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.