Virginia’s Barrier Islands by Charles McGuigan


by Charles McGuigan

Virginia’s Barrier Islands and the waters and salt marshes that surround them represent the most pristine coastal region on the Eastern Seaboard. Unlike the barrier islands that parallel the shore from New York to Florida, those in the Old Dominion are not connected to the mainland by causeways, bridges or ferries. Our barrier islands are remote and have never been molested by the greedy, grubby hands of profit-hungry developers, who would have used and abused them. Just consider the resort beaches up the coast and down the coast, from New Jersey and New York through the Carolinas. These islands in Virginia are protected in perpetuity thanks to The Virginia Coast Reserve, part of The Nature Conservancy, and one man, Barry Truitt, who is more than a biologist and steward.

From the moment Barry Truitt inhaled his first lungful of that fecund mixture of salt marsh and open sea, and saw for the first time the barrier islands rise up out of Hogg Island Bay, shimmering in the distance, quivering darkly on the horizon, like a mirage of land on this desert of water, he was hooked deeply, barbed through the soul, and, ever since, these wondrous anomalies that run the entire length of Virginia’s Eastern Shore have kept the line taut and continue to reel him in, even now, some forty years later. It is as if there has been an exchange of elementary particles between the blood and the bone of the man and the water and the sand of these shifting islands. Something, over those many years together, has passed between them. This delicately balanced ecosystem of barrier islands and seaside bays seems to know Barry Truitt as intimately as he knows it. He is steward and biologist, but something more, which is impalpable.

Two summers back on board a strange little vessel called a Gheenoe, my friend, Rob Whitehead, and I struck out of the public boat landing near Cape Charles and planed across Magothy Bay, eventually making landfall on the southern tip of Smith Island, which forms a long sandy hook of land that cradles a lagoon like a mother holding its infant. We grounded the Gheenoe in the shallows and waded into shore.
Smith Island is the first barrier island north of Fisherman’s Island in this unique archipelago just off Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Like many of the barrier islands here it was used in the 18th and 19th centuries as grazing land for sheep, cattle and hogs. Robert E. Lee surveyed the island for the Custis family, who owned the island. A few years earlier Bobby Lee had married into the family and he wrote a detailed account of the land holdings and the sheep that grazed there chomping to their gullet’s content on the endless acres of spartina and other grasses, and bindweed that blanketed the island just above the wrack line.

Rob and I fished for a while, first in the lagoon on the leeward side of the island, almost land-locked, and then in the Atlantic, which sent in line after line of gentle breakers—almost like the lapping of lake water—onto the fine-grained sand of the beach. We could wade all the way out to the first trough, just knee-deep but a hundred yards off shore, and then the bottom dropped off sharply. That’s where we fished and caught a few croaker and kingfish.
As Rob continued his methodical casting and reeling I began hiking up the beach with neither sandals nor a bottle of water. I walked the entire seven miles up to the north end of the island and then back, and by the time I reconnected with Rob my feet were blistered and my throat parched. But I was hooked forever on these islands: They are stark and restless and pure, enchanting and otherworldly. And I knew I would be back.

Day 1

The afternoon is overcast with a light drizzle as I make my way to the Nature Conservancy at Nassawadox, a spacious suite of offices in a building that looks like one of the old life-saving stations that peppered the coast in the early years of the last century. It’s surrounded by low-lying land and swaddled in the hum of insects and trill of birds and a thick, balmy odor of mint and honeysuckle and the ubiquitous fennel, which grows in vast abundance on the lower Delmarva Peninsula for a reason I do not know.

Inside, I meet with Barry Truitt for the first time. Burly, bearded, fast-talking and sure-footed, he knows more about the barrier islands and their secrets than any man I’ve ever met. He knows the geology and the hydrology of the islands and lagoons. He knows the history of the islands, from the days of the Indians to the present. He knows the flora and the fauna and the best places to fish. (Barry holds the state record for tarpon in the seaside bays—a seven-foot female whopper who tilted the scales at 130 pounds.)

Within half an hour, I’ve settled into a 19th century farmhouse in Brownsville that has more rooms than I can count. It was meticulously and architecturally renovated some years back by the Conservancy and it will be my quarters for the night. The house was built in the early 1800’s by the Upshurs who owned a castor bean plantation. They grew this bean—one of the deadliest in the world—which contain ricin, a single milligram of which will kill an adult. But the Upshurs were extracting castor oil, which is not poisonous, from the beans. They had quite an operation with a milling operation and a small fleet of their own ships to export the finished product.

