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.