A winter visit to Virginia’s Lower Eastern Shore may not be on everyone’s “bucket list,” but without the distractions of swimming and beaches, winter visitors can get a feel for what makes “the Shore” a special part of Virginia.
Start at the visitor’s center at the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge in Cape Charles. Exhibits highlight bird and butterfly migrations through the refuge. Plus, there’s an indoor viewing area with binoculars and scopes for watching raptors working in the fields outside.
Every Saturday — and only in winter — the refuge offers tours of Fisherman Island. The rest of the year nesting shore and ocean birds take priority. In the fall, the island becomes the last opportunity for migrating birds to find cover and food before flying south over the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Leading a small group down an old military road toward the beach, volunteer guide Joe Beatty explained that the 1,850-acre island is the only barrier island of the Virginia peninsula that is growing.
The group clambers up a sand hummock to peer into one of several World War II bunkers. Soldiers stationed here stood by to activate strings of mines stretched across the Bay’s mouth as a shield against German U-boats.
At the southernmost point, the group spreads out under the U.S. Route 13 causeway that routes motor vehicles across island. The traffic’s gentle whir doesn’t distract from the aerial display of a peregrine falcon “worrying” a Cooper’s hawk 200 yards over the scrub behind the beach.
To the north is the Eastern Shore proper. To the south is the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that, when completed in 1964, replaced the ferry, barge and rail systems connecting the Eastern Shore with Norfolk and the rest of Virginia.
Route 13, a divided highway with few stoplights, runs along the spine of the shore, and it would be hard for north-south travelers to avoid it.
But getting “off 13” is the only way to see what the Eastern Shore is about. For explorers, Kirk Mariner’s book, “Off-13: The Eastern Shore of Virginia Guidebook,” is the definitive back roads guide. It contains information on every old building and roadway, and is sprinkled with stories and anecdotes that are now local lore.
Dot Field, the Eastern Shore region steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, knows what it’s like to get to know a place. She moved here 12 years ago to manage two state preserves.
Her advice? Travel out on “the necks” to catch a glimpse of farm life and waterfront enterprises. “There,” she said, “you get a sense that the shore is made up of a lot of little town and villages. You can see how they get along.”
For the most part, how people get along is modestly, which is part of the enduring rural culture. Between fields of corn, cotton and soybeans, the shore’s towns and villages may be only five or six houses along a central road, each with one or more historic buildings and stories that go with them.
Savage Neck, site of one the preserves on the Bay side, is named for Thomas Savage, who arrived at Jamestown at 13. He was traded with the Indians in an exchange of children meant to secure the peace. Savage grew up in Powhatan’s tribe, learning Indian ways and language. As a young man, he established trade with Indians on the Lower Eastern Shore, especially with the tribal leader known as “the Laughing King,” who eventually sold Savage the land on the neck.
Savage Neck Dunes Preserve offers trails through the maritime forest and remnant dunes that rise to 50 feet. A mile of undeveloped beach is strewn with weathered tree trunks. Century-old loblolly pine needles litter the sandy trails that wind by a freshwater pond that is haven to wildlife. The preserve is dense, primeval, and part of a patchwork of lands on the Eastern Shore that are protected by state agencies and conservation groups.
In the early 1970s, The Nature Conservancy created the Virginia Coast Reserve, protecting a string of 13 uninhabited barrier islands that stretch south from Assateague to Smith Island just northeast of Fisherman Island.
These low and shifting islands — and the millions of acres of marsh between them and the mainland — provide a barrier to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. Without the islands, there would be no Eastern Shore. Without the Eastern Shore, there would be no estuary we know as the Chesapeake Bay.
The Barrier Island Center in Machipongo is both a museum for visitors and a cultural center for the locals. The main building of Almshouse Farm was home to indigent citizens who worked the farm. Established in 1803, the Northampton board of supervisors operated it as a social safety net until 1952.
The large, six-over-six windows stream light into exhibit spaces in the main house, making it a cheerful place to visit in the winter, according to the center’s director, Laura Vaughn.
On the second floor is a reconstruction of the Cobb Island Hotel, a barrier island destination for the rich and famous in the early 1900s. In those days, the Eastern Shore of was one of the wealthiest parts of the country, with top-ranked seafood and agriculture concerns. But a string of hurricanes and nor’easters in the 1930s hastened the demise of the Cobb Island resort and other barrier island communities.
Down the road in Eastville, the courthouse complex houses the oldest continuous court records in the country, dating from 1632. When Confederate Virginia ordered all records sent to Richmond for safekeeping, local leaders refused. Richmond burned, and so did the records — except those safe on the Eastern Shore.
Traci Johnson, the county clerk, said a lot of genealogical research is done here. Visitors can see land transactions between the Indians and early white settlers, among other unique records. “One of us here at the courthouse is usually available to show you what we have here or help you with finding information.”
Working the land and water doesn’t stop in winter. Having sown cover crops of winter rye or wheat in fall, farmers are preparing for spring crops. The winter rye and wheat provide oases of green in the brown winter palette.
Today, many working waterfronts on the shore support a multimillion-dollar aquaculture industry that grows and harvests clams and oysters.
Ron Crumb of Cherrystone Aqua Farms says winter is as good a time as any to tour the facilities that produce millions of clams and oysters a year.
Crumb, a native, said, “January and February are actually good times to visit. I walk visitors through the five steps of aquaculture, and during those months both clams and oysters are spawning.”
Barry Truit, chief conservation scientist at the Virginia Coast Reserve, said that even after the fall bird migration is over, one can still see gannets, sea ducks, loons, mergansers and varieties of gulls. Shorebirds are still working the beaches, and the lucky may even see a snowy owl.
Dave Burden runs Southeast Expeditions Kayak Touring in Cape Charles. “With a stable kayak and proper clothing,” he says, “winter kayaking is not much different than a walk on the beach.
“The marsh has a totally different personality in the winter,” Burden said. “And there’s a group of sea otters that congregate by the channel south of Fisherman Island every winter.”
Like many places, second homes and golf courses are taking root along the bays and creeks. County Clerk Johnson acknowledged that there are “come here’s” and “from here’s.” But with typical Eastern Shore hospitality, she added, “the important thing is that you are here.”
Eastern Shore of Virginia
Here are resources to help plan a visit to Virginia’s Lower Eastern Shore:
- VA Coastal Birding & Wildlife Coastal Trail - Eastern Shore Loop: www.dgif.virginia.gov/vbwt/loop.asp?trail=1&loop=CES
- Eastern Shore of VA National Wildlife Refuge: www.fws.gov/refuge/eastern_shore_of_virginia/
- Fisherman Island Tours: 757-331-2760 x113
- VA Department of Conservation & Recreation Natural Area Preserves / Savage Neck Dunes & Magothy Bay: 757-787-5989 or www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/natural_area_preserves/index.shtml
- Barrier Islands Center: 757- 678-5550 or www.barrierislandscenter.com/
- Eastville Courthouse & Debtors Jail Museum: www.co.northampton.va.us/gov/clerkofcourt.html or 757-678-0465
- Cherrystone Aqua-Farms: 757-331-1208 or www.littleneck.com/
- Southeast Expeditions: 757-695-4001 or www.southeastexpeditions.net