You have permission to edit this article.

Friends of Smoke Signals – Please Support our Publication

Wildlife Refuge Adventures: An Incident Off the Wash Flats

  • Updated
  • 9 min to read

An aerial shot of the refuge headquarters area: Atlantic Ocean is at the top of the photo; the entrance road into headquarters is in the center of the dune line; the office, houses, garage, etc. are in light colored area. Back Bay cove is in the foreground with the boathouse and its two openings showing. 

The drive to refuge headquarters on the low-tide beach had been a pleasant one. After making a turn into the dunes on our entrance “road” into headquarters, I paused at the crest to enjoy the view. The vast Atlantic stretched to the Eastern horizon. Westward lay Back Bay Wildlife Refuge’s open water, coves and marsh islands overflowing with swan, Canada geese, ducks and snow geese by the thousands. North and south was the great Outer Banks, which rejoined the mainland again just north of the refuge.  

A brisk northeaster was blowing and the temperature was just above freezing. Noting the red streaked sky, I expected the weather would worsen as the day went on. For the last several days I had watched the sun come up while hidden in a makeshift blind or laying on my belly on a marsh island, spying on duck hunters. And, the sun had set in the West before my day was over. It was not one of my more enjoyable duties.  


Back Bay Wildlife Refuge map on back of refuge brochure handout.

But, today was different. Carl Yelverton, the manager, had failed to give me a specific early hour to be at work as he had done each day since the beginning of the Virginia duck-hunting season. So, I took advantage of the lapse and came to work at an otherwise normal hour. I knew I’d get chewed out, but I did it anyway.  

Carl was of the opinion all duck hunters would violate if given an opportunity. So, all you had to do was be watching when they did and you’d have them. I considered this a jaded view, but had the good sense to keep my mouth shut.

Out of college and into my position of assistant refuge manager for less than five months, I was green as they come, with no previous familiarity with waterfowl, and certainly no knowledge of law enforcement. The total extent of training for my co-lateral law enforcement duties consisted of being issued an antique .38 cal. Smith and Wesson pistol, six cartridges, a large brass “Federal Wildlife Officer” badge and a small pamphlet on the federal laws I was authorized to enforce.


Pen and Ink sketch of the refuge boundary entrance on the cover of the refuge brochure handout.

I never thought our work at Back Bay would involve law enforcement since waterfowl hunting wasn’t allowed on the refuge. But Carl felt we should assist the state during the hunting season by patrolling off the refuge. Technically we had authority to enforce federal migratory bird regulations anywhere, but doing so off the refuge was not in our job description. Being new, and a grunt to boot, I had no say in the matter. Even if I witnessed a violation, I would have had to screw up a lot of courage to jump into my boat, rush out to the duck blind in question, interrupt their hunting and tell four or five men armed with shotguns that I wanted to check their bag, gun, license and duck stamp.  

So, while I dutifully motored out into the bay well before dawn, hid the boat and myself in the marsh-grass, spied on hunters off the refuge all day, and returned after sunset—I certainly didn’t have my heart in it. Especially boring were “blue-bird” days, when the sun was shining, the wind was calm and the birds weren’t flying. It didn’t take long before I started slipping a copy of Hemingway or Ruark into my coat pocket to read on the dull days. 

Eisenhower was finishing his last term and Kennedy was poised to bring us into the age of Camelot, but many civil service employees like me were still working in the dark-ages as far as rights were concerned. I worked from “can ‘till can’t” during the week, and Saturday and Sunday too if the notion struck the manager. And it generally did.  

Knowing I had to face Carl sooner than later, I drove the last few hundred yards down the backside of the dunes into headquarters. A combination office/shop/garage, storage building, boathouse and two residences made up our isolated enclave. I parked the Jeep and strolled into the office as if it were like any other workday. As expected, Carl blew his stack!

“Where the hell have you been? You know what time it is?”

“Well, last evening you didn’t mention anything about coming in early so I figured you had something else in mind for today.” 

It took several minutes for him to finish venting his anger. Then he said, “You stay in the office and do all this paper work. I’ll be out on the bay doing your job.” 

