing out Virginia Creek and turning south across Calfpen Bay towards Rugged Point and Chincoteague beyond. All of us agreed this is some of the prettiest paddling Assateague has to offer.

North into Oyster Bay
Putting our backs to Chincoteague as we head north into Oyster Bay
White house and ponies at the north end of Assateague Bay
After getting away from Chincoteague, we passed 10 - 20 structures on the marshes, most in various states of disrepair. This one at the northern end of Assateague Bay, looked in pretty good shape. Ponies complete the picture.
Chip and Greg on Chincoteague Bay
Steve on Chincoteague Bay
Chip getting ready to go clamming
On a rainy Friday, Chip and Scott went out clamming in Pope Bay (pictured at left). We only found a few clams, but mussels were plentiful.

Below, Steve and Chip followed the creek next to camp until a duck exhibiting territorial defensive behavior drove them back.

Creek proggin on a Windy Saturday
Landing at Pope Bay
At Pope Bay, the boat landing is only steps away from the tent sites. Proximity to the water makes loading and unloading easy, but leaves the site more exposed to wind.
Beach Scene
The beach is close, too. When the wind wasn't roaring, the sound of the surf was constant throughout the campsite and out on Pope Bay.
Could be condos--the old road
At left, Sherry pauses on the old road between the marsh and the dunes. The pavement is still exposed here and there along the road. Just think, had the developers had their way, this road would look like the main drag in Ocean City, six lanes wide, condos and fast food on each side.

Below: Scott

Who's this guy?
Powering up a cut towards Green Run

Left: Steve Grant powers against the wind in a cut in the marsh between Pope Bay and Green Run.

On returning through Oyster Bay to Chincoteague we passed a fellow sitting on a dock looking at a sunken run-about. He told us it sank in Friday night's storm. At the Fir Landing dock, a waterman was bailing 5-gallon bucket after bucket from his boat. He had noticed our cars had been parked there severeal days and was amazed we'd been out in that storm. "Where y'all been?...You were camped! In that storm!" Another concerned citizen had notified the CG that we had not returned. Friday's storm must have been a butt-kicker at Chincoteague. It didn't seem that bad to us. Heck, we even had fun!

Launch info: Fir Landing off Deep Hole Road in Chincoteague. Access is to the north end of Little Oyster Bay. You need to pick up a parking permit from the town of Chincoteague, which is available from the Community Center, if it is open or the police station if the Community Center is closed. Both the Community Center and Police Station are conveniently located on Deep Hole Road before you get to the turn for Fir Landing. The permits cost $5.00 for a week. On November 11, there was room for us to park right along Fir Landing Road at the launch. I was a little worried that our vehicles might be at risk parked in such a low traffic area, but apparently neighbors kept an eye out for us. Somebody became concerned after the vehicles had been there for several days and left notes on our windshields. It was nice to know the citizens of Chincoteague were looking out for us. The site at Pope Bay was about 11 miles from this launch.

Hazards: Wind and waves, getting lost, hornets nest in the privy.

The End.  That's all.  From here on down are pasted miscellaneous snippets without organization, so stop reading.

e-mail to Rick
The Virginia end of Assateague was a revelation, much more interesting territory than the Maryland end.  One big difference in the marshes at Assateague as compared to some areas of the Bay, is that the Assateague marsh grass is only a foot or so high. So you get some nice views. 
Friday was my best day on the water.  It did rain off and on but the wind slacked to almost nothing.  It was about my favorite kind of kayaking conditions.  Explored marshes of Popes Bay and found a back-channel, protected passage leading out south of the Virginia line. Friday night we got intense rain and the wind kicked in.  Saturday winds were forecast 20 - 25 knots according to the Ranger Station.  I went to bed Friday night thinking I'd get up and on the water at the crack of dawn, because I wanted to get 8 miles north to Pine Tree and visit Mike McCrae and his group before the wind got up.  The wind roared all night and continued through the day, so I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and  punted on going to Pine Tree.  Don't know the wind strength we actually got but it was unrelenting and annoying.  Saturday brought on the typical camp yard sale look as we dried out.  Poked around some in the creeks and didn't go out on the big water until late in the day.  Very slow going north, lickety split coming back.

