If you’re looking for an authentic ecotourism experience in Coastal Virginia, this is a nature site you’ll want to experience.
Our Sierra Club group had an awesome time recently on our excursion to the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park, in Sandbridge.
Upon arrival at Little Island Park (3820 Sandpiper Road) at 8:30 am, the Terragator was waiting to take us to the wilderness reserve. Our guides, Bruce and Margaret Julian, active members of the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club, were amazing. They led us on our adventure to False Cape State Park.
What’s a Terragator? It’s a massive, yellow, one-of-a kind vehicle with a roomy interior. We wore seat belts to keep from bouncing around on the marshlands. To me, the Terragator was a monstrous tank on massive wheels that glided over sand like an alligator. Bruce hyperbolized, tongue in cheek, that it was named for the two owners that created it. But it was named by “Terra,” meaning earth and “Gator,” from Vermont native, Mr. John Deer (1804-1886), who built high-performance crossover, traditional and military vehicles that moved like alligators.
Bruce adeptly transported us across 9 miles of pristine beach to False Cape State Park (4001 Sandpiper Road), the southernmost state park in Virginia. This parkland of 4,321 acres is bordered by the Back Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Bruce highlighted that the Back Bay water is driven by wind — not by tides. In one night, southern winds could flood roads while northern winds could blow the water away. Ironically, the Back Bay is sometimes so shallow that you can walk out 150 feet – it all depends on the wind…
As the morning progressed, the gray clouds gave way to sunshine. On our journey there, we spotted sportive dolphins, joyfully arcing out over the sparkling ocean – maybe feeding on mackerel. Once we turned onto the path to False Cape Park, Bruce stopped the vehicle, got out of the car and pulled up a dead merganser (a crested duck native to the area) that a bald eagle was ready to devour before we scared it off. (Thankfully, American Bald Eagles have made a comeback and were removed from the endangered species list in 2007.) Other animals that inhabit the area are coyotes, foxes, rabbits (marsh and cotton tail), ospreys — and even bears and water moccasins. Feral pigs are an ongoing problem because they dig up the marshland and destroy the land; they’ve become nocturnal to avoid human encounters so are hard to trap.
After a stop at the False Cape Visitor’s Center, we reboarded the Terragator and headed to Wash Woods. Bruce explained the fascinating history of the settlement of Wash Woods, a community of around 300 citizens who arrived in the 1800’s by surviving a shipwreck that washed them ashore.
“The name Wash Woods reflects the hardiness of the people who lived here; during storms, water from the ocean would be ‘washed’ over the dunes to the little community,” he said. A hurricane in 1933 forced them to move to outlying areas. Some original settlers who passed away are buried on the premises in a cemetery with gravestones marked by shells instead of flowers. Only the steeple remains of their church, now enclosed in a small, house-like structure to protect it from the elements. As time passed, the area became the City of Virginia Beach in the 1950’s, and land was designated in the 1980’s to be this open, secluded park. The area is only accessible by walking, biking, or via the Terragator or tram.
We also had the good fortune to visit the former hunting club, now serving as an environmental center. The wooden interior with bunk beds was spacious and homey, with a fully-equipped kitchen and large windows overlooking the Back Bay. The deck offered majestic views of pines, sky, and wildlife. Here we sighted tundra swans flying overhead with wings outstretched, amid the thunderous roar of fighter jets whose pilots protect our freedom. Margaret shared with us that the environmental center accommodates up to 26 people at a daily rate of $200 for environmental groups who are there to take classes, such as kayaking or land conservation and wildlife preservation.
It was time to go back. En route, Bruce pointed out that the bald eagle did get to feast on the dead merganser… and then coyote tracks on the bright sand attracted our attention… we Sierra Club adventurers returned home with a story to tell!