When I told my mom I was going to Chincoteague, my first excursion to the MidAtlanic’s Eastern Shore, she reminded me that I had a storybook about the wild ponies of Chincoteague when I was a little girl. A book I apparently had insisted be read and re-read. To be perfectly honest I had no memory of the book, but upon arriving at Chincoteague Island, it was immediately apparent it must’ve been “Misty of Chincoteague”. Naturally, I needed to read the tale again and settled on buying a Misty Breyer Horse package for a friend’s daughter that included the book, which I figured I could sneak a peak at before passing along. That mission accomplished, it was clear that I needed to see those ponies.
I envisioned a herd of wild, miniature horses galloping across the marsh through the morning mist, manes streaming elegantly behind them. I dragged myself to the “wildlife loop” at sunrise, fully expecting it to provide this vision. Dawn’s palette filtered spectacularly through the mist, but my pony hopes were sucked dry by clouds and clouds of relentless mosquitoes. Mosquitoes so tenacious that bug spray provided split second relief and nothing more. I knew it was time to return to the car when a spray of blood shot across my camera lens as mosquitoes squished between my fingers when I repositioned my hands. It was a painful scene and I must confess that I wasn’t apt to leave the protection of the car when I reached the “pony viewing area” a bit later. It didn’t really matter. There were no ponies, none of consequence anyway. The only sign that the ponies existed at all was their retaining fence and a few palomino-colored spots hidden in the distant bushes, barely visible with binoculars. I spent the morning watching herons, terns, skimmers and other waterbirds mingle at a neighboring wetland instead. An exciting wildlife extravaganza in it’s own right and thankfully free of mosquitoes, but certainly not as exciting as wild ponies would be.
The town of Chincoteague has fully embraced the ponies as their mascot and, it would seem, as a main source of livelihood. Horse murals adorn walls, horse statues are scattered around town and even private residents can’t resist novelty items such as horse mailboxes. The town is a quaint mix of authentic fishing village and inauthentic touristy beach town. Seafood shacks tout local produce, the Chincoteague oysters being particularly cheap, salty, and tasty. Nearby surf shops promote the latest Quicksilver fashions, while souvenir shops advertise discounted pony rides or Misty books. Surrounding neighborhoods charmingly are what they are. The main draw though is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge across the bridge on Assateague Island where the ponies live and where vast beaches provide swimming, surfing, sunbathing, clamming, and even controlled driving-on-the-sand opportunities.
Failing to find the ponies again in the afternoon, I spent the remainder of the day exploring the beach. The wind and water were cold for a Floridian, but the sun was warming when lying on the sand out of the gusts. Seagulls, terns, sandpipers, willets, and even bald eagles provided ample entertainment. The beach was strewn with parts of horseshoe crabs, shell pieces and tiny baby ghost crabs that scuttled away quickly once spotted. There were even a couple of sea turtle nests, clearly a welcome rarity here, judging by the ample space sectioned off to protect them. It was a pleasant adventure, but the remaining lack of ponies at the viewing area on the way out meant there was only one day left to fulfill my horse hopes.
There was no room for chances the next morning, I headed straight to the pony viewing area in pre-dawn grey. Another stunning sunrise, and thankfully fewer mosquitoes, but no streaming manes through the mist. With full lighting, I noticed spots on the horizon that actually even looked like horses when heads were lifted. It wasn’t ideal, but it was an improvement over yesterday’s sighting. The trend was at least toward better horse views so to increase my odds even more, I joined one of the boat tours that all but guaranteed views of ponies.
I boarded my six-person cruise mid-afternoon and was quickly pleased with my choice as multiple pods of dolphin milled about the boat. It was apparently mating season and the dolphins leapt about us, snuggling mid-air with their mate of choice. It was a far more energetic and prolonged encounter than I’d ever experienced and it was all happening impressively close. It was clear the dolphins weren’t leaving so our captain eventually had to coax us onward. We meandered through the Chincoteague Inlet, past famous Tom’s Cove and through the marshy channel separating Chincoteague and Assateague islands. We saw recreational clammers, boaters, and 4-wheel drivers enjoying the interior beaches. We stopped at the point where the horses swim between their marshland home on Assateague and the auction corrals on Chincoteague during the famous July round-up, more commonly known as the pony penning. Started in 1925 as a fundraiser for a fledgling group of volunteer firefighters rallying in response to devastating fires that razed opposite ends of town in 1920 and 1924, this annual tradition now attracts 50,000 or so tourists and funds the allegedly wealthiest volunteer firefighting organization in the county. The saltwater cowboys guide the entire herd into town, but only foals are auctioned and some are donated back to maintain the population at about 150 individuals. We moved on to enjoy views of the lighthouse from the water and, finally, the ponies. Standing on my chair, I could see a dozen horses gathered at the edge of the woods beyond the tall marsh grasses. It wasn’t exactly the close-up experience plastered across all the brochures, but it was my closest view yet. The horses stood there, complacently chewing grass while ignoring us completely. It certainly wasn’t the scene I’d envisioned, but I was excited nonetheless. I felt good about the cruise. Our captain was thoroughly local and knowledgeable, the other passengers were friendly and we got a bonus close-up sighting of a bald eagle just before returning to the marina. I could go home feeling satisfied.
I decided to spend my last Chincoteague sunset in the refuge, watching myriad birds feed in the golden light behind the beach. My heart skipped as I approached a car pile-up at the pony viewing area along my way. Surely this meant something good. I waited my turn in line and snuck into the first available spot along the shoulder of the road. Right there, just beyond the fence, was a cluster of Chincoteague’s famous wild ponies. There were no manes flowing, but the evening light silhouetted them and their cattle egret jockeys beautifully. NOW, I could go home feeling satisfied that my pony goal was accomplished!
Feeling inspired by my Chincoteague visit, back at home, I carefully slipped the “Misty of Chincoteague” book out of its packaging. Basking in the memories of my recent pony sightings, I curled up on the couch, prepared to be blissfully transported back to girlhood. Instead, I found myself indignant that the little girl in the tale constantly got the shaft while her brother got all the fun and glory! I guess it’s not surprising for a book written in the 1940’s. I placed the book back in it’s package and wrapped my gift, wondering what message my friend’s daughter would take from it. Maybe someday she’ll grow up to be a saltwater cowgirl.