Down to the Cubic Yard, Ish Ennis has Beach Plan Ready

By Zackrey Hoverson and Robert Boswell

Using a CAD program on his computer which architects use to create blueprints and schematics for various structures, Ish Ennis, chief of maintenance for the National Park service on Assateague Island, created this layout of the recreational beach parking lot. Starting with an aerial photograph, Mr. Ennis highlighted the Wet Land line of delineation which is the border of wetland marsh altered by the storm as measured by the Army Corps of Engineers. From the red line back is the “limit of disturbance” Mr. Ennis can build upon and not disturb the environment. As major storms have become increasingly frequent, Mr. Ennis whenever possible inches the parking lot back a couple hundred feet at a time if possible. A clear sign of this is a comparison of the blue outline of the 2010 and 2011 parking lot location to the purple outline of the 2012 parking lot. Mr. Ennis uses the purple lines to measure and plot the individual parking spaces when totaled are 961. – Zack Hoverson

You could call it the calm before the storm. Except the storm has already come and gone. It is the aftermath that confronts Ish Ennis, chief of maintenance for National Park Service on Assateague Island.

Mr. Ennis went into action immediately after the late October winds and storm surge from Hurricane Sandy rolled across the white sand beach on Assateague Island and had their way with the roads and trees on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. With others from the park service, which is responsible for the recreational beach,  he put together a request for nearly $800,000 for beach repairs and sent it to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

The maintenance crew also moved sand around to create enough parking for the winter, leaving its equipment on the beach for now.

For the moment, it is fairly calm in Mr. Ennis’s office, located on the Maryland side of Assateague, while the request for funds is being evaluated by the highway department.  Mr. Ennis, while not wanting to go out on a limb, seems confident the highway administration will come through once again.

If the money is approved the calm period will be over. Mr. Ennis will go into action, renting 32-ton trucks, hiring extra help and lining up contractors to haul in the clam shells and roadbed that will be needed to rebuild the beach, restoring the 961 parking spaces that will serve the tens of thousands of visitors who will occupy them this coming summer. It will take, he said, 60 to 90 days.

If such a task causes a ripple of anxiety in Mr. Ennis, you could not see it. An employee of the park service for 20 years and chief of maintenance since 2009, he has cranked up the beach repair machinery after many storms, in recent years the November 2009 nor’easter, Ida and Irene, and now, Sandy.

His file on Sandy is thick. “What is different this time,” he said, “is that we have less material to work with.” He said in previous storms they recover as much roadbed as possible an recycle it, usually retaining about 60 percent of it. “But this time we have only about 15 percent,” he said, meaning the rest has washed away.

In an interview with Wild Pony Tales, Mr. Ennis said, “Funding has been requested from the federal highway fund, through a program called Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads or ERFFOR.” He said the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Sandy up and down the East Coast may cause a delay in getting approval. “An estimated $3 million will be required to repair the roads and trails on both the Maryland and Virginia sides of Assateague Island, breaking it down to roughly $1 million for Maryland roads which are asphalt.

The Virginia recreation beach parking lot on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge by itself will require extensive planning and work. Mr. Ennis said a mix of National Park Service and rented equipment will be used. The rented equipment will cost about $166,000 for three months.  “If enough funds are approved, the plan is to move the parking lot back a couple hundred feet from the ocean for greater protection from the ocean. If the funds are not enough, the parking lot will be restored in its current location. Mr. Ennis estimated it will take a crew of seven to eight people to move some13,000 cubic yards of sand-clay mix and 4,500 cubic yards of shell for the parking lot base.

To be as cost effective as possible, Mr. Ennis said they work six days a week for 10 hours a day. “If you work five days a week the equipment is sitting there two days still costing you money. So, if you’re working it six days a week it is only sitting there one day a week.” Labor for the project, he said will cost another “$186,000. Mr. Ennis stressed the importance of being accurate with the funding request. “You can’t go back for more,” he said.

Mr. Ennis went into detail to describe the process of repairing the beach parking lot. “First we set aside at minimum 100 parking spaces usually in parking lot 1 north of the crossing circle to keep access to the beach open and work our way south. Next, after clearing off the sand, we dig down about a foot and recover the remaining base and stockpile it while also staking poles for the border footprint of the parking lot.” Mr. Ennis continued, “After recovering all the remaining base we lay what we call one lift, or six inches of clay sand mix down and compact it into what I call a sub base. Followed with another lift, or six inches of clay compacted, then we stake out the parking spots and finish off with two inches of shell. When all is compacted we have roughly a one foot base.”

While this is a huge undertaking, Mr. Ennis is confident of the crew that will get the work done. He has the layout, a blueprint, completed on his computer screen and if the funding comes through every detail will be marked off in the sand of Assateague Beach.

The Ever Changing Coast a Photographer’s Palette

By Zackrey Hoverson

Using side lighting of the Sun and getting low techniques addressed by Nikhil Bahl enhance this photograph of a Great Blue Heron. (Photo By Zackrey Hoverson for Wild Pony Tales).

Nikhil Bahl, a nature photographer, presented what Assateague as a barrier island can offer  photographers. He encouraged those with cameras to look for simple photographs, and not include too much in their pictures. Nikhil spoke to an audience in the auditorium on Assateague Wildlife Refuge during Waterfowl Week, November 23.

Nikhil is a professional nature photographer, educator, author, lecturer and workshop instructor. He currently resides in Montgomery Village, Maryland. His work has led him to volunteer his time and photography skills with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Many people don’t realize Assateague is a barrier island and what comes with that is taking the brunt of storms and changes as the years go by, protecting the mainland from storm surges, erosion, and other weather impacts. Those who have visited Assateague Island over the years have seen the elimination of the dunes that used to be on the beach and the shifting of the beach southward to Toms Cove Hook.

Patience and waiting allowed this behavioral photo of a Great Egret to be captured. (Photo by Zackrey Hoverson)

Nikhil Bahl, like many others, is fond of taking photographs along the Assateague Beach at either sunrise or sunset. A favorite subject  are the dune grasses which are not as common as they once were. The water on Assateague can be photographed many different ways, but Nikhil prefers to take the abstract approach and leave more to interpretation instead of just the obvious straightforward approach. “Photographers,”  he said, “tend to include too much in a picture and that simple photographs can be just as intriguing, for example just a seashell on the beach can be an interesting photograph.”

As Nikhil pointed out, Hurricane Sandy has offered photographers a unique opportunity to capture the damage on the beach and how it heals itself over time. The sight of stumps of what used to be shrubs now seen in the water is just one example of the changes that a photographer can capture on Assateague Beach.

Nikhil describes Assateague Island as a barrier island “that is an island on the move as it is ever changing.” The walkway to the Tom’s Cove Visitors Center from the beach, for example, has been partially covered by sand from Hurricane Sandy. Another opportunity of barrier islands  is capturing fresh seashells in photographs right after a storm has washed them up.

Using longer exposures and back lighting this photo of a Great Blue Heron is given a more abstract and artistic feel. (Photo By Zackrey Hoverson)

 

Assateague Island is along the Atlantic Bird Migration Flyway, which offers photographers a diverse selection of birds to photograph. Nikhil advises that when photographing birds patience is required. Sometimes, he said, he has spent over an hour photographing a flock of birds. Also, Nikhil encourages photographers to explore different angles and perspectives from which to photograph various subjects.

The changing coast can offer different numbers of birds from year to year. In recent years there have been fewer snow geese seen at Assateague. Nikhil recalls one time there being so many willets on the beach that when one pulled up a mole crab other willets would fight to steal it. “This was fun to photograph,” he said. Nikhil also explains that using backlighting on the beach is great to capture silhouettes.

Backlighting on this Great Blue Heron has created a silhouette of the bird enhancing the photo. (Photo By Zackrey Hoverson)

Capturing downed trees that once housed Bald Eagle’s nests and watching as animals adapt and overcome the changes are one of the most unique and amazing things to capture on Assateague Island, said Nikhil.

For more of Nikhil’s work and information go to: http://www.nikhilbahl.com

 

To See Chincoteague Ponies, Wildlife Assateague Bus Tour Is Best Bet

By Cyndel Brunell

”What kind of bird is that?”

