Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge
Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge is located off the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The island is closed to visitors during the summer, but guided tours are offered on Saturday mornings during the winter months.
I have passed over Fisherman Island many times, by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but never found time to schedule a tour. Until last Saturday. Which turned out to be a very foggy Saturday.
I have to confess, I still didn’t schedule the tour. One of my dear friends made an appointment for our writing group to visit the island. Add in three tour guides, and the eight of us made enough noise to send most of the wildlife into cover.
But wildlife isn’t all the island has to offer. Its landscape is wind sculpted and salt stressed, trapped between the ever-restless currents of the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.
For me, the Prickly Ash trees (also known as toothache trees or Hercules’ clubs) captured much of the island’s strange, raw beauty.
The Bay-side beach is one of the anchor points for the Bridge-Tunnel. It’s a wide, windy expanse of sand, littered with shells and other offerings from the waves. The tide line is marked by driftwood and heaps of debris.
A short distance from the beach, the tour guides keep a collection of the island’s rarer finds. Our group added a sea turtle rib to the collection.
The island hasn’t always been a Wildlife Refuge. For that matter, the island hasn’t always been. According to a handout we received before beginning our tour, the island was first mentioned on navigation charts in 1815. It was only a sandbar at the time. By 1852 it had grown to 25 acres.
In 1886 a quarantine station was built on the island, consisting of seven buildings. During World War I the island became a military installation, and again during World War II. There hasn’t been a military presence on the island since 1969, but evidence of its past importance remains. The whale and sea turtle bones shown above rest on a concrete road. Dunes and rises morph into bunker entrances. Remnants of towers watch over cordgrass marshes, and greenbrier twines through rusty girders.
Our guides told us that Fisherman Island is continuing to grow. What started in 1852 as 25 acres now measures 1850 acres, though they are acres on the move. The entire island is shifting westward. Its drift is slow by my clock, but barrier islands keep a different clock.
Which might explain why our few hours on the island felt so wonderfully suspended from the world’s usual pace.