Twenty minutes after I find a bedroom on the second floor where I stow my gear, Barry and I are walking along the dock that crosses a salt marsh. As we walk I hear a constant porcelain clatter, like a restaurant kitchen at the height of a lunch rush. On either side of us, roaming across the mud flats of low tide, scuttling around the spartina grass, are thousands of fiddler crabs, the males with their giant single yellow pincer raised as if to do battle. They are in constant motion, wildebeest on the Serengeti savanna, and the mud is dotted with their burrows.

Left: Bird eggs in a nest of sand on a barrier island. Center: Lookout tower on Hogg Island, one of the few structures left.
Right: Oyster reefs planted by the Nature Conservancy and its partners.

Barry considers the fiddler crabs in their habitat. “That’s what the whimbrels feed on when they come through here in the spring,” he says. “They eat so many of them they gain about ten grams of weight per day and when they leave here they fly all the way to the lower Arctic to nest. That’s all they live on. And that grass is spartina which is the basis for the food chain of salt marshes.”
The instruction has already begun even before we board the 24-foot Privateer, a solid workhorse of a boat made in North Carolina. Moments later, in the pilot house, Barry turns her over and the twin outboard motors roar and gurgle and we make our way along Upshur’s Creek.

I get a shudder whenever I step aboard a boat—no matter its size—headed for open water. My heart quickens, my throat thickens and my stomach flutters. Not out of fear of any sort. But in anticipation; sheer excitement about what may happen. Like seeing your beloved after the eternity of a single day.

Water does that to us. Lures us and intrigues us. And saltwater, because of its immensity, does it even more than freshwater. There is mystery beneath you every nautical mile, beings below as alien to us as we are to them drifting and darting in the blue-green glass of the water.

As we near the mouth of the creek, Barry cuts the engine down to a gentle idle and points out the extensive oyster reefs fully exposed on this low tide. The oysters point straight upward like hundreds of fingers rising from the mud, each one tipped with a white crescent, like a fingernail, which is called a bill and signifies new growth. This represents a small part of what the Nature Conservancy has done with its partners the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, the Virginia Coastal Management Program/Seaside Heritage Program, and the local community. The bulk of the funding for the oyster restoration project, along with the sea grass and scallop restoration programs, comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the Community Restoration Program, the Seaside Heritage Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Seaside oysters, sapid, like kissing the ocean, with that small explosion of saltwater on the first chew, were commercially extinct on the Eastern Shore by the mid-1990s due to two parasites—DERMO and MSX—along with human overharvesting.

“Most of the reefs were dead,” says Barry, easing his hand off the throttle. “But the oysters have developed a tolerance to the disease and it’s no longer killing them.”

Since the time of the oysters’ commercial extinction, the Conservancy and its partners began a very aggressive oyster restoration program using native oysters that had evolved to become tolerant of this to disease. These oysters, even when infected with DERMO, fatten to full maturity, and the disease is harmless to human beings.

But waterman no longer harvest the native oysters in the seaside bays, even when they’re in public beds outside the oyster sanctuaries. Raw bars don’t want narrow, elongated oysters: They want round, deep-cupped oysters that sit pretty on a platter.

“These wild oysters are long and skinny,” Barry says. “They used to call them cat tongues or rang dangs. Restaurants want them different.”

Which is excellent news for this lagoon system. The native oysters planted by the Conservancy and its partners provide habitat, and what’s more they filter the water at a prodigious rate, adding to the health of this ecosystem.

Watermen now grow a genetically modified oyster called a triploid that puts all its energy into growth and virtually nothing into reproduction. As a result, these oysters can be harvested in about a year’s time, and they conform to the round, deep-cupped shape seafood restaurants want. “They’re nice and fat and absolutely delicious,” Barry tells me. “And it’s great because it’s ended the pressure on the wild oysters and they’re being left out here.”

Less than a decade ago, the oyster industry on Virginia’s was worth about $200,000 a year. “Last year that industry was worth about 8 million dollars and it’s growing,” says Barry.

Just then something stabs the back of my leg and reflexively I swat it with a curved palm and retrieve the corpse of a green head fly. They’re all over us now and as Barry smacks his own face we’re underway and most of the green heads leave with our wake, except for the few caught up under the pilot house that Barry swats at, until they’re all dead.

Above the roar of the outboards, Barry tells me that one of the first words his son, now 35, ever spoke was inspired by insects. “When he was about fourteen months old, just learning how to talk, he could say mama and dada,” he says. “The first time he put two words together my wife had put him on the back porch in a diaper one June morning and a couple minutes later he was pounding on the screen door, going, ‘Bugs, mama, bugs.’ This place would be paradise if it wasn’t for the bugs.” He ticks off a list of the critters that plague this area–mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, green head flies, deer flies, stable flies, gnats, noseeums. All of them after flesh of one kind or other.