“How much smaller are the Chincoteague ponies from regular sized horses?”

“Are there any foals this time of year?”

“How deep is the water they swim in?”

If you want answers to these questions and many more you should take the bus tour out into the wilderness of Assateague Island on the East Coast of Virginia. On this ride you will see the world famous Chincoteague ponies and other wildlife in their natural habitat. 

The tour bus begins it 2012 schedule April 6 with a Friday trip at 4 p.m. For current information regarding wildlife tours, or to purchase tickets, inquire at the refuge visitor center or call the CNHA office at (757) 336-3696

The CNHA offers visitors the opportunity to tour the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the months of April to November. The tour accesses areas of the refuge that are normally only open to foot traffic. The tour covers approximately 15 miles and lasts about 90 minutes.

Depending on the time of year, foals may be frolicking in the vast forest and bush of the island or mares may be grazing in the saltwater grasses. Always standing guard nearby, is the stallion who commands a band of mares and foals. The bus leaves from near the information center and has now been in operation for a little over six years. In October I went on my first bus tour. The tours are ran by the Chincoteague Natural History Association, a large group of volunteers that supports agencies that run this national park in many ways.

The bus takes you 7 ½ miles out into the wilderness. Inside the bus there is a wheelchair lift, two double seated flip up benches, and individual seats two next to each other going down the aisle. Each seat has a very large window with hatches so you can take pictures without the interference of glass. Some drivers will tell you not to open the hatches, however. Many people from around the world go to the refuge to experience this tour of the island trails.

You can see many ponies of the larger northern herd on this trip, the herd that is kept out of sight of the public until Pony Penning. This is the big event that draws thousands to Chincoteague and Assateague each July. Ponies are not the only animals you will see on this relaxing yet exciting nearly two-hour journey. The smaller southern herd of wild ponies is sometimes seen right from your car on the right side of Beach Road, on the way out to the Atlantic Ocean.

On your bus trip you may also see sika elk, white tailed deer, turtles, egrets, snow geese, hawks, eagles, Canada geese, the glossy ibis and other migrating birds. With any luck you might see a Delmarva fox squirrel, an endangered animal that gets lots of attention from park managers. And in the nesting season you might get a distant look at a piping plover cage that provides protection against predators. The piping plover is a small at risk bird. Each trip promises something new.

The driver will stop or slow down whenever they see something and will normally give you a description of the animal. On rare occasions however, there can be a few surprises that you may not see regularly. Horses sometimes interact with other animals, or a predator bird catching food in a near-view. There are always unexpected happenings on this tour.

One thing is for certain though, you are sure to learn a lot about this historic barrier island from the driver-tour guides. The drivers are very well informed and just full of interesting details. You will most likely be with people from all over the country and even other countries. The questions above the first paragraph were asked on a tour this past summer by guests from Annapolis, Md., Long Island, New York; Michigan and Accomack County.

This is not a rushed tour and it is not expensive. For tour times and prices go to www.assateague.com. One word of caution, there are nice, clean restrooms at the information center where you buy your tickets, but this is the last one you will see until you return. Passengers are not allowed to get off the bus.

The information center which now runs the bus tours is where you buy tickets. It is a good idea to call in advance, because many trips are sold out. Officials of the historical association have talked about getting another bus. Also they run special tours upon request in advance. I hope I have inspired some readers to consider going on this tour. It is the only way, really, to be sure you will see the wild ponies up close by traveling on land. Unless, of course you want to hike the seven miles out, which some people do. The drivers and tour guides are well informed. I will assure you that you will at least be stunned, marveled, fascinated or surprised at things you may see or learn. I know I enjoyed this wilderness adventure and hope you will too.

 

Feather Fund Makes Another Dream Come True

THE BOOMERANG COLT

By Sonora Hannah

I would like to dedicate this, my first published work, to God, my Heavenly Father, and to my mother, Genna, and my Aunt Laure… because without them, this story never could have happened.

“I believe that in the moment God created me, He put in my soul a love and a passion for horses. It is something I was born with… a part of me that has always existed, even before I discovered it was there.”

