Destination – Assateague Island
Ever since I was 10 years old I’ve wanted to visit Assateague Island, a place where wild horses still roam freely between the water and sky. Assateague is a barrier island that lies off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It is home to bands of wild Chincoteague ponies, a centuries-old breed thought by some to be descended from Spanish horses that survived shipwrecked galleons in the 1600s. More likely they were owned by 17th century farmers on the mainland who sought to avoid paying taxes by pasturing some of their livestock on the islands.
These small, tough, pony-size horses have managed to survive in harsh, windswept conditions with poor forage. Though treated as wild animals, outside bloodstock has been periodically introduced into the herds to eliminate the conformation and health problems of inbreeding. The mares are also treated with contraceptives to curb overbreeding.
Assateague Island is split by a fence at the Maryland/Virginia state line. Two herds of horses, each numbering about 150, live on each side. While the National Park Service manages the Maryland herd, the Virginia herd is owned by the town of Chincoteague, and once a year the horses are rounded up and swum across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague in the July Pony Penning. They are vetted, and the younger ones are auctioned off, both to reduce the number of horses on the island and to benefit the town’s volunteer fire department. Unsold horses return to Assateague and continue to roam the island unfettered.
“Misty of Chincoteague,” a 1947 book by Marguerite Henry (1902-1997), is a fictional account of a palomino paint foal and her young owners. Since the first publication of the book, which was inspired by real events, Misty has captured the hearts and imaginations of children around the world. The book was made into the 1961 movie “Misty,” and the horse became even more famous.
I read the books about Misty and her offspring; in fact, I read everything by Henry that I could get my hands on. As I grew up, I always had it in the back of my mind that I had to make the trip to Assateague and see these wild horses. I jumped at the chance when my artist friend Merry Beninato asked, “Who wants to go on a camping trip with me to Assateague Island?” To camp outdoors with the wild horses and to photograph them up close? It was a photographer’s dream.
It was easy for us to reserve a campsite on the Maryland side of Assateague and Merry had most of the camping equipment we needed. We loaded up my car with two small tents, camping gear, food and art supplies. I took my photography gear, and we both brought drawing and painting supplies. I was too excited during the visit to sit still and paint — Merry was much more dedicated.
Our campsite was in a marshy section of the park with pine trees and scrub brush all around, not far from the beach and walking trails. We could immediately hear the songs of unfamiliar birds and smell the salt marsh. We set up the tents pretty quickly but had no firewood yet (it must be bought on the island — make sure you only get seasoned wood). The mosquitoes and biting flies were an instant irritant and had to be dealt with promptly. The rangers and locals say the only thing you can do is use deep-woods repellent with DEET. We even sprayed inside the tents and car before sealing them up. Over the course of four days we used three full cans, so be warned. This is a barrier island with salt marshes and seawater where insects, birds and mammals abound.
Also realize right away that the horses own the island. Visitors are camping in their feeding grounds. They are wild and pass straight through campsites as they please. All food must be locked in cars or vans. If they smell food in a tent, they will tear the tent apart to get it. While we were there, horses shouldered their way into a camper’s car and grabbed some bread and cookies before the camper managed to close the doors. Scaring the horses away is not allowed. You just wait until they leave. The rangers can move them along if they are overly aggressive or block a road for too long, but that’s it. Horses will trample across blankets on the beach to get a watermelon. They are wild animals, and you have to get out of their way.
These horses are unkempt, smelly, shaggy and beautiful, and we felt privileged to be among them. I woke in the middle of a pitch-black night to hear stomping and chewing all around my tent. One of the small bands of horses had surrounded our campsite and was feeding all around us. I slowly unzipped the tent flap and could vaguely see their large, bulky shapes in the dark. I could hear their snorts and the flurries of hooves close by. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.
Update 7/8/20: Following guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local public health authorities, The national Park Service is increasing access and services in a phased approach across all units of the National Park System. Before visiting a park, please check the park website to determine its operating status. Updates about the overall NPS response to COVID-19, including safety information, are posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus.