• Ed Flattau

Return to Chincoteague

It was a decade since I visited the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a spectacular mix of marsh, woodlands, and beach habitat on a barrier island off the Virginia coast and a 14000 acre vital rest stop for migratory birds in the bargain.

Annual treks to the Refuge over the years provided me with a nature -mind-meld that culminated in an escape from the daily grind, but more importantly, an unforgettable spiritual wilderness experience.

Eager to relive the past, I drove towards the Refuge with some trepidation. There was uncertainty about the adjacent fishing village of Chincoteague’s impact on one of the most popular refuges in the national system. In my absence, would Refuge access and ecosystem have been degraded by nearby town-generated shoddy development? Would I be greeted by a ramshackle, nondescript beach community seeking a penny arcade identity? Or would big money have moved in and purged the remaining picturesque character (and towns people) of the village, displacing them with swank hotels and restaurants ?

My initial impression was not encouraging. Wall-to-wall commercial bill boards flanked one side of the causeway leading to Chincoteague village and adjoining Refuge. The

dense array of signs was an aesthetic monstrosity blocking the view of the wetlands separating the fishing hamlet from the mainland.

If it is any consolation, while chintzy expansion and the incursion of some high -end hotel chains had both made inroads on the island, they had not totally diminished the original character of an historic eighteenth century village.

It was evident that the proximity of the Refuge and its attraction of a different kind of tourist than the typical recreational beachgoer has acted as a restraint on mercenary- minded town fathers.

So, happily, the Refuge’s imprint on the area remains intact, even though in the summer, recreational beachgoers far outnumber bird watchers.

In early spring, the Refuge is relatively bereft of human visitors and awaits the arrival of northward bound massive migratory flocks. The only avian populations to be encountered consist mainly of permanent residents.

There remains a deceptive tranquility within the Refuge, but a tranquility nonetheless. Visitors are rarely witness to the predator-prey life and death interactions that proceed in an endless cycle throughout the hidden inner recesses of the enclave.

And though easily overlooked, the barrier island home to the Refuge continues its infinitesimal yet inexorable retreat towards the Virginia mainland in response to the constant pounding of ocean currents.

I was not disappointed in my return. The Refuge’s mystique persists.


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