Looking for quiet time Assateague Island, other areas near OC offer pleasant surroundings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For those who like to stretch a few muscles and listen for nature's cacophony of sounds in autumn, a world of adventure lies just beyond Ocean City's doorstep.

Whether you like to bike, hike or paddle, walk through history, toss a line into the sea at dawn, rake the murky shoals in search of clams or just sit quietly on a sand dune, absorbing the beauty of a wild landscape as the birds flutter by, the perfect place to enjoy your time outdoors is somewhere within a 25-mile radius of Ocean City.

Assateague Island, just eight miles south of Ocean City, offers the most varied activities for the outdoor lover. An estimated 2,000 visitors pass through the Barrier Island Visitor Center on a typical Saturday in the fall to enjoy this largely undeveloped barrier island, run by three state and national park services.

Assateague Island National Seashore, the largest park in Maryland, managed by the National Park Service, has developed hiking and biking paths, canoe launches, and picnic and camping areas for visitors, as well as several hands-on discovery programs, led by a trained naturalist, which help visitors understand and appreciate the delicate natural environment of a barrier island.

For instance, on Saturdays through Oct. 19, you can learn about the dynamics of a barrier island on a half-mile walk along the beach that starts at 2 p.m. Early Sunday mornings through Oct. 20, you can join an organized bird walk at 7:30 a.m. or go seining for fish and other aquatic life in the park's "Bay Discovery" program at 10:30 a.m.

But the most common way to enjoy Assateague is on your own.

The National Seashore has three half-mile hiking loops through the dunes, woods and marsh. For $1.95, you can purchase "The Life of Assateague: Nature Trail Guide," a booklet that helps you understand what you'll see along the paths.

Hikers who want a longer, more challenging route can head north toward Ocean City, suggested Chief Naturalist Larry Points. The trek to the Ocean City Inlet is about seven miles if you start from the Assateague State Park parking lot.

(If the state closes this lot, as planned, later this fall, hikers can begin their hike from the National Seashore's parking lot, another two miles south, making the hike nine miles long.)

There is a lot to look for on an autumn hike along Assateague. Besides the famed wild ponies, which number about 150 on the Maryland portion of Assateague, migratory birds, including the Peregrine falcon, use the barrier island as a stopover point, and it is also a wintering ground for waterfowl.

Even Monarch butterflies rest on Assateague during their thousand-mile migration back to their wintering grounds in Mexico during the fall.

If you bring a canoe (none of the parks rent canoes, so bring your own or rent one around O.C.), you can go island-hopping off Old Ferry Landing or paddle over to Bayside, a slender peninsula with beautiful vistas and well-maintained picnic facilities.

A spattering of tiny islands off old Ferry Landing not only offers pretty scenery, but also acts as protection from the wind, which can severely slow down canoeists heading upwind.

Experienced canoeists, however, may want to venture south, paddling miles in the open waters of Chincoteague Bay. (Landfalls from boats are not permitted on Virginia's portion of Assateague, except at Fishing Point.)

Biking is another mode of travel that gets you closer to nature on Assateague. There are four miles of bike paths along Bayberry Drive and Oceanside Campground in Maryland. Cyclists can also pedal down Bayside Drive and Old Ferry Landing roads, if they use caution in the traffic.

Visitors who like to get something in return for their physical exertion can go surf fishing, rake for clams or drop a baited line overboard in hopes of snaring a fat crab. The most common method of clamming is to wade out into the shallow bay and rake the muddy bottom with a special clam rake (available in hardware stores around O.C.).

By October, most of the crabs have started moving into deeper, warmer water, so are difficult to catch with a net while wading. Most autumn crabbers take canoes or little boats into deeper water and drop a baited line.

There are maps at the National Seashore that have taken a lot of the work out of clamming and crabbing by marking where you are most likely to find the shellfish.

Assateague Island may be the best-known destination for outdoor fun on the lower Eastern Shore, but there are plenty of other options for bikers, canoeists and fishermen.

The flat land, rural countryside and scenic towns of the lower Eastern Shore provide a beautiful backdrop through which to pedal or paddle on an autumn afternoon. More than a hundred miles of designated bike routes stretch across the lower shore, and the narrow, winding Pocomoke is a river full of recreational opportunities for boaters and fishermen.

At least three bike routes have been established for this area.

Viewtrail 100 is a 100-mile scenic bike trail through Worcester County. It leads cyclists along the county's prettiest secondary roads, through historic points of interest, as well as through parks and picnic areas. Call (301) 957-2484 for a map.

The Beach to Bay Indian Trail is a self-guided driving or biking tour through the lower Eastern Shore counties of Worcester and Somerset. The route winds through portions of the 13,000-acre Pocomoke Forest, where you may, if you're lucky, spot an endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, and through the historic towns of Berlin, Snow Hill and Princess Anne.

The tour is mapped out in a booklet available through the Worcester or Somerset county tourism departments (or call Maryland Bike Trail, (301) 333-1663.

For cyclists who prefer a little pampering at the end of a 20- or 30-mile pedal, there is Biking Inn to Inn, a network of bike routes that lead to bed and breakfast facilities, where you find a well-appointed room waiting for you at the end of your journey.

B&B; owners also carry your luggage from one B&B; to another. The cost is $90 per person per day. Call (302) 875-7015 for details on the Atlantic route from Berlin to Laurel, Del.

For boaters, there is the beautiful and mysterious Pocomoke River, a narrow, deep tributary that winds through great forests of bald cypress trees, whose knobby knees rise right out of the black waters of the river.

Numerous public facilities, such as Shad Landing and Milburn Landing, both part of the extensive Pocomoke River State Park system, allow easy boat access onto the Pocomoke. The beautiful forests along its banks not only create wonderful vistas for the paddler, but also harbor some of the most varied bird species on the Atlantic Coast.

The Pocomoke River Canoe Co. at Snow Hill caters to the canoeist, offering canoes for sale or they rent them for $5 per hour, $25 per day or $50 per weekend. The company also offers portage service for canoeists who only want to paddle one way. It's best to call ahead for canoe reservations: (301) 632-3971.

The waters of the Pocomoke are also rich fishing grounds, teaming with yellow and white perch, pickerel, crappie, bluegill, herring, spot, croakers, bluefish and largemouth bass, to name a few.

Finally, Furnace Town, four miles north of Snow Hill, makes for a less strenuous outdoor venture the whole family can enjoy.

Located deep in the heart of the Pocomoke Forest, Furnace Town is a 19th century industrial village, re-created around the historic Nassawango Iron Furnace, Maryland's only bog-ore furnace.

The village is open daily through October and is holding its Fall Fest, a celebration of the 19th century industrial life, Friday through next Sunday. The festival will begin at 7 p.m. Friday with music, dancing, a bonfire and hay rides to create an old-fashioned, romantic, 19th century evening.

Visitors can witness broom making, blacksmithing, weaving, quilting, rug hooking, chair caning, basket making and demonstrations of crafts throughout the weekend.

Saturday, musicians will perform on old-fashioned instruments, including the fiddle, recorder and bagpipes.

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