Sonora Hannah

When I sent my application to the Feather Fund in the spring of 2010, I pretty much felt sick to my stomach. I thought that after I sent it, I’d finally be able to stop thinking about it and get some relief from the rollercoaster of emotions I’d been living with for months. That turned out to be wishful thinking because now that I didn’t have the application to work on, all I had were my thoughts.

 What made the waiting worse was that I had already applied to the Feather Fund the year before and remembered the pain of disappointment that had plagued me when I did not win. I was determined to shield myself from that kind of disappointment so to protect myself, I chose to believe in the improbability of my winning a foal. But despite everything, I kept hoping that the odds of my winning might not be so slim after all. I dreamed night and day about what it would be like to raise and train a wild Chincoteague Pony foal from the windswept island of Assateague.

 I had told the Feather Fund in my essay, “I look at all of the people around me who have their own horses; they have a chance to grow together and become permanently bonded in spirit. Sometimes I wonder if they realize just how blessed they are. My heart aches with the desire to have that strong bond of love, trust, and friendship that comes from having traveled a long road together; my heart yearns to start out on the road that will earn me the love, trust, and friendship of one special horse… my horse.”

Mid-May came… the time when I was to find out if I was or was not going to embark on that road. I checked the Feather Fund’s website daily and I tended to get rather nervous when the phone rang. But no news came either on the website or by phone. I was discouraged, but at the same time hopeful. If no winners had been posted, maybe that still meant I had a chance! Even though I tried to tell myself I very likely would not win a foal, I couldn’t seem to really believe it. There had to be a chance for me, especially because this was the last year I would be eligible to apply because of my age. I tried not to feel defeated by that thought; I knew that if I did not win, that it must mean that God had a different plan in mind for me. I wanted to have the strength of heart to trust Him that His plan was what was best for me, and that is something I had been learning to do since the first time I had applied for a foal. In my essay I had said:

“This whole Feather Fund experience has been a lesson for me in trusting God. I want it SO very badly that there are not enough words in this world to fully express the intensity of my desire. It is a feeling so deep and strong that it can only be felt, not spoken. This I can tell you: If I should be awarded a foal it would be the answer to my heart’s prayer of many years, and I would work for all I’m worth to keep that foal healthy and happy in body, mind, and spirit for all of its life. And in return, that foal would be giving me an ongoing purpose, a reason for working and living with all of my heart, and a chance for healing in my life.

“A foal of my own would mean the WORLD and beyond to me. It would be a priceless gift that I would work hard to ever deserve. I leave you in no doubt, I hope, of the sincerity of my heart’s prayer and desire and I want you to know that I would not take ownership of a foal lightly. I have waited most my whole life for the day that the miracle of my own horse would come. My heart is bursting with love to be given away to the one little horse I may call my own.”

I told Feather Fund board member Lois Szymanki, who is now one of my dearest friends, “The day you called is the day I gave up.”

It was June 7 and I had hung onto hope for several weeks past the time when I had thought the winners would be announced. But that day something inside me snapped. My pet rabbit had gone into labor and we rushed her to the emergency room when it became apparent that she was having trouble. The vet gave me a long list of procedures they might have to perform to save Jane and any unborn babies… and it wasn’t going to be cheap. The only money I had to spend on such a big vet bill was what I had been saving back for my pony. I told the vet we’d do whatever it took to save Jane. What else could I do? I said to my mom, “I’m not getting a pony anyway.”

I was pretty shocked to hear myself admitting to it, but I figured I’d better get used to the fact that it was true… I wasn’t getting a pony.

I was in pretty low spirits when I came home that evening with a stillborn baby bunny to be buried and my dream of winning a Feather Fund foal to be buried with it. I dug a grave and lined it with ferns and other spring greenery and then came up to the house to invite my mother to come for the burial. My mom was squinting at the phone when I came in. She asked me to read the missed call for her, because she couldn’t see it very well. I took the phone and read the name on the screen. My mouth dropped and I looked up at my mom, speechless. Mom says she’ll never forget my face; she knew as soon as she looked at me who the missed caller must have been.

