Soon it'll be summer and time to head for the beach, right?

Wrong. Summer is time for mosquitos, no-seeums and greenhead flies, not to mention traffic, crowds and bandit prices. The time to head for the beach is right now.

The other day, as an excuse to revel in April, a friend and I rounded up four feisty young lads and carted them off to Wachapreague on Virginia's Eastern Shore. For the price of a few hours of bitter rain and somewhat chilly nights, we were able to give them a "private" island to camp on and another to explore.

So free and alone in the world were we on Cedar Island, a few miles off the mainland, that when the boys waved at a plane it swooped low to see if we were castaways. There were more miles of deserted beach than they could master and more seashells than they could carry away. On Parramore Island, jewel of the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve, we saw whitetail deer, a raccoon as big as a little bear, red and gray foxes, and a prothonotary warbler more brilliant than fire flitting through the dry grass.

Just off the south end of Cedar Island, a "river" otter drifted in the tide draining from the salt marsh, diving for shellfish and floating on his back as he cracked and ate them with all the comic efficiency of his Pacific Coast cousins. Inland, Eastern otters are so shy that Ron, the senior member of our expedition, has never seen the family of them that lives in his own pond. But this one seemed equally unconcerned that we were following him along the shore and that he was drifting out to sea.

Camping on Cedar Island (the other islands of the Coast Reserve are open only for daytripping) requires a boat, of course, and a willingness to come and go as the tide dictates. We were fortunate to have Z. R. (Randy) Lewis III as our guide and mentor. Owner of the town's motel and marina as well as the Island House restaurant, Lewis has dedicated himself to making the world aware that Wachapreague offers much more than its famous flounder fishing. He took a couple of days off to show the boys the glories of the marsh and its guardian islands, where his family has lived and labored since colonial days.

"Spring and fall are the times to come out here," he said. "Winter's my favorite, but you must not go out in the marsh then unless you really know what you're doing." (Lewis has rescued more people than your average urban fire department.) "If you want to get off the beaches up into the islands, you want to be here before the ticks and jiggers wake up or after the frost has put them down."

The other things you want, when you bring active young people out in coolish weather, are plenty of food and snacks and about a one-to-one ratio between adults and others. The three of us big boys, dealing with four boy-size boys, found that there was just about time to clean up after breakfast before they started sniffing around for lunch, and lunch sort of segued into dinner. After which came marshmallows toasted over the campfire and washed down with rivers of hot chocolate and oceans of Tang. Candy bars and fruit leathers kept them at bay betweentimes.

By happy coincidence, we had a full moon on the rise, which stimulated the boys into transports of delicious anticipation of werewolves. They laid plans to slip out of their tents at midnight to go hunting for them, but we promised that if they woke us up they'd find more than they bargained for. It was an empty threat, because there was no way they were going to wake up.

The boys have just come into the pocketknife stage, so we brought along plenty of bandages, which came in handy when I cut myself showing how a lock-blade knife can be opened and closed with one hand. We knew they'd be fooling with the campfire, and packed in plenty of first-aid cream, which made me feel lots better when I burned myself on the frying pan.We all brought extra clothing, so I had a backup when my hat blew overboard.

Neither did we neglect their education. The grammar lesson for this trip was the difference between may and can, as in, sure, guys, you may go swimming, but we bet you can't (the water was about 45 degrees). Andrew, eight, blunted the point by taking an impromptu dive off the bow when the boat bumped a sandbar as we went nosing slowly through a shallow marsh channel. That left the older boys so jealous they carped at him for two days; but Andrew simply rested on his laurels as holder of the North American record for the five-yard freestyle dash. CAMPING IT UP

With the exception of the south end of Cedar Island, camping is not permitted in the Virginia Coast Reserve, which embraces most of the barrier islands from Cape Charles north to Assateague, but the islands are open for daytripping. There are boat ramps at Chincoteague, Accomac, Wachapreague and Oyster, all approached via U.S. 13 south. But anyone venturing into those bays and marshes needs a sturdy craft, full equipment, good charts, local advice and common sense. And make sure someone ashore knows where you're going and when you plan to return.

Those without boats and/or what the charts call "local knowledge" might do better to try Assateague Island, three dozen miles of some of the best beaches on the Atlantic coast. There are a dozen public and private campgrounds on or near it, with plenty of space in early spring.

You can really get away from it all -- including the amenities -- at one of the six "primitive" campsites administered by the National Park Service at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Three can be approached only on foot, and three only by canoe; you must pack in everything, including water, and haul out all trash. It's first-come, first-served, with no reservations. Information: 804/336-6577. An alternative is to camp in one of several commercial campgrounds on Chincoteague Island (Route 175 east off U.S. 13 south) and dayhike on Assateague, where once you leave the surfbathing area you are likely to have the whole place to yourself.

On the northern part of Assateague, reached by U.S. 50 west and Route 611 south, there are drive-in campgrounds on Assateague Island National Seashore (301/641-1441) and Assateague State Park (301/641-2120). There are no reservations in the federal park, but Maryland residents may reserve some of the spaces in the state park.