We follow the James River to its mouth and enter the Hampton Roads. Actually it’s not a road but one of the largest natural harbors in the world. More properly it is a roadstead – a protected, enclosed area where a ship can lie at anchor that has an opening to the sea. This feature has attracted all branches of the military, NASA and international shipping interests and the supporting big cities of Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach. It’s way too busy around here for us so we head to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – Tunnel to shave off at least 90 miles on the blacktop. Before we know it we are on one of the modern world’s engineering wonders. More than 17 miles long, the bridge takes us over the bay to our left and the Atlantic Ocean to our right. There are two tunnels under the bay and even a restaurant in the middle. We land on Virginia’s eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula and head north. The area is dotted with National Wildlife Refuges and parks set aside to protect migrating birds and butterflies.
When I was a child I read a book about a wild horse in Chincoteague, Virginia. (Misty of Chincoteague) The true story had me wondering for years and eventually I heard that there really were wild horses living on the barrier island. On the outer edge of the Delmarva Peninsula is Assateague Island, comprised of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Island National Seashore and the small town of Chincoteague. If you are confused already it gets better. We had made a reservation at a small inn, thinking it would provide a quaint atmosphere within walking distance to town. It was a hot summer day when air conditioning rates as one of the world’s greatest inventions. I locate the innkeeper who demands payment before I can survey the room. (Don’t get sucked in like me) Then we “tour” the inn through a Victorian dinning room – breakfast will be served at 9am… up a 18 inch wide crooked staircase past a “guest room” that had what looked like a lumpy sack stuffed with a few horse hairs thrown on a plywood plank five feet long by three feet wide in a closet. No pillow, sheets, curtains… Captain Ahab’s crew had better digs. Our room was facing the “bay”…translation, the local fish processing plant complete with putrid dumpsters and piles of rotting gear. The checkbook sized AC unit was on full tilt and the room was a cozy 85F. Jay had that look of mutiny and I was quick to join the ranks. We scouted town for a backup bunk and discovered the “highest rated” Hampton Inn in the US for half the price. Once again as we tried to cancel our inn reservation, no one answered the phone, where do they go? When we got the call back they kept the 2 – night fee and laughed all the way to the bank. If you find the Stink-o-sink Inn, stay elsewhere but say hi to Misty.
Now that we have a place to hang our hat we head out to find the famous wild horses. We are a little confused about the logistics of parks, refuges, seashore etc and start our search at the national wildlife refuge. The 14,000-acre Chincoteague NWR was designated in 1943 to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds. The “ponies” had been grazing on the island since the 1700’s, left there by early settlers to avoid fencing and mainland tax costs. We spot a few grazing in a marsh far from the road. After further research we discover that there are two separate herds on the island separated by a fence at the state line. The southern Virginia heard is “owned” by the Chincotegue Volunteer Fire Company who since 1925 has organized a “round up” of the horses every July 4th to help pay for their equipment. Today it is a tourist fiasco. The “saltwater cowboys” (firemen) round up the herd of 150 horses and swim them across the channel to town to sell the foals. The Pony Penning and Carnival entertains 50,000 people but I’m not sure how the horses feel about it.
The truth is the Fire Company is only allowed to graze 150 horses on the refuge land. These horses are in fenced areas and receive medical attention. In contrast the Maryland herd on the northern end of the island are free to roam on 48,000 acres and have no human contact. The park service uses an innovative program where the rangers shoot birth control darts at select females to control the herd size. Each female is allowed to have one offspring resulting in a healthier and more long-lived herd. It was here that we had several close encounters with the horses. In the summer they head to the beach like we do to escape the heat and bugs. They even go swimming on their own. Certain areas of the island are designated for off road travel complete with air compressors to fill up your tires after the sandy trails. However you choose to enjoy the island it is a unique experience. The beach and estuary are pristine and all kinds of wildlife including us are lucky to have this refuge.