And so it was I went to Chincoteague Island, Virginia for Pony Penning, an event I had only ever dreamed of attending! I saw the wild ponies swim the channel from their home on Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island where the foals would be auctioned off to the public to maintain a healthy number of ponies on the wildlife refuge and to benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company who care for the ponies all year round. The days before the swim were spent meeting my new Feather Fund family and searching the pens on Assateague for my top favorite foals to bid on at the auction. I found three I decided to keep in mind, but I really didn’t know which of them my favorite was. I had decided I wanted a filly rather than a colt, so I chose a tall liver chestnut paint filly as my number one to bid on. But nothing really felt definite in my heart, even though I had decided it in my mind.

Auction day arrived. My calm exterior belied the intensity of my nervousness. Joy and relief consumed me when my fellow 2010 Feather Fund winner placed the winning bid on the pony of her dreams. And I realized, it would be my turn next. When the liver chestnut filly I had chosen as my favorite came out into the ring, I felt a flurry of excitement, but something about it didn’t feel real, didn’t feel right. Then it was announced that this foal was to be auctioned off as a buyback, a foal which would be sold for a high price to benefit the fire company or a charity, but would be returned to Assateague Island to live wild for the rest of its days. My Feather Fund family and my mom sympathized with me when the news came over the loudspeakers. But strangely, I didn’t feel much disappointment. Instead I felt that it was a message from God saying that this filly wasn’t the one for me. There must be another one out there with my name on it, I thought.

There were only 57 foals to be sold at the 2010 auction. By foal number 52 I was beginning to fear that I wouldn’t be getting a foal at all. I looked at each foal to come out. I watched their mannerisms; I looked into their eyes, searching for some glimmer of a connection between us. I almost bid once or twice out of fear of not getting the chance to bid at all… but I couldn’t do it. Something felt empty. It felt wrong. None of the foals spoke to my heart; none felt like they could be the pony of my dreams. Then I saw him.

He was rearing, plunging against the weight of the wranglers who held him. He was lost to sight as he dragged them along, trying to escape the prison of their arms and bodies. But I had already recognized him! He was on my list of top favorites, the first of my favorites I had seen since the paint filly early on in the auction.

The flashy pinto markings against his dark red/brown coat made him easy to identify. The boomerang marking at the top of his neck on his right side were why I had dubbed him the Boomerang Colt. Excitement welled up in my heart as he was finally escorted into the ring. Before I knew it I was in a bidding war for him. Somebody else had taken a fancy to him, too. I knew in my heart I couldn’t lose him. This was it! He was the one! I only wondered why I hadn’t seen it before. The price on his head went up and up, but I was encouraged to keep bidding. I raised my feather high and finally stood up in desperation.

“Please!! Please,” I said.

The bidding slowed. Then it stopped. It was the longest few seconds of my life before the auctioneer bellowed, “SOLD!” and pointed to me.

Sold! The Feather Fund had purchased him for me for $2,500!!!

My eyes welled up with tears of joy. In disbelief I realized that my dream had just come true. In one little fleeting moment, my dream had been fulfilled for a lifetime.

Even before the Boomerang Colt had come into sight, Lois had leaned over and said to me, “I don’t know why, but I think you are going to get the Boomerang Colt.”

More than once she said it, saying she didn’t understand why, but she felt that it was so.

I wondered at it, but I was so caught up in the auction and searching over the foals that I didn’t give it too much thought. I kept thinking about the little bay and white foal with the butterfly marking on its rump.

 Interesting story: foal number 52 was this foal, but I did not recognize it. I believe that God shielded me from recognizing it because He knew that if I had, I was feeling so desperate that I very well might have taken the plunge and jumped in on the bidding. How thankful I am that I did not get either one of those foals I had chosen for myself! What God had chosen for me was better than anything I could have imagined or dreamed of. Here’s more proof that the Boomerang Colt is God’s gift to me: one of his flashy pinto markings is in the shape of my profile!! No kidding!

The Boomerang Colt’s name is now Mincaye (Min-KY-yee). People are usually pretty curious as to where that name came from and the significance of it to me. To save time explaining, I usually just tell them it is a name that comes from a tribe in Ecuador. Truth is, there is a lot more to it than that. But that is another story…

Sonora Hannah is a high school graduate with dreams of becoming a writer, artist, and horse trainer. She resides in Washington State where she cares for her menagerie of animals which include a Chincoteague pony, a Shetland sheepdog, and a Bengal-mix cat.

