New Year’s Day Beach Walk on Assateague

New Year’s Day Beach Walk on Assateague

(Dec. 26, 2014) Get some fresh air and be surrounded by nature during Assateague Coastal Trust ‘s 35th annual Ilia Fehrer/Judy Johnson New Year’s Day Beach Walk at Assateague State Park on Thursday, Jan. 1.

Former National State Park Service Ranger, Chris Seymour will be leading the group north, up the beach to scenic and pristine views, with Ocean City’s strip in the distance. Everyone will meet on the deck of the concession stand next to the beach, said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.

“[Seymour] loves to guide the annual beach walk for ACT,” she said.

The retired Park Ranger has led the New Year’s Day Beach Walk for more than 25 years and only missed two years during that time due to a government shutdown and retirement.

Seymour likes to choose a theme for the annual walk and this year he will focus on “finding your own island.” The event will concentrate on revealing the other habitats and zones of Assateague Island. He will shy away from the familiar sunny beaches and wild ponies’ aspect of the National Park.

The route will begin with the wild and remote areas from the ocean surf zone, back past the primary dune to the island’s interior. He will pause in the inner dune and highlight the difference shelter makes behind the protective dune.

Next, Seymour will lead the group inland to see the shrub or thicket zone where animals and plants get their first shelter, while following sand grains back to a unique, maritime forest, which is being swallowed by the moving island. The tour will end on the bayside marsh where Assateague is rolling on itself and making new land in the coastal bay.

“We want to invite the folks attending to come back for a little solitude and absorb these different habitats by sitting still, listening, feeling and even smelling the subtle differences of each one. Their own “island within an island,” Seymour said.

The walk has uncovered skeletons of sea life, clam shells from thousands of years ago, boat wrecks, dolphin carcasses and even a giant navigation buoy was spotted from Egg Harbor, N.J. throughout the last 34 years.

The length and time of the beach walk varies, depending on the weather, but make sure to dress accordingly. The average time is about 1.5 to 2 hours. If it’s a nice day, Seymour can keep talking and walking. People can choose to walk as far as they want and turn back whenever, Phillips said.

The ACT office started a tradition years ago, when the beach walk first began. Everyone who participated would sign a clam shell to record the memories. This started when only 20 people were participating and these days the crowds the walk sees would fill up a few clam shells. The shells are displayed in their office to remind everyone how special the New Year’s Beach Walk is to everyone involved.

Anywhere from 100 to 400 people come out every year and the numbers fluctuate depending on the weather. Last year, the frigid weather did not deter more than 100 people in participating. 

“Some years everyone is bundled up like Eskimos and other years its T-shirt weather,” Phillips said.

The history of the beach walk is as rich as Assateague Island itself.

In the early 1970s, Judy Johnson formed the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island to draw attention to its beauty.

Around the same time, Ilia Fehrer, of Snow Hill, came down to Assateague on New Year’s Day wanting to reconnect with the wilderness and shake off New Year’s Eve. She was an avid voice in preserving the wetlands and shorelines on Assateague Island. Her family continued to join every year, even coming down from Baltimore. The invite went out to Assateague Coastal Trust, formally the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island to join and members started participating. It became bigger and bigger every year, Phillips said.

“It’s a family tradition that turned into an organization’s tradition. We just keep it going,” Phillips said.

The first beach walk was organized by Ilia Fehrer and Judy Johnson on Jan. 1, 1980, the same year former President Jimmy Carter declared “Year of the Coast.”

The New Year’s Day tradition is now named in their honor.

“Part of what this walk is about is to remember our founders and their efforts to preserve Assateague Island,” Phillips said. “The continued goal of keeping the island undeveloped and natural.”

Entry to the park is free for the New Year’s walk and volunteers will be present to help distribute hot chocolate and cookies on the meeting deck.

“What better way to get out in the weather and onto the beach. We are reminded how special it is to have Assateague Island in our backyards, Phillips said. “It’s a great way to clear your head and make promises for the new year. Get outside and enjoy nature. It’s the best way to enjoy the new year.”

Meet ACT staff and Seymour at the Assateague State Park concession stand at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 1 to join the walk. From Route 50, follow Route 611 south across the Verrazano Bridge, then drive to the end of the road and turn right into the State Park’s parking lot

Call ACT at 410-629-1538 for more information.

Former National Park Service Ranger, Chris Seymour,
has been guiding the Assateague Beach Walk for more
than 25 years.
PHOTO COURTESY: MATT HEIM

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