Wednesday, February 15, 2017

First Landing State Park

(Continued from this post on the Site of the first landing and Cape Henry Lighthouse...)

West of the Little Creek/Fort Story base is First Landing State Park, the name a little misleading as the actual site of the ‘first landing’ was within boundaries of the military base. The 2,888 acre park was originally called Seashore State Park, but later was renamed to reflect the historical significance of Cape Henry. In 1607 the Virginia Company made landfall on the Cape, the group of settlers eventually moving west to form Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in North America. It is possible to visit the actual ‘first landing’ site within Fort Story (see my post on our visit) as well as to climb the historic Cape Henry lighthouse, but the boys wanted to explore, something that is strongly discouraged within military base boundaries. We drove the short distance back to the State Park, paid a small fee to enter, and followed signs to the Visitor Center.

The story of the ‘first landing’ is covered in a series of exhibits that also includes the Powhatans, the actual ‘first’ settlers of the region. This wasn’t the natives’ first contact with Europeans; around 1570 Spain had tried to establish a colony there and had sent missionaries to convert the natives to Christianity. However, it was the arrival of the English colonists in April 1607 that the name of the park refers to. Something to think about in relation to our American history... It was a dozen years later when the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but it is that ‘second landing’ that is associated with the holiday (Thanksgiving) and receives far more coverage in the history books. It has been implied that after the Civil War the northern ‘story’ replaced the southern ‘story'; could this explain the extra importance accorded the 'second landing'? These questions were not to be resolved on our visit, however the exhibits offer an in-depth look at the lives of the settlers and natives through more recent times.

The Visitor Center is on the ocean-side of the highway along with the campgrounds and boardwalks for beach access. After our stop to view the exhibits we headed out to the beach, slightly discouraged by strong winds as we crossed the dunes. However, our perseverance was rewarded with having the 1.5 mile beach almost entirely to ourselves, and as we walked up and down the shore and searched for treasure from the ocean, my initial misgivings about spending time on the water in January slightly faded. Today the dunes are much smaller than they would have been when the settlers walked these parts, as are the forests and marshes; still, the imagination runs wild with what it must have been like to first step foot on these shores 400 years ago.

In the early 1600s Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay seeking precious metals and passage to Asia. He traveled the James, Chickahominy and York rivers, and led two major expeditions from Jamestown in 1608. Today his travels are honored with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a portion of which passes right along Cape Henry. As we searched for shells and interesting rocks the wind continued its relentless push; I found it hard to imagine Smith’s crew sailing/rowing almost 3,000 miles in such conditions.

sanderlings looking for a meal in the surf

Finally we left the beach to the mercy of the wind, and headed back to the car. Across highway 60 is the second portion of the park that includes the State Park cabins/lodges, but also the Trail Center and 20 miles of trail. This was our next stop, as in addition to the historical significance of the park, First Landing also has the distinction of being the northernmost east coast location where subtropical and temperate plants can be found growing together. We wanted to take a short hike to experience the botanical aspect of the area, and after a consult with the ranger at the Trail Center we set off on the Bald Cypress Nature Trail.

The 1.8 mile trail travels over bald cypress swamps on boardwalks, across dunes and swales, and through the dune forest. For 50 cents visitors can buy a self-guided tour booklet at the Trail Center, its numbered stops corresponding to trail markers along the way. We made a game out of finding the markers and in the process learned fascinating things about the history of the region, the cycles and changes of the natural area, and the animals and plants that call the park their home.

We emerged from the forest just as daylight began to fade. Although we were only a short distance from Virginia Beach, we found a restaurant in the other direction on the way back to Norfolk, to fuel up after a long day outside. The highlight of the day happened that evening when Lauris lost his first tooth; even though we never recovered it, the Tooth Fairy still found Lauris to leave him a little something! An eventful trip, and only one day left in coastal Virginia... On our last day we were planning to visit the enormous wetlands area that straddles the North Carolina/Virginia border. Stay tuned for a tour of Dismal Swamp...

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