With that he picked up his thermos of coffee, grabbed the spotting scope and binoculars, put on his cut-off hip boots and heavy coat and stormed out of the office.  

Later, I went out into the garage where maintenance man, Rommie Waterfield, our third employee, was working. We watched as Carl pulled out of the boathouse in the twin-outboard powered cabin boat, “Honker,” and headed towards Redhead Bay.

“What’s he peeved about?” Rommie asked.

“He wasn’t happy about me not being out in the marsh on my belly at 5:00 a.m. It was worth it, but I’m not sure how long he’ll stay mad. Anyway, there’ll be nobody here to bug either of us.”  

It was an uneventful day of paperwork for me, and vehicle and boat maintenance for Rommie. We ate lunch in the garage, with me taking advantage of the opportunity to prod him into telling me stories of the old market hunting days of his father’s era—when their only means of getting ducks and geese to markets in Norfolk was a two-day round trip by horse and cart. I especially enjoyed stories of his own youth and of harsh chidings given by his father when young Rommie wasted the cost of a shotgun shell by missing a Canada goose, intended for the pot.

I heard plenty of chatter between the wardens all day on the Virginia Game and Fish’s radio frequency, but nary a peep out of Carl. We watched the weather with increasing concern as temperatures fell. As evening approached, I went outside to where Rommie was cleaning up.

“Heard anything from Carl,” he asked?     

“Nothing all day. What do you think?”

“Well, it’s gettin’ colder. Wouldn’t be surprised if the bay freezes over. We probably ought to hang around ‘til he comes in…or at least ‘til we hear from him.”    

“If he’s in trouble wouldn’t he have already radioed us?”

“You know Carl.  He’d rather lose an arm than have to ask us for help.”

About dark, Carl’s wife came running out of their house shouting that she heard Carl on the radio monitor calling us. We rushed into the office and called Carl back on the base unit. A barely audible voice responded, like a child who had been in the cold and couldn’t speak clearly because of a quivering chin and voice. We learned Carl had run over a fisherman’s unmarked trotline which fouled the boat’s twin outboard propellers. With no power, he drifted onto a sandbar. He had been in and out of the numbing water for the last couple of hours trying to clear the propellers.  

Rescuing Carl in daylight, when the accident happened, would have been routine. But now it was dark, the temperature was in the twenties and the bay had started freezing along the shoreline.  

“Hold on, Carl.  We’ll be there as quickly as we can!”

Rommie and I looked at each other. Carl’s vanity and hard-headedness had put not only the victim, but the rescuers in a dangerous spot. We sent Kate for a thermos of hot coffee while we collected flashlights, boat oars, a military surplus sleeping bag and a length of line from the supply room. After putting on heavy coats, hip boots and foul weather gear, we were ready for the rescue.  

   As we entered the boathouse Rommie said, “You take the wheel.”

“Are you kidding! You take it.” 

“Well, you’re the boss,” he reminded me.

“You’re not in the Marines any more, Rommie! When are you going to learn? Just because Carl made me your supervisor doesn’t mean I know more than you. You’re the waterman, born and raised on this bay. You know every cove, sandbar and marsh point from here to Currituck Sound. On top of that, you can find all of them in the dark. I can’t do that. You get behind the wheel. I’ll untie the boat.”  

Rommie didn’t argue. I pulled on the crank-rope until the outboard started. By this time, it was pitch black and the boat was cracking a thin sheet of ice that had already formed in the boat slip.  

Once clear of the boathouse, he throttled the outboard up as fast as he dared. The bay was pretty choppy, and the 16-foot, cedar planked “speed boat” had no windshield. Each swell we hit sent water over the bow, drenching us. The spray froze on our rain gear, and our movements sent a constant trickle of small ice particles into the bottom of the boat, like pieces of an icy puzzle. It soon became apparent we had to cut back on our speed. The combination of bitter wind and freezing spray coming over the bow was hampering visibility, not to mention making us miserable.  

