Assateague Island: A Weird and Wild Place

Assateague Island Ponies

Wild Assateague Island!

There is an island on the East Coast of the United States that is hard to define. The island itself is a bit of a shape-shifter: a lighthouse that once stood proudly on the coastline guiding mariners, now stands, no-less-proudly, five miles from the inlet. One of their visitor’s centers has been picked up and moved three times.

To further complicate things, the island is part Maryland and part Virginia, each side owned and operated as separate entities.

Assateague Island Ponies

People can’t even agree if the island is populated by wild horses or wild ponies. The 300+ wild equines (half in Virginia, half in Maryland), with their fully “horse” phenotype, but smaller-than-average stature, fall into a grey area. They are referred to as “Assateague Horses” on the Maryland side and “Chincoteague Ponies” in Virginia. Though they typically don’t reach “horse” height, it is thought to be from the lack of adequate nutrition rather than genetics: their high-sodium ocean diet may stunt their growth and gives them their distinct bloated physique.

Local legend has it that the feral equines are descendants of the survivors of a Spanish shipwreck. The second theory is that their domesticated ancestors were brought to the island in the 17th century to get around fencing laws and taxation on the mainland. The latter was deemed the more practical conclusion, until 1997, when the remains of a Spanish shipwreck were discovered off the coast. We may never know the real answer.

The Maryland section of the island contains the majority of Assateague Island National Seashore (established in 1965) and Assateague State Park.

South of the state border, is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge (established in 1943) is to protect the over 300 species of migratory and resident birds. And while the island is considered one of the premiere birding destinations in the United States, the over two million annual tourists, primarily come for the ponies.

Assateague Island Birds

 

Every July, roughly 50,000 visitors gather (on the Virginia side) for the Annual Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim. The “Saltwater Cowboys” round up the wild ponies and swim them from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island for an auction, which has been held since 1925.

The auction has two main purposes: the annual selling of 50+ foals controls the size of the herd and the auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Fire Company then reinvests some of the proceeds to the heard, covering necessary veterinary care.

Assateague Island Ponies

Though the ponies are considered feral, they are an easily domesticated and hardy breed. There are now an estimated 1,000 ponies that have been sold at auction throughout the years living throughout the US and Canada.

After the auction (and a vet check-up), the remaining ponies swim back across the Assateague Channel and live out the rest of their year in the wild.

If your visit to the island does not coincide with the annual festival, and horses is what you want to see, it is recommended to take a boat tour or plan to rent a kayak for the day for the best viewing. On my trip to Assateague, the horses were visible from the top of the lighthouse, but only with binoculars lent to me by the ranger.

Assateague Island Boardwalk

If you haven’t already decided to pencil in a trip to this crazy island, there’s more. Even before the Island’s big-time media debut in the children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, (and the based-on-the-book 1961 film <em>Misty</em>) the islands (Assateague and Chincoteague) were famous for their oysters. During the late 80s and 90s, oyster populations dwindled, but efforts to restore the populations are proving fruitful and the delicious oysters are making a comeback. If these salty treats are your jam, check out the Chincoteague Oyster Festival.

Horses and oysters aren’t your thing? How about 37 miles of some of the most pristine beaches on the East Coast. Gorgeous and uncrowded, the beach looks like this:

 

Needless to say, Assateague is a beautiful island with a rich (if not totally agreed upon) history. There is something for everyone. Sign up for a boat tour, go kayaking, check out the birds, or bring your rod for some excellent fishing opportunities.

One word of caution: come prepared for mosquitoes. The official Web site warns mosquitoes can be an issue in the summer. I visited on a hot and humid September day, and I highly recommend pants, long sleeves, and high-DEET concentrate OFF! if you’ll be exploring the more marshy areas. I have yet to discover a place with such a dense and determined mosquito population. Not even Alaska. Not even Africa.

Assateague Island Mosquitos

Protect Yourself from Ticks and *Vicious Swarms of Hateful* Mosquitoes


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Wild Ponies of Assateague Island USA

 

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