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