Twice we surprised large rafts of roosting waterfowl, and the eerie night sky came alive with the sound of honking geese and quacking ducks as they flushed from the unknown disturbance.

“Rommie, I can’t see a thing with all this spray hitting us in the face. I don’t see how you can tell where you’re going. Glad it’s you at the wheel and not me.” He glanced my way briefly. I think I noticed a quick, half-smile before he hunched his neck down a little deeper into his coat, set his jaw and turned forward again, peering back into the chasm ahead, never saying a word.

I had learned the layout of the bay pretty well in the few months I had been working, and could even get around in the dark if it was a clear night. Every cove, island, peninsular or indent of a marsh island had been named by the old-time predecessors. Historic names like Mink Bank Bend, Red-Head Bay, Blue Peter Bay and North Point tell their own story to the receptive mind.  

“Off the Wash Flats, in South Bay,” was the location Carl gave us, but that was still a big area to cover. However, Rommie’s knowledge of water depths and sand bar locations, learned over a lifetime, narrowed the search area considerably. When he finally throttled back, I turned the flashlight on and waved it in a wide arc. Carl flashed back, not two hundred yards away. I wasn’t all that surprised Rommie hit the exact spot dead on the nose. And on the first try to boot! 

As we got closer to the Honker, Rommie cut our motor and I tipped it up out of the water. The speedboat drew less water, and we used our oars to pole our way to Carl’s grounded boat. Carl quickly dismissed our inquiries about his condition. With few additional words exchanged, we moved everything of value that was portable from the Honker to the speed boat—binoculars, spotting scope, oars and the two-way radio.  

Getting the Honker off the sandbar would have been easy in daytime, but under these circumstances it was out of the question. There was nothing to do but throw out the Honker’s anchor, abandoned her to the elements and hope for the best. If the bay froze over during the night, she’d be stranded until the thaw. If the ice got thick, and later broke up on a strong North wind, the Honker could be literally sheared in half by moving ice sheets. We left her grounded there, not knowing if we’d ever see the main workhorse of our three-boat fleet in one piece again. 

After I pushed us off the sandbar, Rommie fired her up and pointed the bow northward towards headquarters. Carl was extremely chilled, but as expected, refused to wrap himself in the sleeping bag. However, he wasn’t above chugging the coffee we brought, since his faithful thermos had long since gone dry.

After unloading our gear at the boathouse, we headed for the garage and a relieved Kate, bundled up and waiting in the cold for her husband. In the garage Carl pulled off each boot and emptied out about a pint of near freezing water. After lighting a Pall Mall, he related the story of running the Honker over a trotline some fisherman had not marked with the required buoys. He tilted both motors out of the water and tried to cut the tangled mess free with his knife. Strong winds blew him onto a sandbar before he knew it.  (We dared not ask why he didn’t throw out an anchor once the motors were disabled and call us for help.)  

Once aground the boat was much steadier and Carl was making good progress cutting free the garbled mess. Then he dropped his knife overboard! Desperate for the only tool that would help get him out of his predicament without help, he stepped overboard in the shallow water to grope for his knife. Unfortunately, this is where his favored “cut-off” hip boots proved to be a liability. It wasn’t long before his cut-offs were overtopped with icy water. By the time he gave up trying to find his knife, it was almost dark. That’s when he finally radioed for help.

Even as a relative novice, I could have handled a daylight rescue of pulling his boat free. Instead, by waiting until dark Carl not only put his life at risk, but also those of two fellow employees. Yet we never heard an apology, a word of thanks, or a comment about the skill Rommie exhibited in finding him in the middle of a bay, on a night black as a radish seed. But that was just Carl.   

However, I know Rommie’s calm demeanor and skill in finding Carl in the dark, in freezing temperature, in the height of a howling North’er, was nothing short of heroic.     

Footnote: The bay froze over that night and the Honker stayed locked in ice for over a month. This was the first night of the big freeze up described in my first column about feeding starving waterfowl (February issue of Smoke Signals). An expanded version of this rescue story appeared in the December 2011issue of Virginia Wildlife magazine.