Assateague Island National Seashore, which sits on a 37-mile-long sliver of land just off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, is gradually shuffling west. Over centuries, as hurricanes and nor’easters drive sand from its Atlantic beaches across the island and into its bayside marshes, the entire island is scooting closer to the coast.
“It’s neat, isn’t it?” says Ishmael Ennis, hunching against a stiff spring wind. “Evolution!” He grins at the beach before him. It’s littered with tree stumps, gnarled branches, and chunks of peat the size of seat cushions—the remains of a marsh that once formed the western shore of the island. Later buried by storm-shifted sand, it’s now resurfacing to the east, as the island shuffles on.
Ennis, who recently retired after 34 years as maintenance chief at Assateague, has seen his share of storms here. This national seashore, in fact, owes its existence to a nor’easter: In March 1962, when the legendary Ash Wednesday storm plowed into Assateague, it obliterated the nascent resort of Ocean Beach, destroying its road, its first 30 buildings, and its developers’ dreams. (Street signs erected for nonexistent streets were left standing in a foot of seawater.) Taking advantage of that setback, conservationists persuaded Congress in 1965 to protect most of the island as part of the National Park System. Today it’s the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island on the mid-Atlantic coast, beloved for its shaggy feral ponies, its unobstructed stargazing, and its quiet ocean vistas—which have always been punctuated, as they are on other barrier islands, by impressive storms.