Chincoteague and Assateague

On October 21, 2012 · 3 Comments

The dirty little secret of the geo-oddities blogger community is that there’s only so much geographic weirdness to go around. We all tend to overlap with our material from time-to-time, and that’s fine. We each apply our own spin on a common set facts to come up with things original and creative.

I’d been trying to think of somewhere to take the kids during their brief Autumn break from school. Right around that same time "Weekend Roady" posted his Extending the Summer in Chincoteague article so I stole his idea. Blatantly. A tip of the hat goes to Weekend Roady for inspiring the 12MC family to spend four wonderful days on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

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The Eastern shore is the commonwealth’s own little exclave consisting of two counties separated geographically from the remainder of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. A 17-mile Bridge Tunnel does connect the tip of the peninsula to the rest of Virginia although that didn’t happen until 1964. This might lead someone to question whether the Eastern Shore is truly an exclave or not. That would also ignore more than three hundred years of prior history extending back to the colonial era when settlers of European descent first arrived here.

The bridge does create an interesting situation if I may go down a tangent for just a moment. It makes it possible for someone to drive 600 miles (965 km) over 11 hours using an efficient route without ever leaving Virginia (map). One will experience the opposite phenomenon in my circumstances. I began our journey in Virginia, left the state within a few minutes, and experienced the odd sensation of re-entering Virginia three hours later (map). Thus, the physical territory of the commonwealth involved but a tiny portion of my road trip on either end. Both situations arise from Virginia’s unusual triangular shape.

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Anyway, let’s get back to Chincoteague and Assateague, and untangle their names since designations can become confusing. They are both part of a chain of sandy barrier islands separating the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Assateague is on the ocean side, is long and skinny, and extends another 30-miles-or-so northwards towards Ocean City, Maryland. The large preponderance of Assateague Island is protected parkland (e.g., the National Park Service’s Assateague Island National Seashore). Chincoteague sits immediately west of Assateague’s southern tip, protected from the ocean by Assateague. It rests comfortably within Chincoteague Bay.

The usage sews confusion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains its Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island directly across a short causeway from Chincoteague Island and the town of Chincoteague. Got all that? Assateague is an island. Chincoteague is an island, a town, a bay and a wildlife refuge.

Likely, fewer people would travel to this beautifully remote spot if it weren’t for the wild ponies made famous in the 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague and 1961 movie Misty. Nothing has done more to transform Chincoteague from a fishing village focused on the bounty of the sea into a tourist destination harvesting travelers more than the renowned Misty mystique.

Even so it still manages to hold onto a small-town feel unlike its Maryland and Delaware counterparts further up the Atlantic coast. This can probably be attributed to geographic isolation and government ownership of its beach. Nobody will ever be allowed to build ocean-front hotels, rickety boardwalks or tacky t-shirt emporiums along the ocean waterfront here.

Ponies have occupied Assateague Island since the colonial era although nobody really knows exactly how or when they arrived. I’m a believer in simple solutions. It makes sense to me that people would have plenty of incentive to stash or hide their livestock on a barrier island to avoid paying taxes. The tax evasion explanation seems more plausible to me than the alternate theory of Spanish galleons laden with ponies shipwrecking off-shore. Feel free to come to your own conclusions.

Also "wild" ponies seem a bit of an exaggeration unless one defines wild to mean "mellow ponies without saddles." Take the Assateague ponies five miles inland, drop them in a large field and nobody would bother to give them a passing glance. Stick the very same ponies on an island, combine them with romantic tales of Spanish shipwrecks and an iconic children’s book, and watch tourists gawk. I’m not mocking the phenomenon — I was right there with them pointing my camera as one can see plainly from the short video above — just amused by the situational difference. I’m glad the town earns a living from it and the local volunteer fire department uses the annual roundup as a fundraising activity. I’m not sure Chincoteague necessarily needed to taxidermy poor Misty and put her body on display after she passed away, although who am I to judge? People want to see Misty, dead or alive I suppose.

Pony-watching kept the kids happy. I rather enjoyed the lighthouse (yes, I have a lighthouse thing along with my various other fixations). The Assateague Light is easily accessible, open to the public, and continues to serve as a functioning navigational aid. This one is 142 feet tall (43 m) and sits on a naturally-elevated part of Assateague Island to extend its focal plain. The tower could use a new paint job although it seemed to be in pretty good shape structurally. We could see the tower all over Assateague Island as we biked along miles of flat, paved pathways.

Assateague, since I’m on the topic now, was the name of a Native American tribe who lived along the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula. They were Algonquians as were many of the people who greeted European explorers and colonists as they arrived on the Mid-Atlantic. I don’t know where Chincoteague came from although I’ll guess it derived from something Algonquian given the common suffix.

