Pony Gangs of Assateague Island

photo by Gunner Hughes

A great article about the park rangers who keep the peace between the rival gangs of ponies and people.

https://bittersoutherner.com/feature/2022/park-rangers-of-assateague-island

The ponies are wild, and don’t act like the domestic horses that some people expect. They bite and kick and steal food right out of your hand. And people who don’t know better make the mistake of fighting back.

“The ponies are big trash pandas. Like bears, but friendly-looking,” laughs park Assistant Manager Meghan Rhode. Almost anyone who has spent time on Assateague has a story of being run down by a horse for their sandwich or bag of chips, myself included. It sounds funny, and is somewhat in retrospect, but in the moment it’s fully terrifying. The rangers’ primary problem is preventing that by convincing people that these horses are wild.

“A big portion of our clientele grew up on farms and have been around horses — they love to tell you that. It’s harder to convince them that this is a different situation,” says Rhode. Sure, a domestic horse will bite or kick, but not in a territorial, attacking way. “They’re accustomed to their own space, pushing other people and horses around. … There are stallions here who are willing to battle pretty hard for territory, for food, for mares. That’s one of my biggest problems, getting people to stand up and back away from the horse.”

But the rangers clearly love what they do.

“We protect the resource from the people, the people from the resource, and sometimes people from people.”

Waterspout Rainbow : Winter Harbor 2022

By morning, the wind has swung around 180 degrees out of the north, and blowing hard. Within hours it goes from almost still to gusting over 40mph. Wind driven tides rush in through the northern inlet and pile up against the now closed southern end, submerging the dock again.

Breaking waves roll down the Bay, and we see more sand moving southward in the surf.

The temperature drops as quickly as the wind rose. I retreat to shelter along the inside of the island, behind what remains of the treeline windbreak. There are signs of the previous shorelines, old dunes, former marshes. The bleached bones of old cedar trees in what once was forest.

And artifacts of human history, too. A date carved in a picnic table still standing, somehow, for nearly 40 years.

We retreat to the house to stay warm. The sunshine of the morning is by afternoon replaced with wind driven rain. We read, do jigsaw puzzles, arrange shells and artifacts on the mantle, make soup, nap.

Just before sunset, the clouds begin to clear. A small waterspout is kicked up by the wind in the fast moving front, twisting and dancing over the water. It briefly catches the last bit of sun, and blooms into a brilliant golden rainbow before dissipating moments later.

Quite the epic finale to end the week.

Full Moon with Eclipse : Winter Harbor 2022

The slick ca’m carries through sunset, moonrise, and late into the evening. Perfect for a bonfire on the beach to welcome the lunar eclipse.

The boardwalk over the marsh points almost due west like a compass rose. From the end, there’s a broad view over the marsh in every direction – the setting sun tips spartina grass with hot copper, followed by the full moon rising in the east over the treeline.

The evening meal is dispatched quickly. We head to the beach with chairs, and gather driftwood on the way.

While still low on the horizon, the moon is draped with an eerie shroud from the mist on the water. It grows bluer and brighter as it climbs the sky, bathing the whole scene in cold astral light.

We build a fire below the high tide line to keep the chill off. It catches quickly and feels good, makes a nimbus of warmth and warm light in the clear cool night.

We won’t wait up for the eclipse, which doesn’t begin until 4am, but we know it’s coming. One of those astronomical events, like a solstice or equinox, that adds gravitas to the evening, even when you can’t actually see it.

Hours later, the last of the wood is used, and people start to wander off by ones and twos. Some will wake before dawn to watch our shadow pass over the moon, wrapped in blankets on the dock. Tom and I stay up past midnight until the fire is just a bed of glowing embers, then bury it in wet sand.

In a few hours, it will be erased by the tide, along with our footprints.

Orion, The Hunter, climbing over the house.

Raven Rides the Wave, for Miles

This is wild. A raven rides the bow wave of a Jeep for a half hour along a remote frozen road in the Yukon. They finally stop, get out for a chat, and hand feed the raven some cat food.

Raven is a trickster in Pacific Northwest native mythologies. Emily and I drove through this country when she moved back from Alaska. Nothing around for days, just trees and mountains.

Slick C’am : Winter Harbor 2022

In the dialect of a Tidewater waterman, a “slick c’am” is a slick calm, when the air and water are so still the Bay lays slick as glass. It’s a strange effect on a body of water so large that you can’t see across it. The whole world feels close and quiet.

Late fall is the transition season, when winter works up courage and summer grows weary. Cold wind from the North > then calm > warm wind from the South > then calm. We will have it all, twice, in the span of a week. Every day is different.

With the air so still, a mist gathers over the water like smoke on the horizon. That and the high clouds mean a change in weather is come; but for now, it’s shirtsleeves and sunshine.

The Water is Wide : Winter Harbor 2022

We saw where the sand ended up; we want to see where it came from – the North end.

The dock is wet and slippery. Tonight is the fullest of Full Moons, the night of an eclipse, so tides are especially high. Water lapped the bottoms of the kayaks on top of the pier where I tied them down to pylons.

By early afternoon, we can walk the deck without wading, but the wet parts are slick as greasy ice.

Following oxbow creeks, it’s about two miles to the north inlet. At least it was last year, where inlet was.

It’s an easy paddle on a calm day, riding the outgoing tide. We pass a couple of new duck blinds, the remains of an old one – storm battered, bent down on one knee – another repaired and ready for the coming season.

One by one, the creeks converge on the way to the bay, growing wider and deeper, the current stronger. We round a curve and I have a hard time making sense of what I see. Where before was island and sand and marsh grass, I see an unbroken horizon of blue water.

We paddle beyond the break to what’s left of the sandbar, beach the boats to look around.

Amazing. Last time I paddled to this spot, there was ¾ mile of more creek before reaching the inlet. The island was narrow in places, mostly sand, but very much land. Most of that is gone. This last bend in the creek exits right into the bay.

The former island tip remains apart, a small islet of sand and grass surrounded by water. Clearly won’t be there much longer. The new wider north inlet now extends more than a mile to the mainland. Much of the sand here is washing out in shoals, or sifting into the marsh. Root stubble pokes up through waves of the Bay now, what had been all marsh behind the barrier island, for now still gripping marsh mud.

You can see the dramatic change in recent satellite images. Here is the whole island shot ten years ago, with the north and south inlets still deep and navigable by large boats.

2012

And these are the south and north inlets last year, before the winter storms.

South Inlet – 2021
North Inlet – 2021. We could walk across that section to the northern tip and keep our feet dry.

And here is the island now, showing both inlets. I’ve edited this to show the current conditions on the satellite image from last year. There’s a new break in the last bend of the creek. The bar just beyond is now water. And the south inlet is a wide sand beach.

You can see the change best if the two images are overlaid and animated. If the animation below is not playing automatically, click on the image to open it.

Animated GIF of ten years of changes. (click to open if not playing)

I knew this was coming, and said so to T. But did not expect it my lifetime; certainly not in the span of a year.

Not sure what we’ll see if we come back next year. A lot less, if the trend continues, and no doubt it will.