Metompkin Island

It took Matt and I a little bit to work in harmony to paddle the double kayak. Unlike moi, Matt had never kayaked or canoed before. Yet he seemed to think he knew more. He tried his best to steer, but I situated myself in the back seat so the person with the most experience would have that power. After getting mad at me for not complying with where he was obviously trying to paddle to, I got mad back and told him he needed to communicate with words if he wanted to go places. It was an exercise in patience but humorous in hindsight.

metompkin island
Kayaking to Metompkin. Taken by Matt Anthony

We were kayaking out to Metompkin Island, a barrier island in Virginia, where piping plovers and Wilson’s plover breed. While piping plovers are more endangered than Wilson’s plovers, Wilson’s are rarer than piping in Virginia. Matt and I went on a camping/birding trip to explore Chincoteague, VA and reserved a whole day for the Metompkin island trip. This whole trip was planned by Matt, and I love him for doing so.

The trip to the barrier island was fantastic. Clapper rails darted in and out of the reeds of the tidal marsh to either side of us. Oyster Catchers flew ahead of us, trying to get away from the human threat. Fiddler crabs waved their huge claws at each other on the muddy banks. The Sun was warm, and a not-unpleasant breeze cooled us down.

We kayaked onto Metompkin’s beach, so that the bow of the kayak was on the sand. Matt is not a fan of being wet, so I stepped out to drag the kayak fully to shore and immediately fell into the water.  Matt asked if I was alright. For being not 3 feet away from the exposed sand, solid ground was exceptionally hard to find where I stepped out. I swam to the beach and lifted myself up using the submerged, muddy ‘cliff’ concealed by the murky water and cut myself on an oyster embedded in it. It wasn’t that bad of a cut, so I grabbed the rope handhold on the bow and dragged Matt and the kayak to shore.

We moved it beyond the high-tide mark, and took a cursory glance around. Another kayak rested abandoned next to ours and a boat was anchored not too far from us with a small family lounging on the beach. If you squinted, you could see buildings in the distance, but we were surrounded by marsh. Diamondback Terrapin heads poked out of the water and looked at us. A very unexpected surf scoter, usually a winter bird, floated to our left. Most of the interior of the island was roped off for breeding birds by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The island was so thin, however, we could see the Atlantic on the other side. Using our binoculars and birding scope, we should be able to find any Wilson’s plovers present.

We opened some celebratory alcohol – Matt a beer and I a Mike’s Hard – ate our lunches and headed out to find some plovers. The sun, salty air, and hours of hiking while enjoyable were also not. Carrying the scope soon became the most hated job. My argument for not carrying it was I didn’t particularly care about seeing birds and I was there just to have fun hiking and kayaking. Matt told me if I looked through it I had equal carrying responsibilities. Sometimes, I just took pity on him and carried it for a bit. Sometimes, he did the same for me, and the level of gratitude I experienced during those times was too great for the deed I think.

Piping plovers were everywhere, scurrying across the beach and in the roped off areas. Different species of tern also bred on the island and flew overhead. Oyster catchers as well were rearing young in between the scrubby flora on the island. Welk shells washed up on the Atlantic side of the beach in the hundreds. But there was no sign of a Wilson’s plover.

We hiked for quite a while, coming across a huge flock of brown pelicans who took off and left the beach covered in droppings as we approached. My legs ached, and Matt asked if we should turn around and go back. I thought we’d regret not going to the very end of the island, so I pushed forward. Not too long after that Matt pointed out that we had no idea how long the island actually was and, even after hiking probably three miles, we couldn’t see the end. The breeding habitat was also minimal where we were.  I consented to turning around and we lay on the beach for a bit, gearing ourselves up for the journey back.

Our lips were chapped and the skin in between my toes felt raw from the sand. We took turns with the scope. “I’ll carry it to that area where the Pelicans pooped”. “I’ll carry it to that post”. And so it went for miles until, “If you carry it to that other post, I’ll carry it back to the kayak.” After that last one I ran to the aforementioned post, propped the scope up, and dragged my liberated self back to the kayak where I drank my huge bottle of hot powerade in under two minutes and waited for Matt. Matt drank the rest of his beer he had packed, and we seated ourselves in the kayak and pushed off the island with our paddles, sliding into the water.

Matt was extremely dehydrated. I was also regretting not packing water, but at least powerade is more hydrating than beer. Let this be a lesson to all: pack more than beer to drink when doing anything strenuous or outdoorsy. Matt kept taking needed breaks from paddling, but the tide was going out and if we didn’t paddle we would go backwards. So I paddled for at least half the trip back by myself. While it was slower, I also felt really strong.

As soon as we sat down in the car, we made a beeline for the nearest Royal Farms gas station and bought milkshakes. For the next couple days, my scalp felt very gritty. Getting the salt and sand out of my hair became a multiple shower effort. Another lesson hard learned: apply sunscreen throughout the day. Hiking for hours in a two piece swim suit turned me into a lobster. A very much in pain lobster for the next week. But I still consider this day to be one of the most enjoyable and fun dates I’ve ever had.

Well deserved milkshakes. Taken by Matt Anthony

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