Breathtaking Scenes in a Foot of Fresh Powder

By Tammy Rickman

On Saturday, January 30, 2010, winter made its presence known to the islands. The storm moved in late Friday night and the snow began to fall somewhere around dawn Saturday morning. Weather reports were calling for somewhere between 8 to 14 inches, a rarity along barrier islands which lay just off the coast line of the Eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

The snow continued to fall throughout the day and grew in intensity causing near whiteout conditions at about a quarter of a mile. As the snow fell, I ventured out and about taking what pictures visibility allowed, of scenes like the ducks huddled in large groups in unfrozen canals. The Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge gates were down so pictures and an investigation would have to wait.

Sunday dawned bright and clear. A crisp sharp wind blew and even though the sun shown bright temperatures never reached above 22 degrees. The scene was like something from a winter wonderland as evergreens hung heavy with heavy fluffy snow and the island was almost hushed in the early morning hours beneath a foot of snow. While taking it all in, the pristine…untouched hand of God, of nature, one became suddenly aware of how out of place it all felt.

A brief drive around the island found only more snow and out of place scenes. Hoping the refuge had been opened I headed out Beach Road and rejoiced when I found the entry gates in an upward reach and pushed forward. The scenes along beach road on Assateague were breath taking. Woodland floors were blanketed in a foot of fresh powder, evergreens hung heavy with fluff, and a quiet hush lay in the air…everything was fresh clean and new….

Wildlife ventured out into strange surrounding. Egrets tested ice sheets in the canal along the road and ponies grazed on tall grasses reaching through the snow. They looked oddly comfortable and out of place all at once. They created a beautiful scene in the snow covered marshes.

The beach was a mix of blown sand and snow drifts. A scene unlike anything I’d ever seen. Of course, I grew up in Mississippi. Walking was a chore at times because a light layer of sand covered portions of the snow creating an allusion of solid ground. As you attempted to step on the sand you sunk to your waist in a snow drift several feet thick. Wind and water created rippling effects in the landscape. Sand and snow mixed, mingled, danced, twirled, separated, and began the cycle over and over again as far as the eye could see.

Barrier islands are ever changing. They grow and shrink then rise and fall… their fate at the hands of the winds and waters that carve and shape them. The snow storm is just another reminder of how miraculous and surprising life here can be.

That said, the weather was not done throwing punches at us and the very next weekend February came roaring. Friday afternoon, February 5 a wet snow began to blow; occasionally sticking to the ground but not the roads or sidewalks.

Later, it turned to rain and the nor’easter dumped a couple inches of rain, melted snow from both storms, and caused some flooding.  Winds howled somewhere around a sustained 45 mph with gusts reaching near 60 mph. 

The winds blew into Saturday and temperatures fell, turning rain back into snow. The rain waters and melted snows began to freeze and the snow began to mount. The winds whipped the wet sticky snow and at times it almost seemed as if we had been transported to some foreign land in the middle of a blizzard.

Around 2  p.m. we lost power. Near dark the heat began to wear off. We opted to take a ride around the island before deciding whether to tough it out with the fireplace and wet wood or opt for a hotel.

We soon discovered that large parts of the island were out of power. The power company and Chincoteague Fire Department personnel were riding around inspecting the island. We decided riding around looking for down trees in a warm car was better than sitting in a cold dark house.

We did eventually find a tree down on Sunnywood and reported it about 8 p.m. but once they cut it down and tried to fire the power back up the lights flickered and then went out again. Somewhere in the blowing snow and darkness was another problem.

The snow slowed to a few floating flakes and I noticed the stars blinking brilliantly in a velvet black sky. The air was fresh and crisp and the world was quiet.

About 9 p.m. they finally found and fixed the problem and the lights went on and we returned home.

Sunday was clear and brilliantly bright. The sun sparkled on pristine snow. It seems Jack Frost is determined to make his icy presence known before giving way to a spring thaw. But if the weather forecast for the upcoming days are any indication, he’s not done yet….