Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Voluntary Castaway of Wreck Island

Playing Robinson Crusoe on a small sandspit off the Virginia coast is a miniature of everything gentle in nature—and everything violent

Wreck Island was my home and world for seven long days. The notion to go there had come to me earlier in the spring when I was musing, as a city man sometimes will, about how crowded life can become. Most of us never spend so much as a day away from humankind—and yet solitude can be an adventure. I thought of Wreck Island.

Six miles off the little Virginia village of Oyster, the island is no more than a thin barrier reef of sand in that fragile chain of outer banks that reaches south from Chincoteague to Cape Charles. It is a wilderness of desolation that was purchased recently for Virginia's Natural Areas System, a public preserve of sand three miles long and nowhere higher than 10 or 12 feet. It is reckoned to have nearly 1,000 acres, 500 of which are tidal marshes on the western side that stay flooded a good part of the time. All of the remaining "high land" shows signs of having been swept clean by storm seas at one time or another. A man would be a fool to put a building there.

A sandy loam of sorts had built up behind the low dunes at the island's northern end, where a prairie of shore grasses gives shelter to mink and otter. I believe it must also be the home for at least 50% of the world's mosquitoes. The southern section, once known as Bone Island when the reef was split by an inlet, is scarcely more than a wide beach whose western slope, sprinkled with tufts of a broad-leafed plant, inclines into the vast marshes of South Bay. In the far distance is a thin, dark line of mainland forest. There are bits and pieces of ragged islands in every direction except toward the rising sun, where there is nothing to see but the immense, uncaring sea.

I wanted the privacy the sea affords as a relief from the public character of my workaday life. I brought to the island neither the skills of an outdoorsman nor the endurance of an explorer. I had only my curiosity. Wreck Island and I were uninhibited in what we might make of each other.

We have all read with wonder of the months of meticulous preparation that discipline those teams whose expeditions write our geography. I cannot claim such a routine, satisfying as the presumption would be. Aside from walking the three miles to my Washington office each morning—which I would have done in any case—I undertook no particular exercise or conditioning. I arranged in advance for a warden of Virginia's Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries to boat me to the island, but I had not even rented a tent until 4 p.m. on the afternoon preceding departure. My few groceries were bought that same evening. There was no need to make a great production out of the business of living alone on a sandbar for a week.

The Sunday of embarkation brought June weather of high expectations. A southeasterly breeze freshened the sun-crisp salt air. Coming abreast of Wreck's northern beach at Sand Shoal Inlet at 10 a.m., we bounced past the decommissioned Coast Guard station on the heel of Cobb Island, turning south in a lively sea for the run down Wreck's shimmering sand beach.

The last half mile of Wreck is but the barest sandspit projecting incautiously into the turbulent waters of New Inlet, to the north of Ship Shoal Island. Probing the inlet, Game Refuge Supervisor Granville Ross eased his boat around a little cape of oyster shells. The low tide held us to an outlying mooring on the oyster bar, from which Ross and I made three trips across the shells to a place midway up the sandspit where I elected to establish camp. We made the most of each trip, so that carrying the gear was a perspiring sort of job. Near my campsite was the rotting carcass of a young hammerhead shark. We guessed that it had been stranded a week before when a mean nor'easter had swept the spot. We debated going farther to the north, but a check of the storm's high-water mark indicated that we would have had to go at least half a mile beyond this point to find a less vulnerable site in the event of another storm. I reasoned that the odds were with me for a bivouac of only seven days, so I buried the hammerhead and let my gear remain where it lay.

Once more I confirmed the plan for my pickup the following Sunday morning. Then Ross left. His boat pushed quickly into South Bay toward Man and Boy Marsh and the short route to Oyster. The last human being I was to see for seven days became a small white spot in the distance, and disappeared. I was not sorry to see him go. I was for the first time in my 40-odd years left to my own resources. Yet I had the bursting vitality of this island world to entertain me, to test me and, perhaps, in the last accounting to become a sort of part of me.

I put up the tent and arranged my paraphernalia inside it. My food and one of three five-gallon water jugs were packed in the corner to the right of the entrance. I had decided that I would eat only for subsistence. This was a wise decision, considering the way my collapsible stove operated.

At the left of the door I stored my lantern and flashlight, the stove, extra fuel for each of these devices, cans of insect spray and similar hardware. The air mattress lay across the floor, reaching almost from edge to edge of the tent's graceful umbrella-pitched sides. I kept my sleeping bag (which my sons had seasoned on a dozen trips into Shenandoah Park) rolled tight for a daytime backrest.

To the right beyond the mattress were the two extra water jugs and my clothes. The jugs remained untouched; the stack of clothes nearly so. Within a matter of hours I discovered loose-fitting under-shorts to be the best all-purpose trousers, equally suitable for hiking, swimming and sleeping. They washed easily and were brief enough to dry in service, so to speak. Two worn denim shirts completed the uniform. The unused variety of clothes I had with me would have sufficed for a week at Kennebunkport.

In the far left corner I made an orderly pile of my camera and binoculars, a quantity of extra film, my writing paper, a clipboard and a ragged copy of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds, which is as indispensable to me in traveling as a credit card. I purposely brought no "reading books," since I was determined that no author should intrude between Wreck and me. For better or worse, we two were going it alone.

Glare from the sand and sea filled my little green room. A breeze washed through the cloth screens of the three windows and door. It seemed too comfortable to be true.

Outside I raised my big yellow umbrella against the sun, set the beach chair in its patch of shade and stepped back to wonder at this ordered little outpost of human peculiarity amidst so much uncompromising space. But I was by no means alone. With an innocence I would come to regret, I had chosen a site at the edge of a rookery of shore birds. Terns and black skimmers nested together on the flat that reached from my beachline to the rim of the marsh. Their nests came to within 20 or 30 feet of my tent. Both species were recklessly intrusive. They seemed to regard my presence as equally so. I could not leave the tent without setting off an uproar. This trying situation continued throughout the entire week.

I was convinced by Monday night that the colony of terns had selected a particular bird to take care of me—either that, or this bird had a demonic initiative. The whole lot of them, a hundred or more, would take to the air at sight of me, wheeling high overhead with a whizzing sort of chatter that might have been ten thousand electronic chickens. Suddenly a tern would dive at me like a rock, continuing the maneuver until I was beyond his province of concern. Invariably he came at me from the back, swooping so close that my head was brushed by the air his wings deflected. The exploit was accompanied by a piercing scream. I named this bird Frank, after a plumber who had done some work for me recently.

Each time he dived I instinctively looked up in anger for the little beast, and Frank, climbing fast, would twist his head to peer back at me with contemptuous curiosity—a strangely unbirdlike act from which a man alone on the shore could take little solace.

The black skimmers, on the other hand, had nothing comparable to Frank to send into the air. Their maneuvers against me were undertaken en masse, as wave upon wave of the spectacular birds would come in toward me low and from the front, honking like rush-hour taxi drivers.

I began each day soon after 5 while dawn was still fresh in the air. The ocean glittered in the early light like a cold, fluid sapphire. The sun came up fast. Its light flooded the island. By 7 there was scarcely a shadow anywhere.

Since my stove was no match for the incessant wind, despite a variety of shelters I built around it, I came to learn that cold instant coffee is by no means as distasteful as the idea of it. I would drink several cups, waiting for the kinks to untangle in my back. The air mattress did not take well to my 200 pounds.

Then, still dressed in my nightclothes (undershorts and denim shirt), I would strike off up the sand, spirits flying. With the first screaming assault from Frank I knew the day had begun in earnest. Sometimes I took my camera, sometimes the binoculars. To hike the full stretch to the far end of the northern head, or hook, and return was a trip of seven miles at which I spent about three hours, allowing for those pokings and pauses that are irresistible on a beach.

Wreck and I got acquainted within the first several days. We had ample chance to take one another's measure. To begin with, there are at every sand beach two routes a wanderer can choose from, since the high tides leave an upper shelf of jetsam that becomes in time a sort of storehouse for the world's imperishable refuse, and a lower line that is the thin, damp deposit of the receding waves. I alternated between them, depending on my mood. The upper beach was littered with basic symbols of man's modern life: electric light bulbs, milk and egg cartons, whiskey bottles—the remnants of things that seemed wonderfully unimportant from an island perspective. An international motif ran throughout: a crate stenciled with Japanese characters, a Spanish wine bottle, a woven mat from the Orient. There were giant timbers that seemed too heavy for even the ocean to lift. I found the body of a young bird, dry in the summer's heat, and remembered the assurance that not even a sparrow falls....

The lower beach was nearly barren. I came across an occasional evidence of subsurface life: a twisting ribbon of heaped sand or a tiny syphon hole. There were the scattered, surf-broken remains of calico crabs and spider crabs, and—rarely—a young blue crab. Yet I found nothing alive, aside from the birds that fed in the shallow wake of the waves. With their eyes I could have discerned the abundant life that attracted them. Without their eyes, however, I turned to gathering the limpet and razor-clam shells that life was done with.

I found at both ends of Wreck large natural deposits of oyster shells, reflecting the favorable environment that existed at some time in these inlets for oyster propagation. Also, the southern flats were rich in a selection of snails and whelks. Sand dollars, on the other hand, were almost exclusively at the northeast corner; and I discovered the delicate, translucent jingle shells in a section of the northern head no more than 100 feet wide.

The search for shells is much like eating popcorn, and I kept at it for several hours' running without a thought for anything but what the next yard or two of sand might yield. These fragile discards from the sea represent so well both the diversity and the continuity of nature that the collection of them is itself a kind of identification with the larger world where there is so much more than just oneself.

The beach directly in front of my camp was a phenomenal thing. I had seen nothing like it elsewhere on the Atlantic coast. It was a tidal flat similar to the flats of Maine which the sea will flood to a depth of several feet and then drain of everything but scattered algae-and-mussel-laden ponds in the magic six-hour cycle of the tides. However, in Maine these flats are inland from the open sea. The maze of coastal islands protects them. They are sheltered and soundlike.

The quarter mile at the southern end of Wreck, to the contrary, was directly on the open ocean. Nothing sheltered it short of the Azores. Yet at low tide a mucky table of sludge, sea grass and mussel shells reached at least 150 yards seaward from the high-water mark near my camp. Sweeping rivers of clean sand washed through it, forming ponds in their largest bends where the sun warmed the water that waited there for the tide's return. Birds fed here by the hundreds. The muck was alive with many sorts of sandworms building an array of minute towers and ridges. The calm, shallow water teemed with hermit crabs, scampering for food under shelter of an endless assortment of borrowed hiding places.

As the time arrived for my daily "swim" before lunch, the morning's explorations finished, I shed my shirt to sit waist-deep in these warm and healing shallow waters. It was a ritual, celebrated either at my doorstep if the tide was in or at the far edge of the flats when it was out. It will not seem a particularly robust practice to surfboarders, for instance. But then for once I did not have to give a second thought to what anyone would think. I was free to pursue an inclination as a man is seldom free, for Wreck was quite indifferent to my human whimsy. And in this case my inclination was to sit peacefully and undisturbed by anything but Frank, so soothed by the sea's waters that I was sometimes almost oblivious to him. I would remain in this state for perhaps 45 minutes.

Lunch was a little can of this or that, unheated, topped off with an orange or several cookies. There was never a better place or time for a nap. The middays of the whole week were beautiful. I would lie on the air mattress, shaded and cool and safe from the birds. From the distance of both Wreck's northern shore and the shoals of New Inlet I could hear the low, rhythmic beat of waves collapsing at the end of a journey that might have begun half an ocean away. They were not a part of the island. They did not belong to it like the birds and shells and grass did, or even as I was coming to belong. For we living things that were part of the little place had no defense against the sea. It came to affect us. We could hope only to endure. And there was always the chance it might flood the reef again before my week was done. I had planned no defense against such an emergency. There would then be nothing to do but leave my gear in its path and seek the security of the dunes to the north.

