Indifferent to the sound of car engines, the honking of horns or the prattle of human voices, the ponies make their way past the Loblolly pines, the marshes and the hard-topped roads of the preserve. Along the Maryland and Virginia coastline, the main attractions are usually the quiet beaches. But on the southern third of Virginia's Assateague Island, the lure of beaches is secondary to the magnetic appeal of the 150 wild ponies that roam the Chincateague Wildlife Refuge. How did the ponies arrive on this 7-mile long island, now connected by a bridge to Chincateague? No one is certain, though three theories exist. One of those believes that after a Spanish vessel carrying ponies for mining operations foundered and then sank off the coast, the ponies swam to safety. A second theory claims that the ponies were turned loose on the island in the late 17th century, when they began to damage crops on the mainland. A third holds that a ship loaded with horses bound for an English colony was wrecked during a storm. While the crew was rescued by friendly Indians and taken to the mainland, the horses escaped to Assateague Island. No matter which is true, the ponies are there. Even if all the ponies didn't make it, at least the correct mixture of sexes did, since even in 1671 they had begun to appear in large numbers. Nowadays, they range the National Wildlife Preserve in bands of seven or eight, with one stallion as the leader of a harem of mares. Indeed, this is one place in Virginia where polygamy is tolerated.
They Swim, Horses, Don't They?
They can be seen along the roads and in the marsh areas, browsing leisurely. Most of the visitors feel their trip to the island isn't complete without a look at the ponies.
Brown-and-white or chestnut, these ponies are not the sleek, well-brushed domesticated animals that you're used to seeing; instead, their coats are shaggy, matted and unkempt. Because the ponies have no fear of people, visitors feel free to pet them.
While there's little chance of getting kicked, there is another problem. The ponies brushing against poison ivy in the area can transfer the rash-producing oil to humans. This is another situation where petting can be dangerous to your health.
To control the number of ponies, an annual event attracting thousands called "Pony Penning" occurs on the Wednesday before the last Thursday in July. The ponies are rounded up and made to swim at low tide across the channel to Chincoteague Island, where some foals are sold at auction; the remaining ponies get a round trip back to Assateague.
While the equines are the most unusual aspects of Chincateague, other points appeal to visitors besides Tom's Cove Hook, with its 5-mile beach and facilities.
The Marsh Walk - sign up for it in advance because of its limited size - leaves from the Visitors Center. Before it begins, the guide gives a brief description of the trip, including the attraction some ticks have for humans. The feeling isn't mutual.
During the walk, you're likely to see some of the wild ponies that roam the area, in addition to many species of birds, including the great egret, the great blue heron, pin-tailed ducks and glossy ibis. About 300 species of birds have been seen in the preserve.
Field glasses are a must; for those without them, the Visitors Center will provide. Surprisingly, in a leap of faith, the glasses are lent based on the honor system.
The walk takes an hour and wanders along trails passing marshes, pines, sweet gum trees and the mallow plant, which was used by the Indians to prepare something like marshmallow. Now and then a brown Japanese Sika deer, a dwarfed cousin of our elk, is seen nibbling leaves from bushes, glancing intermittently at the tour group armed with camcorders and a slew of cameras.
If walking is not your idea of leisure, take the Assateague Wildlife Tours. Departing from the Chincateague Inn, the 11?2-hour enclosed tram ride tackles parts of the refuge not normally accessible by cars, allowing you to view wildlife that inhabit the back trails. More than 100 ponies can be seen on the tour.
Though the land sojourns give a more rounded picture of the island, there is a one-hour trip on the Misty. Throughout the cruise, a tour guide provides background information on how tides and storms have reshaped the island, fusing some land areas and separating them with nature-dug channels.
Nearby is the Wallop Visitors Center, a few miles east of Assateague, which adjoins the main base of NASA's Wallop Island Facility. The 6,000 acres consist of the main base and 7 miles that form the launch area. The facility's main purpose is to prepare, assemble, launch and track space vehicles to obtain scientific information.
The Visitors Center is filled with spacecraft, flight equipment and films. One film on weightlessness in space depicts a zero-gravity world, and the strange consequences that result when there is no down, just up. If you're on a diet, this is an ideal place to weigh yourself.
Getting back to earth, there are two eye-catching displays in Chincateague. One is the Decoy Museum, where a collection of lifelike wood decoys, hand-carved and painted by superb craftsmen, is on exhibit. Nearby the Decoy Museum is the Oyster Museum that presents the history of oystering from the 1600s, and contains shell collections and the tools used by oystermen.
There are no large hotels, but there are some inviting motels, including Assateague Inn, Refuge Motor Inn, the Cedar Gables Seashore Inn, Driftwood Motel and Island Motor Inn.
For information, call the Virginia Tourism Corporation at 1-800-932-5827, the Chincateague Chamber of Commerce at 757-336-6161 or the Chincateague National Wildlife Service at 757-336-6122.