Assateague Chincoteague Beach

The beach on Assateague Island is another good reason to come to Chincoteague. Government ownership allows the island to exist naturally so it shrinks and grows and wanders as barrier islands are likely to do when not disturbed by human intervention. This can lead to controversy. Chincoteague first earned a mention on Twelve Mile Circle last year when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed moving the Assateague Island beach and busing people to it. I don’t know what happened to that idea or whether it’s still being considered or not. I can confirm that we were able to drive through the wildlife reserve and park directly on the beach as of October 2012. I might have to side with the Chincoteague residents on this issue. Taking a bus to the beach would be a hassle.

October air temperatures were fine for lounging next to the ocean. The water itself was a bit nippy although the kids splashed around a bit. Generally the sky wasn’t as angry as this photo implied either; I took this photo for dramatic effect and the clouds quickly parted.

Chincoteague Viewed from the Water

I love traveling during the off-season. We rented a two-bedroom cottage and saved literally hundreds of dollars from what one would pay for an ordinary hotel room during the summer. Mid-October is considered "winter" at the beach, yet this is often the best weather in Virginia: warm, not oppressively hot, and plenty of sun. Another off-season joy we discovered on Chincoteague was the ability to call about pontoon cruises around the island without advance notice. We were on the water later that same day. A two-hour tour on a party boat offers a completely different perspective unavailable to those who remain on dry land.

NASA Wallops Flight Facility

I’d be a liar if I claimed we had perfect weather the entire time. We did experience one gray, rainy morning. This was the only time we left the islands. We stopped at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility visitor center about ten minutes west of Chincoteague. NASA launches sounding rockets and high altitude balloons from Wallops, one of the oldest and most active rocket facilities in the world. The center kept our attention long enough for the rain to clear.

Too soon, and it was time to come back home.

Want to be a Lighthouse Keeper?

On May 24, 2012 · 0 Comments

Lighthouse Keeper is one of those occupations similar to lamp lighter, elevator operator, stenographer and ice delivery person that probably doesn’t offer many career opportunities in the modern world.

It takes a special personality to endure days and weeks of loneliness and isolation. That’s especially true of those stuck on lighthouses perched on rocky crags far removed from the outside world. I’m not sure there are many job duties remaining either. The essential elements have all been replaced by technology and most stations are now completely automated.

I wouldn’t want to be a lighthouse keeper on a permanent basis even if the job still existed. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t mind sitting in a lighthouse for a long-weekend every few months to let myself unwind with some quiet, contemplative time. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had such a fascination with lighthouses. Can that dream ever come true?

It’s actually possible for a private citizen to purchase a lighthouse in the United States although its a rather convoluted process. Get ready, because the Government is about to issue Notices of Availability for the next set of lighthouses to be released from the federal inventory in case you’d like a very secluded hideaway.

Ontonagon Lighthouse
Ontonagon West Pierhead Light, Ontonagon, Michigan
SOURCE: Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

The process is governed by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

NHLPA recognizes the cultural, recreational, and educational value associated with historic light station properties by allowing these to be transferred at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations, educational agencies, and community development organizations. These entities must… be financially able to maintain the historic light station… must make the station available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes for the general public…

What about private citizens? "Organizations interested in acquiring one of the lighthouses will have 60 days to submit a letter expressing interest in the property and complete a rigorous application process. If no suitable steward is identified, the lighthouses are then auctioned to the general public."

Thus, if the government can’t find a suitable government, nonprofit, educational or community development organization to step-up and become a lighthouse steward, then private citizens will be offered the same opportunity. Auctions take place on the Internet at There are a number of lighthouses listed for sale right now! — that’s assuming you’re reading this message in some proximity to the date I posted this (May 24, 2012) and not at some date in the distant future.

The government has conveyed 84 lighthouses from its inventory through this program since its inception. The new list will add a dozen more in 2012.


  • Ontonagon West Pierhead Light
  • Manistique Light
  • Stannard Rock Light
  • Fourteen Foot Shoal Light

    Liston Rear Range Lighthouse
    Liston Rear Range Light, Delaware River, Delaware
    SOURCE: Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.


    • Liston Rear Range Light


    • American Shoal Light


    • Ashland Light

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    Butler Flats Light, New Bedford, Massachusetts


    • Butler Flats Light
    • Graves Light
    • Edgartown Light

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    Edgartown Light, Edgartown, Massachusetts


    • Halfway Rock Light
    • Boon Island Light

    Let’s not get our hopes up too high. Some of these will be taken quickly. The Edgartown Light, for example is on Martha’s Vineyard. Who wouldn’t love an opportunity to own a part of Martha’s Vineyard? It’s also undergone an extensive renovation and is currently maintained by the the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. I think it’s probably fairly safe to assume that they’ll want to take permanent stewardship. They’re already doing that on a temporary basis.

    More than likely it’s the lighthouses that are horribly ramshackled and incredibly remote that will pass through the gauntlet and make it to public auction.

    Someday, maybe someday I’ll own a lighthouse. I can hold out hope.

    Totally Unrelated

    There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post today on a hobby familiar to many of us: county counting. The person who is featured in the article, Reid Williamson, is also an occasional 12MC reader so that’s pretty cool too.

  • Outer Banks Weekend

    On March 4, 2012 · 8 Comments

    Speaking of the Outer Banks of North Carolina — we were just talking about that, right? — that’s where I happened to be visiting for an extended weekend. I don’t get to do that very often so this was my chance for our own little episode of Weekend Roady. I love going to the beach in winter when crowds are down and everything relaxes. However, I hadn’t been to the Outer Banks since I was a little kid. It was past due.

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    Outer Banks Beach

    We had a day of sun, a day of clouds, and a day of intermittent rain. It was like having three completely different mini-vacations. This was the view from our room in Nags Head on an unseasonably sunny and warm 75° f. (24° c.) afternoon. The other great thing about traveling off season: I wouldn’t want to consider what this view might cost during summer. It’s completely affordable in the winter though.

    Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

    Lost Colony Croatan

    The Outer Banks contain more than its share of history crammed into several National Park Service properties. The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (map) is located on Roanoke Island at the confluence of Albemarle and Pamlico Sound.

    I think most of us know the story. The Roanoke Colony would have been the first English settlement in North America, having been established 1587, but its inhabitants disappeared mysteriously before a supply ship returned in 1590. There are many theories purporting to explain the demise of the Lost Colony but nobody knows for sure. Even the exact location of the settlement isn’t definitive although the Park Service has reconstructed an earthen fortification like what may have existed originally.

    Wright Brothers National Memorial

    Wright Brothers Flight Path

    A much more successful "first" happened a little further north in Kill Devil Hills (map; Kitty Hawk is nearby). The Wright Brothers first flew an aircraft here under its own power in 1903. They had been experimenting with gliders on the dunes and using their knowledge to construct a motorized aircraft. The very first flight was brief; only twelve seconds. Notice the large rock next to the shed. That’s where the airplane took off. The craft made it to the smaller stone near the right side of the image. The second and third flights that day covered similar distances. The fourth and final flight went considerably farther, several hundred feet.

    Cape Hatteras National Seashore

    Down the sandy chain we drove, through long stretches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore (map). Cape Hatteras Light with its iconic spiral stripes of black and white serves as an unofficial symbol of the Outer Banks. It rises 200 feet (61 meters) above this very dangerous cape, the epicenter of the so-called "Graveyard of the Atlantic." The tower was closed for the season but that was fine because I had a different destination further south in mind.

    Hatteras Inlet Ferry

    We arrived at the ferry terminal to take us to Ocracoke Island a few miles later. This is a great bargain, a 40-minute ride across Hatteras Inlet (map) for free! It wasn’t a hassle even though the ferry runs only once per hour during winter months. We drove up to the dock a few minutes before departure at the top of the hour, rolled right onto the ship and took a little cruise. The return crossing was a bit more "interesting" with a garbage truck parked in front of us and a porta-potty truck parked behind us. Thank goodness for moderate temperatures. Plus, a day on the sea beats a day in an office, right?

    Ocracoke Island

    Tidal Estuary North Carolina

    I really wanted to see Ocracoke Island so I’m glad the ferry worked out. No bridge connects Ocracoke to the mainland or to the rest of the Outer Banks so there aren’t many options. It has a single small town at the far southern tip of the island; the remainder all falls within the National Seashore. One drives a dozen-or-so from the ferry terminal to town along an asphalt ribbon through remote dunes and tidal estuaries. History holds that Blackbeard the pirate frequented the area and that he died on Ocracoke. The drive evokes a similar remote, timeless feel.

    The town of Ocracoke is a throwback to what the rest of the Outer Banks probably looked like a half-century ago before all the motels and weekly rental homes took over. It’s a great place to walk or bike along narrow streets and amongst quaint cottages. Certainly tourism underpins the economy but the lack of a bridge has allowed it to escape the bulk of the tackiest aspects.

    I hit a lot of things I like count on this trip: some new lighthouses, a couple of brewpubs, a few counties to count, a fortification and a ferry. That’s not bad for a long weekend.

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