We got on the water around 11 Sunday, cruising back with the wind.  It could have been a fast trip but I was almost paddling backwards to wait up for my friends in a tandem canoe.  Steve broke away and paddled out of sight, playing in the surf out on Chincoteague Bay.  The wind seemed to die as we approached Chincoteague and it actually warmed up a bit.  

On returning through Oyster Bay to Assateague we passed a fellow sitting on a dock looking at a sunken run-about.  He looked up and I offered, "that's a sad sight."  He said, yah, his bilge pump was out and he knew he should have come down in the middle of the night to bail.  I asked was it the rain that sunk his boat and he said the rainwater in the boat plus the waves.  At the Fir Landing dock, a waterman was bailing 5g bucket after bucket from his boat.  He had noticed our cars there and was amazed we'd been out in that storm.  "Where ya'll been?...You were camped!  In that storm!"  Another concerned citizen had notified the CG and left hand written notes on our cars that we should call in to the CG station.  It must have been a butt-kicker storm at Chincoteague.  It didn't seem that bad to us.

from e-mail to Mike:
Friday would have been the best day to visit Pine Tree.  I thought about coming up, spending the night, and returning on Saturday, but my group discouraged me since I drew cooking honors on Friday. 

That pounding rain strom convinced me to turn in early Friday night.  I did so with the idea that I would get  up early Saturday and head to Pine Tree before the wind got up.  Between the gray cold dawn and the sound of the wind roaring at daybreak....I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Paddled out to the Bay around noon, and northward progress was slow.  If we'd have gotten there, it'd have been time to turn around and come back.

We had a good trip to Pope Bay.  It is now my opinion that the paddle up from Chincoteague to Pope Bay is more interesting than paddling out of Ferry Landing.

From Greg:  gps for the route Thursday was 10.8 miles.  Friday the gps said 12.8 but you and I did a little bit of back paddling.

From MCC Board
Posted by Chip on November 17, 2004 at 20:50:12:

In Reply to: Trip Report - Assateague Gentlemen's Trip (long) posted by Mike McCrea on November 17, 2004 at 10:01:05:

You couldn't have asked for much better field testing conditions for the tarps: driving rain and howling wind. As we cooked Friday night down at the Pope Bay site, we were glad Scott had brought along one of those free-standing gazebo things. It was staked and guyed at four corners, plus was attached to the ground via a blue tarp/windshield. It was a little smallish but kept the rain off through dinner.

Saturday morning I was impressed Scott had taken down the gazebo, until Scott stuck his head out of the tent with a puzzled look on his face. We found the gazebo in the bush off to the east, which was weird because it was a north wind. We had to take it apart to get it out because the wind had it pinned there. It just missed going in the creek.

So fess up, Mike. How'd your tarps do?

Posted by Mike McCrea on November 18, 2004 at 07:42:08:

In Reply to: How'd the tarps and boats rate? posted by Chip on November 17, 2004 at 20:50:12:

Friday night ‘eh? Did you happen to listen to a weather radio – gale force winds, gusts at 40 knots plus. Oh yeah, the conditions were perfect for testing tarps and shelters.

We brought four tarps/shelters, each a different design or style (I didn’t see the value in reviewing, say, four nearly identical parawings). We had an MEC Mantis Tarp, which is actually more of a floorless tent-style shelter. We had a couple of Cooke Custom Sewing Tundra Tarps (a 1.9oz 6 panel, 15’x15’ and a 1.1oz 4 panel, 10’x10’). We had an NRS Riverwing (17’ x 18’). And we had a Kelty ShadeHouse (12’).

Without giving away too much (hey, buy the dang magazine in 6 months) the Mantis, Cooke and NRS were bombproof and my tester crew is line up to pro-deal ‘em.

The Kelty was a disaster, lacking even a single favorable design element. It wasn’t all that easy to set up, didn’t offer much overhead coverage, provided zero protection against a blowing rain, had insufficient tie down points. It was another example of a design that looked good on paper that was an utter failure functionally.

My favorite – the NRS Riverwing, but I’m a wing man: