False Cape After Dark

False Cape State Park is a beautiful place. At least, I think it is. The trees, dunes and ocean looked pretty cool under an almost-full moon. I’m sure it’s quite lovely under the sun.

False Cape is located south of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which sits south of Virginia Beach. In fact, the only way to get to False Cape is by hiking, biking, or taking a tram through the refuge. I suppose you could also take a boat (but don’t quote me on that one), and apparently there are like 7 people who can drive up from North Carolina (more on that later), but for most of us, getting there takes some effort.

The After Dark program was a ranger-led evening that took us on a tram about four miles through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge as the sun set.

Back Bay is a massive, human-built and maintained habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. It was created in response to troubling trends in waterfowl population, and now serves as a major stopover point for birds migrating south via the Atlantic Flyway. It’s also a safe haven for a bunch of endangered or threatened animals including sea turtles and piping plovers.

Dogs aren’t allowed on Back Bay for obvious reasons, so it’s not a surprise this is was my first visit. It would be fun to go back and walk the trails, as it seems like a lovely place.

False Cape State Park got its name from the unfortunate fact that the coastline looks remarkably similar to Cape Henry, which is the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Many an unlucky or navigationally challenged ship has run aground on False Cape; if you want a fascinating story, look up “Life Saving Stations”, a predecessor to the Coast Guard, where brave souls walked the beach looking for stranded ships and devising interesting ways to save the people on board. Our ranger guide shared many a tale about intrepid rescues (see “breeches buoys“) and losses (see “The Clythia“, a wreck where the people were saved but the priceless marble was not).

Anyway, once we got to False Cape, we drove through a maritime forest, accompanied by stories of the natives and Europeans who once lived there, hardy folk who used guinea hens and geese to keep the insects and snakes at bay, and built their floors so they could removed during hurricanes to keep their houses from being swept away.

The “hike” portion of the event was a short walk through what looked like gorgeous white sand dunes dotted with live oaks and other bushes. Because it was an almost full moon, we didn’t need our flashlights and couldn’t see all the stars, but we got our dose of the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, The Pleiades and other winter star staples. I learned about the Winter Circle, which features 7 stars from various constellations including Castor, Pollux and Sirius. In all my star-gazing I’d never heard of that circle before. Very cool.

The ranger also found a fun way to educate the crew about Leave No Trace principles; she pulled out “scent bottles” with coffee and toothpaste scents and informed us that we were smarter than coyotes since we could distinguish those smells from food, while coyotes couldn’t. It was a clever way to remind folks to properly store food when in the wilderness.

The tide was high and the waves were roaring when we reached the beach. Under the light of the moon, it was pretty gorgeous, but of course IPhone photos can’t do it justice.

Standing on the beach, we were astonished to see what looked like a car to the south; the ranger explained that there are a few people who are given permission to drive CARS up and down the coastline for medical or supply reasons (I might have that story wrong, but we definitely saw the headlights of a car fading away).

On the way back through the park and the refuge, we learned that this area used to be a no man’s land between Virginia and North Carolina, a place that was missed by inaccurate surveys of the land, where taxes weren’t collected and laws weren’t enforced. Thus, a lot of people found their way to the spits and barrier islands, despite the land’s inherant inhospitability.

At any rate, despite the fact that I froze my butt off on the tram and couldn’t stop shivering for an hour when I got home, it was a fun evening of learning. While I would have liked more hiking and less driving, I still found the whole history of the area fascinating, and our guide to be fun and knowledgeable. I hope to go back and see the place in the daytime sometime soon.

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