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Marine adventure offers many experiences

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - What a disappointment.The shell I picked up wasn't a sand dollar at all. It was a five-keyhole sea urchin.

The marine biologists, all in their 20s, at Virginia's Marine Science Consortium identified it, as they did everything we pulled onto the research boat in a trawl net or found on the beach or saw from boat, bus or trail.

And my misidentification of the urchin - actually a close relative of the sand dollar - was about the only letdown in the six-days Road Scholar program focusing on Virginia's Eastern Islands of Chincoteague, Assateague and Wallops.

It was our third adventure with the nonprofit adult educational travel program developed by Elderhostel Inc., and now called Road Scholar adventures. The minimum age, once 55, is now 40.

We've found the program offers knowledgeable instructors, a variety of experiences, congenial attendees, transportation, lodging, and, yes, good food, all for a reasonable price.

Our hosts for this venture were staff members of the multi-disciplinary field and research station operated by Marine Science Consortium, composed of 11 members, West Virginia University among them. All others are Pennsylvania schools.

We were among 24 Road Scholar enrollees, half in our "Discover the Islands" program and the others exploring in kayaks. We met together several times, including the opening evening dinner, a steamed seafood extravaganza in the consortium's education center.

We were warned to stand back for perspiring staff members carrying drained commercial-size steamer baskets of freshly caught crabs, shrimp, corn on the cob and whole potatoes. They poured the contents down tables covered with newspapers and wooden hammers. It was a bit messy and more than we could devour. They promised us anything left would be used.

During the week, our group traveled via a former school bus. It took us across the causeway to the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. It rumbled down a service road closed to the general public where we saw dozens of the famous Assateague wild ponies, many giving rides to cattle egrets devouring pests. The biologist pointed out an endangered fox squirrel we had learned of in a talk by a refuge ranger.

We visited the red-and-white striped Assateague Island Lighthouse, a 112-foot structure that is still operating. It stood on the tip of the island when it was built in 1867, but shifting sands have left it about five miles inland.

Some of us earned a "I Made it to the Top!" sticker, but no one thought to ask about its future if climate change causes the ocean to rise over the island as we later learned may occur.

A Georgia resident did ask the fish and wildlife ranger about the beach closures, nest cages and other dramatic efforts to protect threatened or endangered birds and turtles.

"Is there discussion of letting nature take its course?" Suzanne Talbott asked.

It's an open question, she was told.

Not to a decoy carver, hunter and three-decade member of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company that manages the Assateague ponies. Beach closures irk.

"Does anyone try to buy a dodo bird?" carver Roe Terry asked us rhetorically one evening.

We also visited the 6,200-acre National Aeronautics and Space Administration Flight Facility on Wallops Island where presidential plane pilots practice touch-and-go landings. I don't recall ever hearing of Wallops Island, but it is one of the oldest launch sites in the world, established in 1945, and just won the contract to launch the resupply ships for the space station.

Between trips and seafood we met in classrooms with a historian, wildlife painter, archaeologist, carver/fireman and waterman.

The latter, who brought us our first-night crabs and shrimp, discussed what he laments as his dying trade. Mainly a "crabber," he cited ever-changing and increasing regulations, crabs imported from China and Indonesia, and farm-raised seafood for the demise.  

And on our final night, who would have thought that a trio featuring Celtic, maritime and Americana music selections could impart history as well as keep our feet tapping? They did. I also wouldn't have guessed that one was a retired graduate college president, the second a NASA environmentalist and the third owner of a bed and breakfast.

Through the entire week, the staff was ever available to offer a hand without being condescending, to answer every question and to draw our attention to wildlife we would have missed.

One member of our group collects refrigerator magnets from states she visits, but had failed to find one representative of this trip. A staff member found it. Another participant didn't feel up to the last seafood meal at a local restaurant. A staff member brought the perennial chicken noodle soup . . . and more. It hit the spot.

Contact writer Evadna Bartlett at



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