Shifting sands: Virginia’s barrier islands are constantly on the move

The islands' presence and changeability help the coastline absorb storms and scientists to study shorebird nesting patterns and water quality

The beach at Hog Island. | Photo: Gordon Campbell, At Altitude Gallery

Scanning the sparse street signs, I drive slowly through the hamlet of Willis Wharf on Virginia’s Eastern Shore until I find what I’m looking for: Hog Island Lane. In 1933, an unnamed Atlantic hurricane wiped out much of Hog Island including the maritime forest of pine trees that held the sand in place. In the late 1930s, when the residents realized it was no longer safe to stay, six houses were loaded onto barges and transported from the barrier island to Willis Wharf. 

Today, the six Hog Island houses have been expanded and updated. Even in its prime, when 250 people lived on the island, the residents had no electricity or running water. As I look at the houses, I wonder what’s ahead for other similar coastal communities. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise everywhere and weather has become increasingly violent and unpredictable. Will other coastal dwellers need to follow the Hog Islanders’ lead?

Along the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 23 barrier islands stretch for 70 miles—from the southern end of Assateague Island all the way to Fisherman Island, where the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel crosses the bay to Virginia Beach. Barrier islands, by nature, are constantly on the move. Their presence and changeability help the coastline absorb storms and keep the mainland residents—those inside the islands and marshes—safer.

The most famous and populated Virginia barrier island is Chincoteague, immortalized by Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague series about the wild horses that live there. Many of the islands were once home to thriving communities of watermen who caught and hunted the ample sea and bird life. Cobb and Hog islands once boasted hunting clubs and hotels where some of the wealthiest on the East Coast came to play. Wallops Island is home to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, but the remainder of these islands are now uninhabited. 

Exploring unmanned islands

Uninhabited islands call to me like few other things. It’s the fall of 2018 when I explore several barrier islands with ecotour guide Meriwether Payne of Seaside Ecotours, who takes me out in her Carolina skiff. Setting off from the fishing village of Wachapreague, we cross rich meadows of salt marsh where birds, crabs, fish, clams, and oysters abound. These islands are a birder’s paradise. At one point, Payne hushes me to listen to a warbling cry. “That’s a whimbrel,” she says, scanning the marshes. We eventually spy its striped head and curved beak and also observe oystercatchers, a snowy egret, sandpipers, and a juvenile eagle.

At Dawson Shoals, an outlying curve of sand that faces the Atlantic’s mighty wave action, Payne drops me off at the deserted beach. Barefoot, I wade along the shoreline, circumnavigating the island in 15 minutes. A flock of black skimmers—tern-like birds that skim the water to fish—loudly objected to my presence. While many islands are open during the day for recreation, some sections are seasonally off limits to protect nesting birds.

Hog Island Lane in Willis Wharf.
Hog Island Lane in Willis Wharf. | Photo: Amy Brecount White

Cedar Island, our next destination, now boasts few cedars and has moved 500 feet in the last 10 years, migrating closer to the mainland. In the 1970s, the island was divided into beach lots, and owners built houses. We see pilings still in the ocean, remnants of 35 houses that were washed away, moved inland, or burned to the ground. “Some of them were pretty fancy,” says Payne, who vacationed here as a child. These days, the rising water sometimes washes over parts of the island—a phenomenon referred to as “overwash”—which can reconfigure its topography and vegetation. It’s an ideal spot for birding or collecting shells, but not for living.

The Barrier Island Center 

While most barrier island communities are only a memory, the immersive Barrier Island Center in Machipongo helps me envision what life was once like there. Located in a restored 1890s almshouse, the center keeps a unique existence alive by displaying treasured artifacts passed down to descendants and sharing their stories. The site is also home to a separate 1910 African American almshouse, now used as an education building.