We’re cruising at a steady speed along the Machipongo River, the only river on the seaside of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and it’s a comparatively small river—just ten miles long—with its headwaters just up the coast near Wachapreague. As we round a bend we come to the mouth of the Machipongo and then the open water of Hogg Island Bay, which is about eight miles across. It opens up before us like a flower, like a lotus, and we come out of the stem and skirt the massive petals.

Barry pulls back on the throttle and as the engines wind down, he invites me to consider the long line of oyster reefs that extend a full quarter of a mile out into the bay. There are literally millions of them, each one a water purifier, and they stand upright in a long, uninterrupted procession, in parallel strands, like corn rows. Barry points to a bird with a bright orange bill that perches on the edge of an oyster. It’s an American oystercatcher and can shove its bill into the smallest gap of the hinged oyster shell halves and with the tremendous force of its own jaws pry the bivalve open and scoop out the meat.

“We now have more oysters in the Virginia coastal bays than in the whole Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay,” says Barry. “Based on a stock assessment made three or four years ago we have more than 3.2 billion in the seaside bays. Today, we’ve probably got a lot more.”

As the green heads begin swarming, we get underway again, planing across the slight chop of the bay. All the while, as he steers the vessel, Barry’s eyes move from depth finder to windshield and back. These are tricky waters even for those who plough them with regularity: The sands below are always shifting and you never know when you’ll run aground. I watch the depth finder go from thirty to nine feet in the blink of an eye. And then it’s four feet and Barry reduces our speed, but we hit a sand bar just the same. He slowly coaxes the boat off the sandbar and finds deep water again. “As the old heads say, ‘There’s a lot of water on the seaside, it’s just stretched mighty thin in places,’” says Barry.

When I ask him what an old head is, he tells me it refers to the older men he had spoken with years ago who knew the islands and the lagoons like their own homes. “Most of the old heads are dead now,” he says. “The second time I went to Hogg Island was with a man who was born and raised on the island and the stories he used to tell me were really neat.”
We cruise the bay at a slow pace and Barry, his eyes always shifting from the depth finder to the windshield, tells me more about these seaside bays and barrier islands. But we won’t hit the islands today. The rain is coming down hard now and it’s growing late.

Day 2
I meet Barry at the dock early in the morning. The sky is cloudless, blue, the yolk of the sun creeping up the horizon, and the air sauna-humid and brick oven-hot. In less than twenty minutes we are within a mile of Hogg Island when Barry cuts the outboards and we drift and toward a thick outcropping of spartina grass. “This is Egging Marsh and it got its name because this is where the old heads used to come to collect gull eggs in the old days,” says Barry. “We had a real high tide about a week and a half ago and it flooded everything. This was a colony of nesting laughing gulls but it’s all been wiped out. It’s an example of sea level rise. There’s no denying it. These marshes are all eroding on their edges all the way around the so they’re all getting smaller.”

More than a century ago, many species of birds that call the Eastern Shore home were being threatened to the point of extinction. Along with the practice of subsistence egg-hunting, many locals killed birds for their feathers to satisfy the millinery trade. “The Cobbs on Cobb Island, in one three-day period, shot 1100 least terns that they got paid ten cents a piece for,” Barry says. “Women used to wear whole mounted terns on their heads.” And we both laugh at the same time, imagining over a thousand women with birds on their heads.

I had always assumed that the Barrier Islands of Virginia were settled in the 17th and 18th centuries and as I say this, Barry is shaking his head. Where many of the islands were used for livestock grazing in the colonial period, few people inhabited them until after the Civil War.

“It wasn’t until the coming of the railroads in the 1870s when the islands really boomed,” he says. “The islands became resorts for tourists and people settled there for the resources. Fish, oysters and clams being shipped out of here, and tourists being brought in here.” And towns like Broadwater on Hogg Island grew up.

But that prosperity was short lived. “We had a hurricane in 1933 that pretty much destroyed everything that was on the islands,” says Barry. “That hurricane was the signature storm for this area. There were the highest high tides every recorded. Seven point nine feet above sea level. And the old heads would tell you that the biggest impact was when the tide went out after the hurricane, when the bottom got scoured and all the oysters washed into the channel. The last person moved off Hogg Island in 1937 and they were basically a no man’s land.”

As we pull up on the back side of Hogg Island we can see a tower, rise up out of a maritime forest. It’s one of the last vestiges of the town that was called Broadwater.

