Chincoteague, where the ponies roam free

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By Victor Block

Mention Chincoteague Island, Virginia, and you’re likely to be asked, “Isn’t that where those ponies are?” The answer is “yes.” The narrow barrier island, and larger Assateague Island, are known as the home of wild ponies made famous in the popular children’s book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, published in 1947, and the movie that followed.

The attention of the country focused on the area again in March 1962, when a devastating hurricane crashed onto Chincoteague Island (pronounced Shink-a-tig by locals) and flooded the town. Misty, pregnant at the time, was saved by being sheltered in her owner’s home. The foal she delivered, appropriately named Stormy, served as the main character in another book by Marguerite Henry.

Visitors to the area are immediately immersed in stories of Misty, Stormy and the other ponies. From spotting the little horses in their natural environment to a shop that sells Wild Pony Wine to a visit with Misty and Stormy themselves, reminders of the famous animals are everywhere.

Although known as Chincoteague Ponies, two herds today roam free on Assateague Island, a protected wildlife refuge, separated by a fence along the Maryland-Virginia border. Slightly smaller than most horses, the shaggy, sturdy animals have adapted to their harsh environment by eating dune and marsh grasses and drinking from fresh water ponds.

Pony lore begins with the mystery of how their ancestors came to Assateague Island. One story is that the horses are descendants of domesticated stock that farmers grazed there during the 17th century to avoid mainland taxes and penning regulations. More intriguing is the legend that their forebears swam to shore from the wreck of either a Spanish galleon or an English vessel.

The horses gained added fame from the annual pony penning and swim held each July since 1925 (next year July 24-25). Conducted for the benefit of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, the event begins as the Virginia horses are rounded up and those strong enough to swim are herded into the narrowest part of the channel separating the islands. After crossing, they’re run through the streets of Chincoteague, put in pens overnight, then sold at auction. The following day, any ponies left unsold swim back to Assateague.

There also are plenty of opportunities to see the ponies in their natural setting. They often graze near designated viewing areas in the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, which, despite its name, is on Assateague Island.

I also had sightings from the water on Captain Dan’s Around the Island Tours. Along with learning about the history of Chincoteague and Assateague from a waterman whose family has lived in the area since 1780, we spotted a number of ponies on land.

Captain Dan pointed out several horses by name and explained the reason for each. Woeful Willy, a somewhat depressed looking pony, prefers to hang out alone. Rambling Rose, on the other hand, “keeps company” with several stallions. A dark tan horse with an unkempt blond mane is known as, what else, Surfer Dude.

There also are other ways to get close up and personal with the ponies. At the Chincoteague Pony Center, descendants of Misty are among horses used for rides, lessons and shows. Wildlife bus tours offered from April through November, which carry passengers into areas of Assateague closed to other vehicles, include pony sightings on every trip.

Misty fans also won’t want to miss the Museum of Chincoteague Island. Exhibits explore local history and culture, including the oystering industry, which employs many of the approximately 3,000 residents, and ornamental waterfowl carving, for which the area is equally well known. A focus of the displays deals with the story of Misty and Stormy, and the remains of those two little horses — in what, when I used the word “stuffed,” was told are in a “preserved” state — welcome visitors as they enter the building.

My introduction to the oystering industry came during a stop at the Chincoteague Shellfish Farms. Proprietor Mike McGee explained that dredging for oysters has pretty much given way to aquaculture. He proclaimed that the local waters are “God’s country for the oyster.” A visit to Mike’s operation or any other on the island provides an introduction to the process that transports oysters from their environment to dinner plates all over the country.

As a native of the area, Mike clings to the unique twang that immediately identifies locals from visitors. In their vernacular, the word town comes out as “tayn,” where is “wahr” and air translates to “ayer.”

I also found engrossing the story of ornamental bird carving, which has about two dozen practitioners on Chincoteague Island. Before European settlers arrived in the New World, Native Americans used floating decoys made from reeds and grasses to attract waterfowl within reach of arrows and nets. These were replaced over time by simple carved wooden decoys and, later, manufactured plastic models.

Some carvers began to fashion more elaborate waterfowl and what had begun as a craft evolved into an art. The best examples can take months to complete.

Decorative carvings are available to see and purchase at a number of places around town. The best collection is at the museum-like store named Decoys Decoys Decoys, Inc. More than 2,000 birds surround visitors like a colorful aviary.While the highest known price paid for a decorative bird is $830,000, you won’t have to pay nearly that much to take home one of the magnificent figures. If you do, you’ll have a treasured keepsake to remind you of a very different kind of destination.

If you go …

For more information about visiting Chincoteague and Assateague islands, go to chincoteaguechamber.com or call 757-336-6161.