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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the May 29, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Chincoteague: Ponies & More

I go to Chincoteague and Assateague islands because

they remind me of New Jersey. Barrier beaches loosely connected to

Virginia’s coastline, these sandspits echo Island Beach and Sandy

Hook on quiet mornings. Chincoteague is beloved by generations of

children and their parents for Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s

series on "Misty of Chincoteague." Legend has it that ancestors

of these ponies, the only wild herd east of the Rocky Mountains, originally

were the cargo of a Spanish galleon that shipwrecked off the coast

of Assateague. The ponies swam to shore to survive.

They still swim — every July the volunteer fire company herds

four score of them across the channel to Chincoteague where they are

not condemned to a slaughter house but rather are auctioned off to

caring animal lovers who bid up to $10,000 for one of the ponies.

The proceeds benefit the fire company.

The crowds for the pony swim and auction are huge. But despite a plethora

of motels, restaurants, and summer homes, Chincoteague is still very

much its oystering and fishing self. It’s as if you step back into

the glory days of Tuckerton, New Jersey, when it was one of our country’s

premier ports. Serious fishing craft still bob at anchor, and mornings

and evenings are laced with the trails of watermen coming home with

their catch.

Assateague’s wildlife circuit (and its bits of beach parking —

the only venue for vehicles) could be an extended, wooded Brigantine

Wildlife Refuge. That is, until Misty’s relatives, the wild ponies

that are now confined to this less civilized island, prance out of

the mist and down the road, thrusting scruffy muzzles between cars

and camera lenses. Leaving your wheels on dune-side tarmac, you’ll

step out onto wild reaches that lure visitors to return again and

again. It’s like the tip of Island Beach without the exclamation point

of Old Barney — a place where ospreys and dolphins rule and pelicans


You can walk forever on this glitter of sand. I’ve tried, I’ve really

tried, to come to turn-around points. But no matter how long I’m out

there among the godwits and the turnstones, further solitary miles

still beckon. It’s always a joy to lay down the day’s first footprints.

Just when you’re exulting to have the place to yourself, three riders

on true horses (not dwarf descendants from the cargo of a vanished

Spanish galleon) loom over a dune. You’ll wave and grin, and for awhile

your toes will mingle with hoofprints. Fishermen with long lines will

also be abroad, silent and intent. Morning wraps her guests in veils

the sun will soon disperse.

Leaving last footprints carries its own magic, not the least of which

is marveling at the broad copper platter flung across the bay by a

lowering sun. And being out there to receive the first benediction

from Assateague Light, circling and comforting back by the bridge,

reaching far out to sea.

If you’re any kind of birder, in any season, you’ll be delighted on

Chincoteague and Assateague. Fiercely territorial, summer-slender

Hudsonian godwits will barely note your intrusion, executing that

proprietary dance again and again. And just when you think you’ve

got each one pegged in its own domain, you’ll bump into godwit flocks.

They’ll be forming and unforming — beyond counting — because

autumn comes earlier to these migrant shorebirds, who gather here

to put on enough fat to make it all the way to South America. Their

dove-gray hues may dissolve and re-emerge in a mizzle of rain, which

only adds to the enchantment. If you’re very lucky, stocky, elusive

ruddy turnstones will feed, then soar low over nearby waves. Now endangered

by the overfishing of horseshoe crabs, these rarities dazzle with

their Joseph’s coats, bearing lozenges of antique brick and obsidian.

Bird wonders are by no means limited to the beach. One lunchtime,

years back, I met my first yellow crowned night heron, poised on a

post in the water, inches from our table. So long as we remained involved

with our fish, he stood slender and commanding, ready to spear his

own silvery meal in the waterway below his perch. I refused to pay

and leave until he did, convinced (erroneously) that I would never

see another. (Well, it had taken me all my life ’til then!) We finished

very slowly, under the scrutiny of those orange eyes. Then, that very

night, driving along Assateague’s bird circuit, we recognized yellow

crowns everywhere.

Overhead always at Chincoteague are the laughing gulls. If the place

were more commercial, they’d be its icons. Hooded, natty as penguins,

they sport scarlet beaks in breeding plumage. Their flattened foreheads

give their gaze a touch of scowl. You’ll be startled over and over,

for these birds are raucous as herring gulls crossed with hyenas.

You may first encounter them, celebrating arrival, while you sip local

brew and eat some fish you’ve never heard of.

Laughing gulls will wake you with barks of hilarity. They’ll bid inescapable

farewell to sun, especially if you’re sitting at Snug Harbor’s comfortable

dock, dangling your feet in its waterway. This plain but irresistible

retreat caters primarily to fishermen. I can testify to hearty welcome

to writers and other types. It’s set on the far (that is "quieter")

side of Chincoteague, where waters separate the two barrier islands.

Each room at Snug Harbor, and their three solid cabins, offers living

areas, table, and chairs and rudimentary kitchens for reasonable prices

(757-336-6176). Here you can watch great blue herons and egrets (the

original fishermen) swoop in at any time of day; examine the bulging

sacks of clammers and oysterers at day’s end. You can sip the last

of the wine on that dock, as the blessed light of Assateague caresses

your brow.

Herons and egrets, actually, are everywhere, in every

size and type. If you’re very lucky, a little blue will stand motionless

as you walk along a water course. Or a little green will center himself

on a post as you focus your lens on a clutch of wild ponies. And at

any time of light, your head will whip around at the glory of ospreys

soaring free. Sometimes, you’ll hear their peremptory whistles, clear

and evocative. Bird populations are seasonal, of course. Best times

of all for rarities are spring and fall migrations, as this is a prime

stopover on the Atlantic Flyway. (Known better to birds than to humans,

in my gleeful experience.)

The critters that support Chincoteague’s fame, by the way, are not

the ones with manes and tails. Long before the children’s series on

"Misty" and the July pony swims, oysters were the crowning

glory of these isles. The largest specimens I’ve encountered outside

Florida, Chincoteague oysters are nonetheless meltingly tender, irresistible

(as they are reputed to render lovers). Their flavor marries the sweetness

of Cape Cod’s Wellfleets to the brininess of France’s tiny belons

and praires.

On Columbus Day Weekend, the island throws its Oyster Festival: All

you can eat. On the half shell. Steamed. Frittered. Chowdered. With

hush puppies and cole slaw and island hospitality of the first order.

But even if you’re too soon or too late, every day’s an oyster festival

in Chincoteague.

Nowadays, straightforward bridges and roads render Assateague and

Chincoteague fully accessible to the mainland. Yet, their very easterly

geographical position preserves a vanished island magic. Not quite

Nantucket or the Vineyard, and yet. . . Even as you turn off Route

13 and nose your car eastward, even before the bridges, you feel the

magic. Out among the luminous marshland, you can say, with Thoreau

on Cape Cod, "here, you can put all of America behind you."

Voices are softer on these isles. Time slows down. Your steps will

slow. Light is lighter, even before sunrise. It must have something

to do with all that water — before you, behind you, ebbing and

flowing among the grasses and visible by moonlight; shimmering between

islands and slipping silently under causeways; carrying the ponies

from their wild domain to Chincoteague’s pony auction in late July;

glimmering at dockside and tableside — even at breakfast.

If you are one who insists with Goethe on "More light, more light!,"

there is the light, Assateague. For all her years of saving

distant ships, this sprightly beacon seems surprisingly short and

squat. I find the Assateague lighthouse endearing, rising from pincushion

tufts of shoreside greenery. Her broad stripes are a dazzle of blinding

white and exclamatory bands the hue of Revlon’s 1950s Fire and Ice

lipstick. Rudimentary parking areas, on otherwise carless Assateague,

give access to the scrubby pathways that lead you to her base. She’s

open and climbable, even guided, at specific times.

If it’s summer, climb the lighthouse early and take along a copious

supply of water, for there are hundreds of steps. The Light comes

into her own at and after sundown, when sky and scrub evanesce, and

her beacon sweeps the dark. Back at Snug Harbor, one feels the beam-like

grace, rising from toes to temples and vanishing again to sea. On

a fog walk out on the Assateague reaches, her glimmer is as welcome

as water in a desert. To wake to her at midnight is to feel protected,

one with "all the ships at sea."

Although being in stores is no favorite pastime of mine, I can report

that one can "shop ’til you drop" on Chincoteague’s main reaches.