We make our way to Quinby Inlet and from our vantage point can see the northern end of Hogg Island and the southern tip of Parramore Island and a small island adjacent to it called Revel’s.

“These inlets here are all different, but the one thing they do have in common, is they all have sandbars on the outside of the inlet that are basically ebb tide deltas, where sand gets deposited during the ebb tide,” Barry explains. “And they also have what’s called flood tide deltas which are sandbars on the inside of the inlet where sand gets deposited on the incoming tide. They’re very ephemeral areas, they move all around. On some of these inlets the Coast Guard had to pull all the channel markers out of it because it’s changing so fast they can’t keep up with it.”

Barry points to a channel marker that’s surrounded by sand. “There used to be a channel between these two islands,” he says. “Now they’re joined. Parramore Island from 1930 to 1980 built out to the east, but since 1980 it’s been migrating back to the west. We’ve already lost one dune line with trees on it in the surf.”

Every one of these barrier islands in Virginia is in relentless motion, driven by surf and tide. That’s one of the reasons these islands were never developed, though some people did try. Unfortunately they chose one of most restless of the barrier islands

“When the Nature Conservancy got involved over here in the late sixties there were two attempts going on to develop the barrier islands,” Barry says. “One was Cedar Island. They got a bridge authority together and the family that owned the northern half of the island had it divided into 2000 little lots and started selling them off.”

The Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 had scrapped a lot of the development plans. “Half the lots disappeared overnight,” says Barry. “And then the developer’s granddaughter came back and started selling cross island strips in the eighties and early nineties, so if your property moved your ownership would move with it.” The developer’s own house had to be moved twice. “It eventually went into the ocean,” Barry says.
Cedar and Metompkin Islands are the two fastest moving islands on the Eastern Seaboard, averaging about forty feet a year. “These islands, from north to south, are rolling over themselves,” says Barry. “In the last hundred years they’ve moved about a kilometer and a half. It’s high speed real estate—the fastest moving island property on the whole Atlantic Coast.”


We stop briefly on Hogg Island and then on Parramore Island. I walk up the beach a mile or so with only the rote of the surf in my ears. The beaches are hundreds of yards wide and you can wade out a good distance before the water gets deep.

Back in the boat as we make our way down to Cobb Island I tell Barry I can’t get over the clarity of the seaside bay water.

“It’s the best water quality on the Atlantic Coast,” Barry says. “The coast bays here in Virginia are ocean dominated. There’s much more salt water coming into the bays through the inlets we have every seven miles then there is on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s almost an accident of geography. Route 13 is the continental divide of the Delmarva Peninsula, so we have real short water courses and water sheds, no major rivers, no point sources, and then we have the inlets every seven miles letting the good ocean water come in. It’s almost a nitrogen deficient system so we’ve never had a brown tide, never had a red tide, never had a harmful algae bloom or anything like that over here.”

In the not-too-distant past the entire bottom of these seaside bays were covered with eel grass, which was habitat to bay scallops a cornerstone of the local economy at the time. But in 1932 all that changed. When I ask Barry what happened, he tells me about the man who wished away the eel grass.

“I interviewed an old head who was born and raised on Hogg Island, a fellow named Burly Bell,” says Barry. Burly’s father worked the grass beds of the bays for scallops and in the late 1920s, the eel grass was so thick that it often got wrapped up in the propellers of his deadrise. “I mean the grass beds really limited your access on where you could go in these flats out here,” says Barry. “So Burly told me he could remember his dad cursing the grass one day and wishing it would disappear. Couple years later, 1932, poof, it did.”

It was neither a wish nor the acts of man that eliminated the eel grass.

“In 1932 a slime mold killed most all of the eel grass from the North Sea in Europe over to New England down to North Carolina,” Barry says. A year later, the hurricane of 1933 would eliminate every remaining strand of the sea grass from the Eastern Shore’s barrier island lagoons. “When the grass disappeared the scallops disappeared,” he says. “And Virginia had the largest scallop industry on the East Coast at that time. The grass came back north and south of us because they had low salinity areas of refuge that provided the seeds to repopulate the area.”

Barry drives the boat out to middle of Hogg Island then cuts the engine. He tells me to look into the water which is only about five feet deep here. I put on my sunglasses, which are polarized, and can see to the bottom. Everywhere there is eel grass and it waves with the current like grain on a prairie. I can imagine the life hidden it, suspect sea cows could graze here.

Barry smiles broadly when he sees my response.