Walking into the inviting building, my eyes are drawn to a breeches buoy (a life buoy with canvas breeches attached) used by the lifesaving service to rescue sailors off floundering ships. Artfully suspended above a wooden ship’s helm, the buoy and its vital ropes help me imagine what a sailor might feel in a wild storm. The center offers films about aspects of island life, so before exploring more, I watch Our Island Home, a 20-minute film featuring four Hog Islanders, among the last people born there.

At its peak, Broadwater—a tight-knit and independent community on Hog Island—had 250 residents, two general stores, a post office, a church, and an elementary school. They caught, hunted, or grew their own food, raised sheep, and spun their own wool. The island was known for its boisterous Fourth of July celebrations and picnics, and one of the film’s narrators describes it as “a little Eden.” 

The breeches buoy inside the Barrier Island Center.
Inside the Barrier Island Center. | Photo: Amy Brecount White
Artifacts inside the Barrier Island Center.
Artifacts inside the Barrier Island Center. | Photo: Amy Brecount White

Each room in the center focuses on a different aspect of barrier island life, from the recreation of a meal at the exclusive Cobb Island Hotel to a section showcasing the eight life-saving stations and the brave locals that manned them. There’s also a display of duck decoys carved and painted by islanders. Strolling through the artfully displayed heirlooms, I smile at a photo of locals in modest bathing suits. My eyes dance from one cleverly displayed artifact—spindles, salt cellars, tools, and skiffs— to another. I scan maps of the thousands of wrecks that occurred on these shores. In fact, “wrecker,” someone who salvages from wrecks, is listed as an occupation on the 1870 census. 

After leaving their beloved island, Hog Islanders faced another challenge. Some of the mainlanders looked down on their speech patterns, and they were often referred to as lazy. Some islanders still recall that pain, but the Barrier Island Center has helped heal those prejudices.

Executive Director Laura Vaughan tells me that when the center opened, a quiet Hog Islander approached her. “I have something I need to say,” he told her. “We never thought we would experience what it feels like to feel proud of who you are and where you came from.” Now they do. 

Beach erosion at Hog Island.
Beach erosion at Hog Island. | Photo: Gordon Campbell, At Altitude Gallery

A scientist’s playground

Fifty years ago, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) started buying up these barrier islands and now the organization owns 14, including most of Hog Island, which make up their Virginia Coast Reserve. 

The United Nations designated this area an International Biosphere Reserve because of its rarity and scientific value as the Eastern seaboard’s largest stretch of wild coastline. These islands are a scientist’s dream because they are shaped by the hand of nature, rather than human interference. Researchers from TNC, the University of Virginia’s Coastal Research Center, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) study everything from shorebird nesting patterns to water quality and salinity to changes in vegetation that impact an island’s size.

Because there’s little human impact on these islands, what scientists can perceive now are “big, regional, and global processes playing out,” says Cora Johnston, the site director for UVA’s center in Oyster. “And then we can take what we learn and think about what this means for places where people do live on barrier islands, where [the islands] can’t respond naturally” to changes, such as stronger storms or higher waters. “This is one of the last places where we can really watch how the whole system works together,” she says. 

Buck Doughty at the Univeristy of Virginia docks in Oyster, VA.
Buck Doughty at the Univeristy of Virginia docks in Oyster. | Photo: Amy Brecount White

Other scientists restore seagrass and build oyster “castles” to help protect the mainland and replenish the crab, oyster, and fish populations. They often work with local industries, as they did decades ago when the oyster population crashed, and scientists from VIMS helped local businesses develop a thriving hard clam aquaculture. At the Island House restaurant, I tuck into fresh clams farmed only miles away.

In Oyster, I also talk with UVA’s facilities mechanic, Buck Doughty, whose ancestors are from Hog Island. Often on his recreational or work trips there, he’ll find traces of their lives, such as an 1800s blob top wine bottle he found near the old mail dock. He goes whenever he can, “just to feel what my ancestors did.”

“The water keeps you on your toes,” Doughty says. “The tides change, the winds pick up—you’re always alert of what’s going on. It makes you intelligent inwardly.”