Following hoofprints to Chincoteague

By Betsa Marsh

We dart into the visitor center and the ranger knows our question before we ask it.

“Where’s the best place to see the ponies?”

It’s the eternal question at Virginia’s Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  For generations, families have arrived determined to see those long-maned ponies made famous in Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague.

Pointed in the right direction, we hit the Woodland Trail, looping through the pines, stepping up to the observation platform.  Off in the distance, we spot little brown specks and convince ourselves that they’re the ponies we’ve come so far to see.

A bit disappointed, we hike back to the van and there, inches from the bumper, are four wild ponies slurping from fresh rain puddles.  In between drinks, they look up at the startled human beings, even coming over to nuzzle our pockets in hope of forbidden treats.  Resolutely, we stick to the refuge’s rules—no touching, no food—but it’s so tempting to spoil these stocky little beauties.

The Misty mystique still gallops along 70 years after publication.  Henry’s classic stars two island children who crab and clam to save enough to buy a wild pony at the annual round-up and auction.  Their spirits still seem to swirl like ocean mists above these strips of salty land, so wondrously out of time.

“‘Misty’ is on a lot of school reading lists,” said Evelyn Shotwell, executive director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, “and some of the mothers say they’ve brought their daughters because they want to see where it happened.  For nine- to 12-year-old girls, it’s a fantasy to own a horse, especially if they live in a city and know they can’t have one until they’re older.”

The book is read aloud from one generation to the next, and “sometimes adults in their 60s, 70s or 80s visit,” Shotwell said, “because they’ve heard about Chincoteague and it’s been on their bucket list.”

No reader, young or old, who’s followed the saga of Misty of Chincoteague ever forgets the excitement of pony-penning days, captured through the young eyes of Maureen and Paul Beebe and their even younger wild foal, Misty.  The island children were reared on the annual ritual of wild horses swimming ashore each July, and generations of outlanders have come to this licorice strip of land to watch the drama and savor a bit of the Misty mystique.

And who knew that we could have just gone to the Museum of Chincoteague Island and seen Misty herself?  She and her foal Stormy are preserved as a top exhibit, surrounded by Beebe Ranch and Marguerite Henry memorabilia.  No petting, of course, just as with their modern wild descendants.  But we can ogle and coo and shoot pictures until they turn out the lights.

Each summer, the tiny resort island of Chincoteague, with its permanent population of 3,000, swells to 1.5 million visitors around town and into the wildlife refuge on its sister barrier island, Assateague.  Chincoteague is just seven miles long and one and a half miles wide.  It’s protected from the Atlantic surf by Assateague, a long, narrow strip where the wild herd lives.

Some, like us, come to marvel at the wild horses, while others are dedicated birders, fishers, kayakers and swimmers.

The biggest draw, of course, is Pony Penning, an ancient tradition that’s been organized as a fundraiser by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company since 1925.  This year, The 92nd Annual Pony Swim is set for July 26, with the auction of foals on July 27.  The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s Carnival will take over the fairgrounds on Fridays and Saturdays from June 23 through July 29.

For Kendy Allen, horse manager at the Chincoteague Pony Centre, pony penning is an intense exercise.  When she scouts ponies to buy for the center, she starts on Assateague Island, where the pony families are first penned.  Then, she watches them swim across to Chincoteague, and assesses the foals with their parents Wednesday afternoon.  By the first auction bid at 8 a.m. Thursday, she’s ready.

“The auction is a little frenzied.  I once bought four ponies on one day,” she admitted sheepishly.  “I feel I made wonderful choices.”

Because the foals are wild, they’re “a little rougher,” Allen said, but “Chincoteague ponies are very intelligent, very willing to please, and they love people.  If they’re handled right, they blossom.”

At the Pony Centre, Allen offers children rides on these “veterans of the swim,” as well as nearly 20 Misty descendants.  Just look for the weather names, such as Twister, Raindrop and Storm Chaser. Riders are always welcome to suggest other meteorological names for future foals in Misty’s line.  The importance of that titled pony to this salty little island deepens with each generation.

NEXT MONTH:  Briny oysters, lighthouse climbing and the excitement of Pony Penning Days.

When you go

The Virginia Eastern Shore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier islands on the East Coast.  Contac Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce at 757-336-6161 or chincoteaguechamber.com.

The 92nd Annual Pony Swim is set for July 26, with the auction of foals July 27.  The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s Carnival will take over the fairgrounds on Fridays and Saturdays from June 23 through July 29.

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