“It’s the largest and most successful sea grass restoration that’s ever been done in the world,” says Barry. “Nobody else has done anything on this scale. We have beds of sea grass in Hogg Island Bay, Spider Crab Bay, Cobb Island Bay and South Bay. We’ve planted a total of 350 acres since 1999 and have almost 5000 acres growing out here now so it’s starting to spread on its own. A little over ten years ago wasn’t a blade of it in this entire system.”
This eel grass restoration program is one of the crowning achievements of the Nature Conservancy and its partners. “Bob Orth at VIMs developed this method of harvesting the seeds from eel grass plants and planting it in the fall that’s worked very well. It,” Barry says. “Using Orth’s method, we are able to collect about five million seeds every late May and plant them in the fall.”
We head back to shore in the late afternoon and I can still see when my eyes are shut against the sun the waving prairies of eel grass.

Day 3
The following morning I hook up with Barry and his co-worker, Alexandra Wilke, an ornithological conservationist, at a dock in Oyster. We climb aboard a 19-foot Carolina skiff with its trademark rectangular hull that looks like an amphibious landing craft and as we creep, wakeless, up the harbor, Barry points out a number of structures and parcels of land around us.

“The funny looking boat with the high cabin and the crane on it belongs to the contractor that we use to build our oyster reefs,” he says. “Across the road there is a riparian forest restoration project. Hundreds of acres for migratory songbird habitat. This other piece of property is the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center. There are tanks that we use for curing our eel grass seeds.”

When we make the open water of Mock Horn Bay, Alex takes us to Ship Shoal Island, Wreck Island, Little Cobb Island and the southern point of Cobb Island. All the while she shows us islands that are rookeries for oystercatchers (one of her specialties), great black-backed gulls, gull-billed terns, brown pelicans and so on. We walk gingerly among nests etched in the sand. She tells how the piping plover (a protected species) population has increased from 100 to 200 birds due in part to a program that removed raccoons and red foxes from the islands.

Barry smiles as Alex talks, fully confident in her knowledge. “She knows more about these birds than anyone, anywhere,” he tells me in a stage whisper when she guns the engine. I know he sees himself in Alex and his pride of her is almost paternal.

Later in the afternoon driving over that first bridge, away from the Eastern Shore, the longing starts without warning, but as soon as the short span delivers me to Fisherman’s Island, it ends just as suddenly. This does not last long. For as soon as my Jeep leaves that last island and I head skyward up the long span, crossing the Chesapeake, as if in flight, the longing returns with a vengeance. That’s when I feel disconnected, free-floating, giddy. A feeling I will not shake even after I return to Richmond.

Less than a week later I return with my friend Rob Whitehead. We are in his Gheenoe out of the public boat landing at Cape Charles and visit one of the interior seaside islands, just west of Smith Island, one called Skidmore, which is almost perfectly circular. And then we head out into Magothy Bay where we find a deep trench, perhaps the remnants of a paleolithic river valley or the fracture of a meteoritic impact. That ball of fire collided somewhere near here 29 million years ago. That’s what Barry Truitt told me. The depth finder tells us the water drops off abruptly from seven feet to 40 feet, a hundred yards wide and a few miles long. For hours we motor up the channel toward Smith Island, then cut the engine and ride back toward the Eastern Shore with the incoming tide. And we cast our lines and wait. We catch sixty croakers—almost all of them keepers, a pound or better—but release every one of them. Rob keeps the four kingfish and he hooks two lovely flounder, not quite doormat size, just an inch under the legal length of 16 ½ inches.
Then I get a serious strike and sink the hook. I reel in the line, then loosen up the drag, for this fish has no intention of being landed. Not easily, at any rate. My rod doubles over and I keep the tension up, slowly reeling the fish in. Rob follows the course of the fish at maybe four knots so I can reel in the slack line. When Rob cuts the engine off I can feel the fish at the end of my line thrashing to spit the hook. The fish is pulling us now, against the tide, and I’m certain the line will snap.

Which is exactly what happens.
“I’ve never seen a fish pull a boat,” says Rob. “What do you think it was?”
“I have no idea.”

But Rob gets his answer a short while later. The fish strikes with the same abruptness and pulls the boat along. Rob stays with it and brings it to the surface. It’s a magnificent cow nose ray with a wing span of five feet or so. It must weigh fifty pounds or better. Rob releases it and we watch it drift downward and then swim off to the east as graceful in its movement as a great blue heron in flight.
“That’s what I like about fishing,” Rob says. “You never know what you’re going to pull up.”

Throughout the afternoon we continue to fish and we see a loggerhead turtle and the fluke of a large marine mammal, perhaps, a pilot whale. Everything here is migratory, it seems, evanescent, somehow nomadic, even the islands themselves.

There’s something reassuring in all this for it strikes me then that there is timelessness in constant change.

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