We went to Assateague National Seashore in Maryland for several days of beach camping with E’s friends. Why two people who hate the sun and and live in fear of sunburns went on a beach vacation is beyond me, except that this is a trip E has done many times over the years with his pals and has always loved it. So, we armed ourselves with 50 SPF sunscreen and a bunch of beach umbrellas, and hoped for the best.
Assateague is a barrier island, much like Plum Island here in Massachusetts, and it has both an ocean side and a marshy bay side. We had an ocean side campsite, nestled in the sand dunes that I am told have been severely eroded over the past few years due to all of the bad storms. It’s hard to tell in this photo, but I took this from the top of the sand dune where our grill and picnic table were. All I had to do is turn around at the top of the dune to see this:
I’m told that’s the top of a fence that used to separate the public beach from the high dunes that delineated the camping area. The dune has both shrunk in height and shifted towards the water, so now you just step over a few inches of fence to get to the beach. It’s certainly convenient, albeit problematic. Campers can easily access the beach, but that also means that beach visitors can easily access the campsites. We arrived to find a group of non-campers on our site, using our picnic table. E was very polite about the whole thing, but they gave us a bit of a hassle before moving. And people aren’t the only problem visitors at the campsites:
Assateague is home to a herd of wild horses, who roam freely through the entire island. Campsites come with bear boxes; you can’t leave food out or the horses will find it. Signs are posted everywhere telling people to stay away from them because they bite. Can I just say here that some people are idiots, because we saw SO MANY people getting inches from them so they could take selfies. Seriously??? Aside from the biting, getting that close to the horses gets them used to people, and that’s a bad thing for any wild animal. Twice E encountered the horses at the fresh water pump, waiting for someone to come along and water them (which is forbidden, but clearly happens or they wouldn’t wait around). We asked at the visitor’s center about this, and there is a fresh water pond on the island that the horses drink from, so there is no need for people to water them.
The horses made at least two forays into our campsite. The first morning we were there the horses wandered onto the beach, followed by a ranger in an ATV who was keeping an eye on things. (This was the only time we saw rangers actively trying to keep some distance between the horses and people; mostly they wander around unsupervised.) They made their way onto our site (along with a bunch of public beach goers who thought it was totally okay to invade our site to take pictures of the horses, ugh). E and I were on the beach, but it turned out someone in our group had left a bag of hamburger buns out, which of course the horses wanted. Our friend ran over, and apparently the horses stepped on some of the tents during this visit. The ranger shooed them off using a bottle with shells inside, and told our friend that if they visited again to make loud noises. The following night I had dozed off in our tent, and E came to tell me that everyone was sitting around the fire watching shooting stars. Initially I declined, but then I heard a strange noise near my head, it almost sounded like scissors cutting something, and decided I’d join them. Not long after, we realized that the entire campsite was surrounded by horses. Our group had two tent sites with a total of three tents. Two of the tents held sleeping children, and there was concern that they would again step on the tents. At this point I realized that the cutting noise I had heard was the sound of a horse’s teeth chomping the plants right outside the back of our tent. We were able to scare them off, but then a group at an adjoining site scared them right back to our site and there was a little bit of chaos for awhile as we tried to keep the horses away from the tents. We finally went to bed, but several times during the night we were awoken by whinnies and neighs; they were still close by.
Of course, the other problem with the horses? Poo. Everywhere. Now, one makes a number of compromises when camping — pit toilets, for one thing (hold your breath and don’t look); bugs; a certain relaxing of personal hygiene. Beach camping adds another compromise in the form of sand. It gets everywhere – in the tent, in your clothes, in your diet coke…not to mention your toes and other assorted human crevices. And it gets really hot during the day, so hot you burn your feet. But add in horse poo in various stages of decay? Oh dear. I couldn’t really even think about it. I took to wearing socks, and while however dorky it may have looked I found that it was an effective physical barrier against the hot sand, and an effective mental barrier against trudging through what was inevitably at one point horse poo.
That said? They are a pretty sight to see:
As with all of our camping trips, my favorite parts escaped being photographed. Each night we’d gather around a fire under the stars, and E would point out constellations. We’d look for shooting stars and watch the moon rise over the ocean, a lopsided ball of orange sailing through an inky sky. While there was some light pollution to the north from Ocean City, it was dark enough for us to see the Milky Way. Much later we would snuggle up in the tent, listening to the ocean waves sing us to sleep as the moon rose higher overhead, and all seemed right with the world.
*Note: I use a zoom lens; at no point was I ever within 10 feet of the horses!