Iced-in Assateague

Solo Trip to Pine Tree, 30-31 Dec 2011

Words and Pictures by Chip Walsh

Ever since I started winter camping on Assateague, I’ve had a desire to go there when there is snow on the dunes and marshes.  It’s not the easiest thing to see.  First off, it doesn’t regularly snow there, and when it does, frequent warmer spells and the abundant salt in the environment help the snow quickly dissipate.  In the event of area-wide blizzards, it is hard to get there, and once there, Assateague’s fickle weather and frequent winter gales can be a problem.  So, in ten years of watching the weather, few opportunities like December 30 had presented themselves.

There’d been a coastal storm on December 26 that dumped over a foot of snow on Assateague, and it had been consistently cold the following week.  Whether the snow would still be there after the three-day gale that followed the storm was questionable.  But the weather for 30-31 December was for fair, low-wind, moderate temperature days.  Few winter days are more favorable for an Assateague trip.  

I started packing.  Why it still takes me 3 hours to pack for a paddling trip mystifies me.  But it was 2pm as I launched from Ferry Landing, heading for Pine Tree, usually a leisurely two-hour paddle.  I expected the coves to be iced, and Ferry Landing was.  The canoe noisily glided but easily cut through the thin ice.  After a hundred hards, I hit a thicker layer of ice.  I tried to get on top of it, but the ice, while quite heavy, was rotten, and it would yield under the weight of the boat.  I got out the pole and pushed over to the marsh edge and towed my boat.  

Chip’s Chincoteague Bay Ice classification:
Solid - supports the weight of boat and paddler
3-foot - rotten ice that the boat climbs onto and then breaks.  A full-effort push with the pole results in about 3 feet of forward motion.  This ice is an opaque white color.
5-10 foot - Not quite as stiff as the 3-foot ice, a full pole push produces 5 - 10 feet of forward motion.  Still white-colored but a little less opaque.
15-foot - easy ice.  A full pole plant and push will glide the boat about 15 feet.  This ice is dark colored and may look like open water.

I towed the boat a hundred yards or so and got back in when the ice lost its white color (3-foot ice).  I made good progress through the 5-10 foot ice.  I was double blading, dropping the blade half way through the ice, letting it catch there and thrusting forward.  But, there are many shallows winding through the marsh away from Ferry Landing, and I ran aground.  I couldn’t see the bottom.  I got out and pulled the boat most of the way to the end of the marsh.  I was considering going back as I stood at the last tip of marsh and looked out towards Great Egging Island.  I thought I could see open water, so I shoved off again and polled through the ice.  The going got easier as I went and I broke into ice-free water about half way to the Island.

From there, it was easy paddling.  I stayed well out from shore, hoping to avoid more ice, and making for that three-legged navigation aid to the southwest.  I recognized the clump of trees that is the Tingles site, and identified the clump of trees I thought was Pine Tree.  

As I headed south from the nav-marker, I was paddling along a line of birds.  At Assateague, it is critical you learn to recognize whether birds are standing or floating, and these birds were standing, so I maintained a distance from them.  Usually, standing birds mean you will run aground.  On this day, the birds were standing on the edge of the ice.  

Eventually, Pine Tree was directly east, and I felt I needed to I turn in.  The ice extended out at least a half mile.  It was easy ice at first, but soon I was sweating like a pig and putting everything I had into every pole push and only attaining three or five feet of progress.  I judged I had about a half hour of daylight and saddly concluded I’d be finishing the trip in the dark.  The going just got tougher.  I’d put the pole straight down once in a while, and the water was always deeper than I wanted to walk through.  Finally, I concluded I needed to get off that ice and turned a little to the left to intersect the marsh at it’s closest point.  I made land (marsh) to the north of the cuts that lead in to the “sneak route”.  I began dragging the boat across the marsh, which wasn’t that hard as long as I could keep it on the snowy spots.  I had to get back into the boat and pole across the two or three cuts.  I was working pretty hard for fun.  Only the last cut that is the entrance to the Pine Tree landing was frozen solid.  I crossed that cut standing up using ski poles in both hands.  I made Pine Tree at 6:30.  That last little stretch took me 2 hours!

It was a clear night and I camped under the stars.  It was 23 degrees overnight, colder than forecast and pushing the comfort level of my +20 sleeping bag, so I was up early.  I warmed up on a walk to the beach.  There was plenty of snow around, but it had been pushed around by the wind.  There were many bare spots and as many 2-foot drifts.  I did not use my cross-country skis, since I would have been constantly taking them off to cross bare stretches.  High winds and salt spray had laid the dunes mostly bare, so the trip was a disappointment as far as seeing snow-covered dunes.  Me and the day rapidly warmed.

I decided I would begin the return trip on the marsh that is directly bay-side of the camp sites.  That marsh extends well out into the bay, and I hoped I could drag most of that way and reduce the amount of ice I’d have to transit to reach open water.  I waded, poled, and dragged out to the furthest point of the marsh.  I could not clearly see open water.  The mild wind had come around to the south and all morning the ice had been making strange noises.  My fear was that there was no open water.  I did my first ever seal launch off the marsh edge onto 3-foot ice and headed west anyways.  Worst, case, I figured I could always come back.

The return trip seemed easier, although it still took me 4 hours.  There were some patches of black, 15-foot ice, amid the 3-foot ice, and I eventually found a 6” crevice in the ice that led all the way out to open water.  Six inches isn’t much, but the canoe moved much more easily along the crevice, caving in the ice to the sides as I went.  Looking at a map, I judge the edge of the ice was about at the 3’-depth contour line.  That contour curves in towards Pine Tree off the point of the marsh, so I think I actually did cross less ice on the way out.

Chunks of ice/slush joined in a frozen sheet.
Ice near Ferry Landing.
Portrait of my ear.  Van Gogh I am not.
"Easy ice", 15-foot variety, clogged the marsh on the way out from Ferry Landing.
The ice was littered with crab remains and seagull poop (processed crab remains).  I never realized that crabs were around in the winter, nor that Chincoteague Bay held many crabs.
Crummy image shows the edge of the ice.  That's Great Egging Island across the open water.
Looking in at the Pine Tree Landing

Gale winds and salt removed most of the snow from the dunes.
View of the landing at Pine Tree.
It was nice being able to pull my boat almost all the way to my camp site.  I never used the cross-country skis--too many bare spots.
I high spot at the second site was conveniently bare of snow, so I unfolded my tarp and rolled out my sleeping bag.
This view taken while standing at the second camp site, looking towards the Bay.  It's usually a muddy slog in the marsh, so paddlers seldom launch through this marsh. 
Ready for "launch" onto the marshes bayside of the Pine Tree camp sites.
I'm already winded from pulling and poling the canoe out across the marsh.
The canoe is perched on the edge of the marsh.  Normally, we paddle by this marsh on the route to Pine Tree.
The end of the marsh.  My eyes are not sharp enough that I could see open water.  I "put in" and started pushing anyways.
Push, umph, 3 feet of progress, push, umph, 3 feet more.  This got tiring so I paused to take a picture. Looking back at Pine Tree.

You might have thought I was MLK the way I was repeating "free at last, free at last."

Ferry Landing just yards ahead.  The last of the three-foot ice previously was cracked by me on the way out.
Looking back from the spot the picture above was taken, you can see my track against the edge of the marsh. 
Made the landing about 4:00.  A fine sunset developed while loading out the gear.
I plowed through the 3-foot ice at the far marsh bank about a half hour before this picture was taken.  Pics two and three frames above were taken on the far side of this ice.
Colors of the sunset distorted and reflected off the Rendezvous.
The End