In the afternoon an hour's walk would do, usually for some undemanding chore such as the gathering of angel-wing shells or the examination of the patterns of the darker mineral sands across the light tan underlayer of quartz. It was an island schedule I kept, undisturbed by mainland concerns, which were so easily set aside in this raw world.

Supper was at an early 5:30, consisting of much the same subsistence fare that had been my lunch. With evening, the birds began to feed again in earnest, particularly if the tide was low. The black skimmers ripped the water with their lower beaks, sometimes as much as 50 feet at a run. The terns dived from their flight pattern high above the skimmers, hitting the sea for a flashing instant in the search for food. Someone must have been feeding Frank. He never took time off to fish. Dowitchers, willets, sandpipers and the numerous oyster catchers would turn up, sometimes in considerable numbers. The oyster catchers looked like stubby, preliminary models for the more graceful but similarly colored skimmers. Several times, at the distant edge of the flat, I could see a snowy egret, its identifying yellow feet vivid through my binoculars.

Before darkness had blackened the island I made sure to be ready for night. There was little enough to do: tie the flap covers over my screened windows, retrieve anything from the beach that rain might damage, brush my teeth. Having nothing to read I had little use for the lantern. It was good to fall asleep with the day, full of sun and salt air, tired from the heat and exercise, troubled by no great thoughts and feeling no need to apologize that I had none.

In contrast to such sweet lethargy, Wreck Island was the scene of evidences of the natural world's power that I shall never forget. There were three storms. Each came at night. The first was Monday, my second night on the island, and it blew my umbrella inside out. The second came on Friday, the third on Saturday. Fortunately none was a true nor'easter, and none came at high tide. The sea never reached my tent.

Yet each was worse in its raging intensity than the preceding one. I had never before been distracted by lightning and thunder, and I thought the wind a concern only for sailors. On Wreck I came to cope with these things more directly than I had imagined myself doing. For a time I was aware of nothing in the world but storm.

Saturday's storm awoke me with a far rumble of thunder. It was 10:45 p.m. and my last night on the island. For 15 minutes I lay in the darkness listening to these rolling cadences of thunder grow more frequent as they moved toward me from the north. Bursts of sheet lightning stretched across 180° of sky from west to east, rising from the horizon's rim to the very center of the heavens, that far-off apex toward which this turmoil that tore and splintered the darkness seemed to aim. By 11 o'clock the rain and wind broke open. My tent leaked a fine, incessant mist. The walls pressed in as if a thousand tons of sand were heaped against them.

The lightning came and surrounded me. I lived in the heart of it. Time after time I saw through the tent's torn-open door the lightning bolt into the sea. For 10 or 12 unbroken minutes the sheets of flash were so rapidly overlapping that I could have read by their light. Noises roared out of the wind that were indescribable. Finally I was drenched, and all I had in the tent was drenched except for a single parcel wrapped in plastic.

I sat in this violence, helpless on my little sand heap, wet as rain is wet, buffeted by the snarling wind, deafened by it, wondering what the lightning would feel like if it came to where I was. The terror did not pass until after 3 a.m. My vigil had lasted more than four hours. I heard the skimmers begin to talk it over. Then I fell asleep, exhausted from nothing more ennobling than fear itself.

With dawn I was awake again and on my feet. I gathered the soaked gear together for transfer to the boat when it arrived. The wind was strong, but the sky was clearing. There were patches of blue overhead. It was cold. I put on my wet sweat shirt. The storm had left a froth of whitecaps on the sea. My first glimpse of the boat coming down the coast—it had just turned south from Sand Shoal Inlet—was like the sight of a chariot swinging low.

I had lost four pounds and gained a deep suntan. I had several hundred photographs, a first-rate collection of the region's shells and more than a speaking acquaintance with terns. Frank plummeted down on me one last time as the boat pushed off. His scream was a farewell. We had both survived. Warden John W. Crumb took me to his home in Oyster for a hot shower.

It was good to be back. I had endured myself. I had lived very close to the rhythm of the natural world, setting aside for a week the affairs and concerns of men. To generalize beyond that would be idle talk. This one thing seems sure, though: most likely I will never return. There seems no need.