As you would expect, saltwater taffy is ubiquitous. The best, elegant

in presentation, soft and subtle on the tongue, is Pony Tails. Booksellers

are prominent because of the Henry books. There are videos as well

as hardbound and paperback volumes devoted to Misty and her descendants.

At one hotel near town, photographs can be taken with a Misty relative.

Some years back, most of the dwellings on Chincoteague

(there are none on Assateague) were a few steps up or down from fishing

shacks and slightly more upscale summer cottages. Now there is Realty

with a capital R — as in megaliths, as in developments named after

the nature destroyed in order that they might exist. Chincoteague’s

summer "cottages" even so will never rival Newport’s.

Nonetheless, balked initially by no August room at Snug Harbor, I

came across places that would have given me a weekend for $1,400.

My ultimate bill at Snug Harbor (yes, I was lucky) was closer to $50

per night. And I really enjoyed the quest, interacting with all the

helpful locals before Snug Harbor happened to have an opening. Even

with developments, a Chincoteague game is to take every turning, even

the sand roads. Architecturally, you won’t be dazzled; but you will

be delighted and gratified. For this is a place where individuality

still rules.

Restaurants come and go but I’ve never had a bad meal here. Seafood

and Virginia chicken is very special. You can, conceivably, keep a

vow to eat every meal on the water, even breakfast. Admittedly, the

restaurants of Chincoteague are somewhat short on ambience. "No

nonsense" would describe most of them and "salty."

The locals add to the town’s saltiness, hearty yet soft in accent

and demeanor. You can feel their pride of belonging, and they seem

glad to let you share it for awhile. They’re intense without being

tense; and this, too, rubs off. Coffee mugs are bright and generous,

constantly refilled with steaming brew. Waiters and waitresses are

personable without being intrusive. Chalk it up to Southern gentility,

but they do know how to honor a conversation between their patrons.

If You Go

How to get to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. Chincoteague

is located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula.

It can be reached by car, bus (to T’s Corner, Virginia), or by commercial

air service to Salisbury, Maryland (US Air serves this airport with

connecting flights from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, or Philadelphia).

Car rentals are available at the Salisbury Airport. By car, take Route

13 south to Virginia Route 175. Follow this state road east to Chincoteague.

Plan ahead with the help of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce,

Box 258, Chincoteauge Island, Virginia 23336. Phone: 757-336-6161.

Website: E-mail:

Annual Events

July 4: Old Fashioned Fireworks Display. July 20: Annual Deborah

Chapter Blueberry Festival. June 28 through July 27: Chincoteague

Volunteer Fireman’s Carnival, Fridays and Saturdays, and July 4. July

24 and 25: Annual Pony Swim and Pony Auction

August 31 & September 1: Chincoteague Decoy Carvers Decoy & Art Show.

September 1: Annual Church of God Seafood Feast. October 12: Annual

Chincoteague Oyster Festival. October 19: Chincoteague Chili and Chowder


November 23 to December 1: Assateague Island Waterfowl Week. November

29 & 30: Annual Deborah Chapter Waterfowl Show. December 7: Christmas

Parade. December 31: New Year’s Eve Gala

What do you do if it rains?

Eat oysters. Visit the Oyster & Maritime Museum on Maddox Boulevard

with its eager staff and enlightening exhibits, see the original Fresnel

lens from the Light across the way, and learn plenty of local history.

Rent a boat at Snug Harbor. Go kayaking — it’s better in the rain.

Rentals at Intracoastal Kayaking Co. or Tidewater Expeditions. Get

serious and go off-island into the NASA installation (which you passed

on 175 just before the turn to the Chincoteague causeway.) You may

also visit the national weather satellite installation across the

road. Go far afield to Oxford, Maryland, with its 18th-century red

brick sidewalks, seeming continuations of the venerable houses, their

tidy gardens, like the town’s name, right out of Olde England. Drive

through the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on your way back, and just

try to count all the ospreys and eagles. Find Smith and Tangier Islands,

where Elizabethan (English) is still audible and fishing really does

rule the day. Make a list of all the nature experiences you’ve enjoyed

on these special isles, grateful that you’ll have Island Beach and

Sandy Hook so near at hand, in New Jersey, when you get too lonely

for Assateague and Chincoteague, Virginia.

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