Feeling an urge for wilderness and to enjoy a day that was not bitter cold, raining or snowing, I headed to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. The western side of the 9,000 acre refuge abuts some of the last rural areas and farmland in the sprawling city of Virginia Beach. The eastern boundary is the Atlantic ocean and a wild strip of mostly pristine beach and dunes. In between are wide areas of open brackish water, marsh and maritime forest. The refuge is a vital habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, but especially for shore birds and migratory geese and ducks.
Near the visitor's center there are several trails that take you through the marsh and a stunted forest of Bald Cypress, Hackberry, Wax Myrtle, Black Cherry, Persimmon and Live Oak. This close to the ocean, none of the trees grow any taller than the nearby dunes - the wind and salt spray keep them pruned. Underneath is a tangled mass of Japanese Honeysuckle, Blueberry, Trumpet Vine, Poison Ivy and Smilax. With the thick growth and abundant water, you can imagine what the insects are like in summer and what prime habitat it is for snakes (venomous and otherwise), but in late February you need only worry about wet feet.
The dunes are a dynamic, ever changing system that protect the rest of the refuge from winds, storms and saltwater flooding. In between the dunes is a sparse landscape where if you couldn't hear the constant breaking waves, you might think you were in the desert southwest. This is my favorite part of the refuge. Right now it is a pleasant break from the winds on the beach, but in the summer it is a scorching cauldron, and is a difficult place for anything to grow, no matter the time of year.
For the most part, the dogs and I had the the beach to ourselves Saturday. The water was very clear, relatively calm and after this winter's temperatures, it will be a long while before it warms. The cold waters of the Atlantic and the Chesapeake will likely delay and extend spring for us, while the rest of the state has moved on.
Eastward is Andalusia, Spain - after crossing 3700 miles of open ocean.