By JUDY HAZEL
CHINCOTEAGUE , Md. – The skies were black, wind blew and the rain came down hard on July 14. It might have dampened a spectator’s day, but not the ponies’ day. They diligently jumped in the waters of Assateague Channel and swam the 5 1/2 minutes from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.
It was the 88th annual pony swim. What a sight to see!
Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS)
This seashore of unspoiled beaches spans more than 37 miles on the eastern shore of Maryland’s Atlantic Ocean border. Along with its beaches, pine forests and salt marshes, the AINS became a national park in 1965. This is where the wild ponies have lived since the 1600s.
It is assumed that hundreds of years ago, a Spanish galleon shipwrecked off the Assateague Island coast. The ship probably was bringing a shipload of horses to the colonies.
At the time, many ships went off course, hitting the sandbars. The damage is speculated to have opened the hull, allowing horses to escape.
About 250 to 300 wild ponies roam both the northern two-thirds of AINS in Maryland and the southern one-third of the seashore in Virginia. A fence separates the two state properties.
The ponies thrive on grasses, bayberry twigs and rosehips on the island.
But because of that diet, their growth is more or less stunted, thus the “pony” name. Fourteen hands tall is the average height of these ponies. One hand equals 4 inches. This equals 56 inches or 4 feet, 8 inches tall; a normal horse height can range from 15 to 18 hands high.
To control the pony population on Assateague Island’s Virginia side, the Chincoteague ponies swim to the mainland and are auctioned off on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July.
About 150 ponies are herded by the “saltwater cowboys” from the island to swim the tidal marsh channel.
Landing on the banks of Chincoteague Island, the ponies are paraded to the fireman’s carnival grounds where the foals and yearlings are sold.
The proceeds benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which manages and cares for the ponies on the Virginia side. The monies help the fire department purchase fire equipment and other valuable items.
By selling the ponies, the department helps control the pony population and this in turn protects the island’s rich environmental and barrier ecology.
At the auction, the ponies bring about $1,300 to $2,000 a piece. This year, a black-and-white pinto pony sold for $12,000; an 80th birthday present to Janet Marabito from her son. The pony was named Gracey.
At just 7 miles long, this island town of 3,000 people has its quiet, quaint section and its commercial, busy section. But, being surrounded by nature, the peace and quiet can prevail.
Upon entering the island, you drive past beautiful marshlands. Cross the bridge, turn right on Main Street, park and walk the shop and restaurant-lined street. Buy a slice of brambleberry pie at Bill’s Seafood Restaurant or browse the nearby wine shop.
Stop by the Chincoteague Island Library, housed in a one-story white house with a two-story beautiful addition. The addition features a circular atrium surrounded by bookshelves and a white banister mezzanine and staircase. A cupola structure at the top adds to the nautical touch.
Things to do
Boat ride – Several companies offer guided pony-watching boat tours of the channel. Assateague Explorer.com takes you on a two-hour ride through the marshes and along the banks of both islands.
You will see herds of ponies in the distance, some with birds sitting on their backs; bald eagles soaring or nesting; many varieties of other birds, clam pens and oyster beds. Our own boat captain’s grandfather was a founding father of the oyster business in town.
Beach walk – On the Monday before the pony swim, the Saltwater Cowboys take the previously corralled ponies from the northern corral; walk them along the Atlantic Ocean beach; and herd them into the southern corral where they await the Wednesday swim. A sunrise, spectacular sight … something right out of a Western movie.
Drive onto Assateague Island – Taking Maddox Boulevard, which becomes Beach Road, you drive through the commercial area of town and across the channel bridge for a fun day of water activities at the public seashore. Along this road a pull-off area is great for photographing the wild ponies and a nearby trail leads to the lighthouse.
Visit the lighthouse – At 142 feet high and 27 feet in diameter, the red- and white-striped lighthouse on Assateague Island is an impressive sight on the Virginia coastline. Originally constructed in 1833, a taller version of the lighthouse was to be added in 1860 but was delayed by the Civil War. Finally completed in 1867, the lighthouse warned ships of shallow water.
From June through September, visitors can climb to the top of the active, now electrically operated, navigational lighthouse.
Wildlife Refuge (CNWR)
The refuge is on Assateague Island. It is a very popular U.S. birding destination, with more than 300 species of local and migratory birds, and it is situated in the Atlantic Flyway.
The flyway is an area that provides an excellent habitat for the instincts of migratory birds.
Many varieties of warblers, loons, sparrows, gulls, finches and herons make their home there.
AT A GLANCE:
- Chincoteague means “beautiful island across the water” in a Native American language.
The Feather Fund helps children purchase ponies.
- The best time to visit the islands is May through October.
- Foals are born in May and June.
- Book to read: “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry
The following is optional depending on space.
NASA Wallops Island
Located outside of Chincoteague on a six-square-mile island, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility recycles and builds rockets. In 1945 it launched its first rocket. About 30 launches occur each year; mostly sounding rockets with one to four motor stages. Wallops Island launches the most rockets of any NASA facility.
The free Visitor Center museum is open every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. It explores the history of the Wallops Flight Facility.