As they say, it’s all relative. Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia remains one of the wildest seashores in the Mid-Atlantic, as I wrote in this month’s issue of The Observer. The waves pound sandy beaches lined with dunes, not condos, and standing in the right place on a clear day, you can simultaneously admire the crashing surf to the east and the calm marshes to the west. If you’re lucky, you might even see wild ponies grazing on cordgrass in the distance, with their long tails blowing in the breeze, looking more like wild animals than feral livestock.
But while the surf may be timeless, the human population is not. I was reminded of that last week during a brief vacation at Assateague. Looking out in dismay at the sea of beach umbrellas, I realized that most of my previous visits there had been in the off season – not the height of summer, but the cool of fall or the chill of spring. My first visit more than 25 years ago was in October, and my then boyfriend (now husband) and I simply slept in the dunes after our midnight arrival from DC. The human influence had been minimal, and it was easy to pretend that the shore was all ours.
Surely though, even in 2011, one could escape the lazy crowds of summer by walking a ways down the beach with an armful of folding chairs and beach bags, no? That had always been a tried and true tactic at other National Parks – astonishingly few people venture far from the parking lot. But at Assateague, where the paved road ends, the drive-on section of the beach begins. Coming in through the north entrance and walking south away from the beach blanket crowd, you quickly bump into the SUV crowd. You’d have to dodge fishing lines and tailgates for 15 miles before finding a section of beach free of civilization. Somehow that didn’t feel so wild. Even the dunes my husband and I had once slept in are now fenced off to protect them from trampling feet.
I don’t blame the Maryland or National Park Services or the visitors who seek a seashore experience for any of this. In this digital age it’s encouraging to see so many people enjoying the outdoors. Trucks on the beach aren’t my idea of paradise (don’t we get enough of them in our everyday life?), but I recognize that the state and feds are trying to be responsive to a diverse and growing public.
And there’s the rub. The public is growing. The global human population is now almost 7 billion and is expected to increase by at least one or two billion more by 2050. Most of the growth in human population has occurred in only the last 200 years: in 1800 there were only about a billion of us. Now, UN demographers expect the next billion to be added within 10 to 13 years. Most of this growth will occur in the developing world, but not all of it. The US has a fertility rate that ensures continued population growth for at least several decades, adding roughly 100 million more people by 2050. Globally, this rapid growth will strain natural ecosystems, wildlife populations and by extension, human food and watersupplies.
It seems trivial to complain about crowded beaches when billions of people will struggle for existence in coming years on an overburdened planet. And despite a somewhat frustrating first day at Assateague inhaling stray cigarette smoke, we found a better spot the next day and rode the boogie board to body-surfing heaven. On our final morning, we walked several miles north and finally found the empty beach we craved – empty enough for the park service to remind visitors to keep their clothes on. It was an odd contrast to the towers of Ocean City emerging like Oz in the hazy distance, but we had our final swim in solitude and watched a pod of hunting dolphins slap the surface with their tails to stun what presumably was a tasty school of fish.
And yet, as they say, it's all relative: the body-surfing was great, but the soul knew what was missing and cried for something more.