I read Misty of Chincotegue when I was a young girl and remember being entranced with the romantic notion of wild horses on Chincoteague Island. So when we were looking for another nearby weekend getaway, Chincotegue (Shaynk-a-tig, as the locals pronounce it) Island seemed like a wonderful destination.
As usual, we were up early and on the road. It was a gloriously sunny, but crisp day after two days of horrific weather that had been punctuated with heavy rain, squalls and local tornadoes. The 100+ mile ride took us across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to Virginia's Eastern Shore and out to the barrier islands. We were put off by the extreme number of billboards polluting the marshland view along the causeway from the mainland to Chincotegue. Hawking everything from ice cream and cheap t-shirts to hotels and tours, it was not a pleasant introduction to an island touted by the locals as “a serene, yet fun filled, tourist destination”, a place to unwind with no high-rises or urban mayhem.
Chincotegue is, indeed, touristy, even in the off-season. However, the ponies, we learned, were actually residents of the Assategue Island National Seashore, a National Parks (NPS)reserve. Once we crossed the bridge over the Sinepuxent Bay from Chincoteague to Assategue Island, the world changed. Our NPS Gold Passport got us into the reserve for free (usually $8/car). I'd downloaded a park map on-line and we headed directly to the Assategue Island Lighthouse, en route to the Visitor's Center.
To our surprise and delight, the lighthouse was open for self-guided tours. We obtained passes and slowly climbed the 175 metal steps that spiraled to the top. Though steep, this was neither a perilous nor difficult climb. The steps were wide and a railing provided a handhold. The passes we obtained limited the number of people ascending or descending at once and there was plenty of room on the landings to wait for clear passage up or down. The vista from the top was stupendous, but the brisk wind kept viewing time to a minimum.
We made our way to the Tom's Cove Visitor's Center where a knowledgeable ranger provided lots of information about best viewing spots for the ponies, birdlife and specifics about the park walking trails. The adjacent white, sandy beach seemed to extend up the coast forever and would probably be a wonderful respite on a hot summer's day. Today it was cold and blustery despite the sun. The combination of blowing surf and sand was rather unpleasant although a few hardy surf fishermen and the stalwart laughing gulls didn't seem to mind all.
We decided to walk up a service road, hoping to catch sight of some ponies, but no luck. After 2-1/2 miles, we turned around. The most we observed was the extent of the southern pine beetle kill of the island's forests. Not a pretty sight.
A night in a perfectly adequate budget hotel and a picnic dinner in the room and we were up and rearing to go the next morning. I'd made reservations for a noontime “pony-nature boat tour” with a local company, supposedly the only way to see the ponies up close and personal. In the meantime until the tour, we grabbed hot coffees to go and headed back to Assateague Island and directly to the Woodland Trail. Sure enough, when we arrived at the “Pony Overlook”, there in the distance were five horses grazing peacefully, a bucolic sight on a sunny, crisp morning. The sky was blue; the ponies were totally oblivious to us; the marshlands in the foreground and the forest around us was teeming with morning birdlife chatter. Yup, a perfect kind of start to the day.
We walked the Black Duck trail and saw no black ducks, but we did see several other birds which made the walk worthwhile. Take a closer look at the birds we spotted on our morning walk, by clicking on the image and hovering over it.
As we returned to the car from our walk, a very pregnant mare walked by. She was indifferent to our presence and walked within a few feet of me before diverting her attention to a tuft of appealing grass on the roadside. I doubt we'd get closer to a wild pony than this.
The boat tour left from a marina dock at the Curtis Merritt Harbor on the southwest side of Chincoteague which gave us the opportunity to drive down Chincoteague's main street, a pleasant Sunday morning drive.
The open pontoon boat had spacious, comfortable seats, accommodated only 6 passengers and had a very amiable captain, Arthur Leonard, who also happened to be the mayor of Chincoteague. Small town! Born and raised on the island with 30 years tour experience, Arthur had lots of information, trivia and local knowledge to share and he did it well.
He pointed out the osprey couple that had taken up residence at Marker 17. Arthur explained that ospreys mate for life and that the male is responsible for building a nest prior to mating. We'd seen innumerable osprey on our trip up the ICW, but it did my heart good that he spent the time educating us and that the other passengers took such interest.
We headed towards the lighthouse, a popular spot for the wild horses. They did not disappoint. With the shoal-draft pontoon boat, Arthur was able to nestle up within camera range to the grazing ponies and then proceeded to give us a little history. There are two common theories of how the horses arrived at Assateague. The first is that a Spanish galleon sunk off the coast and the shipwrecked ponies swam ashore. The other theory is that early colonists let their horses graze on the island to avoid being taxed on their livestock and some escaped into the wild. My romantic nature prefers the first option as to how these scruffy, hardy, small-statured horses came to live here. I can imagine the faintest trace of a Spanish accent in their whinnies.
We had determined during the course of our trip that these waters were probably not pliable by Nine of Cups and her deep draft, so it was good we visited by land. We had thought that it might be fun to come back for the annual Pony Swim and auction in July, but the thought of 50,000+ people crammed onto this island which supports a regular population of 3,500 didn't seem all that appealing. Off season visits, though many shops and establishments are closed, are still the best venue for us. We headed back to the boat with visions of wild ponies dancing in our heads.
Our trip also included a stop at the nearby Wallops Island NASA/NOAA facility. There's always so much for us to learn. Look for a recap of that enlightening visit at the end of the week.
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