Assateague Island-Do the Pony on the Eastern Shore

Most of the problems facing  Assateague Island are man-made : population growth in neighboring areas, which affects water quality, marine life, and vegetation in the bay and ocean; threats from recreational boaters and clam fishermen; and jetties that inhibit the natural flow of sediment.

Legend has it that the ponies swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon centuries ago, washing up on this barrier island off of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The truth may be a little more prosaic; more likely they were put there in the late 1600s by English settlers who found the island a natural corral, but at this point it hardly matters. They’re shaggy, sturdy little wild horses, running free on this one narrow barrier island. How cool is that?

Misty  of  Chincoteague  was  one  of  my favorite  books  as  a  child—it’s  practically required reading for any girl in her “horse phase”—and  as  every  Misty-lover  knows, they  may  be  called  Chincoteague  ponies but they are really from Assateague Island. Neighboring  Chincoteague  Island  comes into the picture because every July, Chincoteague townsfolk row over to uninhabited Assateague, round up the tough feral ponies,  make  them  swim  across  the  narrow  channel  separating  the  two  islands, and  sell  the  foals  to  raise  money  for  the local fire department.

But  37-mile-long  (60km)  Assateague  is also a prime Atlantic flyway habitat where peregrine falcons, snow geese, great blue heron,   and   snowy   egrets   have   been sighted.  Dolphins  swim  off  shore;  bald eagles  soar  overhead.  Like  most  of  the Eastern Shore, it’s a tranquil, wind-ruffled shoreland with a lot of wildlife refuges and weather-beaten   charm.   Lying   close   to heavily populated areas, however, its delicate coastal environment is threatened  by recreational   boating,   commercial   clam fishery,  and  agricultural  runoff  pollution. Every year the island moves closer to the mainland, as its oceanward beaches erode and sediment fills in the landward shore.

A causeway connects Chincoteague to the mainland, and another causeway leads to Assateague, though a strict quota system   controls   the   number   of   cars   on Assateague  at  any  one  time.  Since  the island lies partly in Maryland, partly in Virginia, half of the horses live in a state park on the Maryland side, while the other half live  in  Virginia’s  national  wildlife  refuge. It’s the herd from this refuge that supplies ponies   for   the   annual   Chincoteague roundup,  which  sustains  the  herd  at  a manageable   size;   the   Maryland   herd,unculled,  exerts  constant  pressure  on  its marshy grazing lands.

Wildlife   cruises   operate   from   either Chincoteague or nearby Ocean City , Maryland, taking visitors to explore the coasts of the island. Narrated bus tours also run along  a  paved  4 1 / 2 -mile  (7.2km)  Wildlife Drive  through  the  marshes  of  the  Chincoteague  refuge  (you  can  also  walk  or cycle along the road, or drive your own car after  3pm).  At  the  end  of  the  main  road, you come to the Assateague National Seashore,  a  pristine  beach  with  bathhouses, lifeguards, and a visitor center. It’s a great place to settle on the sand, feel the wind in your  face,  and  imagine  the  ghost  of  a wrecked Spanish galleon.