Chincoteague and Assateague Islands ~ Where the Ponies Run!
The Inspiration for the Trip
My daughter read the book Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. A good friend recommended the book to her because they both love horses, and recommended a visit to the island because she had been there a year or so before with her family.
The book takes place on the island of Chincoteague, Virginia. The story chronicles the life of the Beebe family, whose members have deep roots on the island. Actual names of family members were used for the character's names.
At the beginning of the book, the prologue described one of the theories about how a herd of wild ponies established itself on Assateague Island. A ship was wrecked in a storm off the coast of the island and the horses that could swim to shore made the place their new home. Beebe family ancestors tamed some of the horses and bought them to breed as show and race horses.
Each year, the island's volunteer fire department raises money by escorting the ponies across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague Island to sell at auction. The Beebe family bought Misty at the auction one year. Through reading the books and visiting the museum, we learned more about Misty's story.
An Island Legacy
A pony ride makes her day!
A Pony Ride at the Chincoteaue Pony Centre
The Chincoteague Pony Centre is the place to go for a chance to ride a tame Chincoteague pony. The teachers at the center are very good at working with a wide range of student skill levels. They also encourage students to challenge themselves at a level they are ready for. Before allowing students to mount a pony, they make sure they have helmets and other riding gear that fit them well.
The Ride of Her Life
My daughter has ridden horses at her grandparents' home in Missouri, where the horse she rode was always led on a line. She never took a formal lesson where she had more control of the animal. Her chance to ride a Chincoteaue pony independently was a big step for her. After some practice trots around the corral in both directions, the teacher instructed her to take her pony, named "Teaguer," to the center to step on a platform. She was able to guide the pony to step up and stay a moment, and she was amazed. That moment made her day ~ no, her entire week!
A Sense of Accomplishment
Once the ride was over, my daughter had a chance to say farewell with pats and strokes, and to offer a "thank you" treat to Teaguer. She was also invited to take a ribbon to acknowledge the completion of her first pony ride there. My mother bought her a tee-shirt to celebrate the occasion.
Not only is the pony center a place to learn to ride a pony, it is also a museum. There are giant murals reflecting the ponies' wild ancestors' migration to Assateague Island after a shipwreck, and exhibits reflecting life in the country at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. In addition to studying a checker board, the front porch of a period home, and a reproduction stagecoach, she was able to measure herself in "hands" ~ the unit used to measure the height of horses and ponies. Her height falls between a pony's and a horse's.
The book that started it all ~
Boat ride through the channel
Boat Ride to see Regional Wildlife ~
The next stop after the pony center was a boat ride around the channel between the islands to see the wild pony herd on Assateague frolic by the water.
A Wild Ride
The afternoon was sunny, so we made sure we doused ourselves with our strongest sunscreen. While we waited for the skipper to arrive, we watched a little blue heron and a snowy white heron catch fish by the dock. When we finally boarded, the shade canopy was extended and we were off to explore the wilder of the two islands. The Skipper drove the boat through the channel using his motor, then cut the engine when we drew nearer to the wildlife refuge.
Birds, birds, and more birds
We did have a chance to see those wild ponies run around and eat the wild grass, but we also saw a variety of avian species. There were little blue herons, snowy white herons, osprey, oyster catchers, and laughing gulls. Watching them land, perch, and take off was both peaceful and exciting at the same time. The boat's owner/skipper had a set of binoculars for all of the passengers to share to view the birds and ponies. The combination of spending time on the water and watching wildlife was perfect for a relaxing island afternoon.
The Photo Gallery of our Excursion
While the pony ride was for my daughter, the boat ride was for my mother. Among the pictures shared to the right, I made sure to include an image of the craft we rode and one of my daughter and mother enjoying their time together.
The next photo was a shot of the wild Assateague pony herd eating, drinking, and running about. The manes were blown about by the sea breeze and they were fun to watch for a while before the head stallion led them to a spot on another side of the island.
Herons catching fish may not sound like the subject of an exciting time about town, but we were happy that we could get both species of local herons in one picture. The small size and cute tuft of feathers on the top of the little blue heron's head made her especially fun to watch. In addition to the picture that features her catching lunch, I made a video of her movements.
Finally, the laughing gull in the last picture visited the deck below our hotel room balcony on Chincoteague each evening. We also saw some swoop down from the sky to land on the island of Assateague. They are a regional species that we never sea in the Northeast (Massachusetts). Their feather markings are brighter than the ordinary gulls we are used to seeing, and their call is more like a laugh than a cry. We found it very contagious.
Made it to the top, one step at a time ~
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
The next day we spent at the Chincoteaue Wildlife Refuge on Assateaue Island. It is also a National Seashore, part of the National Park System. My mother had a NPS member card that allowed us to spend the day there, from open to close.
The first place we spent time was the visitor's center close to the island's only beach at Tom's Cove. There was a video about local wildlife and panels with murals that depict the local wildlife with their names printed by them. There was also a touch tank where visitors could learn more about hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, whelks, and quahogs (clams). The NPS ranger identified strings of egg pouches laid by whelks. This is also where we learned about laughing gulls.
There was a deck observatory for passionate birders that surrounded the visitor center. Along the ramp that led to the seashore were panels to read about the history and science connected to the region. My mother looked through the observation lenses while my daughter and I waded in the waves at Tom's Cover for a little while.
Climb to the Top of Assateague Lighthouse
After lunch that afternoon we returned to the wildlife refuge to climb the lighthouse. Completed in 1867, there are 175 steps to climb to the top. A modern Fresnel lens serves as a beacon to ships traveling the mid-Atlantic waters. The original lens can be seen at the Museum of Assateague Island.
When first faced with the lighthouse steps, the space between them brought out my fear of heights and I considered bailing out. But this was the thing I wanted to do most during this visit. After reflecting upon this on the bench outside the lighthouse, I decided that I was not about to leave the island without climbing to the top of the lighthouse!
Deep commitment to my goal and my daughter's encouragement saw me through the climb. My daughter was very excited about climbing with me and bounded up the stairs ahead of me. I climbed all 175 sideways, with both hands on the inner railing, taking deep breaths before each step I took up to the sky. Luckily, there were several landings where I could catch my breath. Each time I reached a landing, my confidence increased and my phobia was quelled a little more. I calmed down and started to enjoy the experience more and more. By the time we reached the top I felt like I was on top of the world. My reward was seeing the lens that lights the way for sailors to travel safely by the island and a gorgeous view.
Bring on the waves, Poseidon!
Jumping Waves at Tom's Cove
The photos shared here are from the quick visit my daughter and I took with the ocean waves at Tom's Cove the previous day, when we visited the NPS ranger's station by the shore. The waves and sea foam sparkled in the sun.
Our Dip Before Rain Showers
Our final day was a bit overcast, but that didn't stop my daughter and me from enjoying more waves at Tom's cove. There is nothing like the power of ocean waves and we were determined to have our fill. Since a storm front was moving in, the waves were high and frequent. We came decked in our new bathing suits and towels, ready for mighty splashing about in the salty sea. She wrote messages in the sand to her Papa, which we sent to him as soon as we took them.
My body was very sore from the residue tension in my muscles from my lighthouse victory climb the day before. Jumping in and riding the waves, and tumbling as they threw me back to shore, knocked the tension right out of me. The salt added to the healing effect of the water. My daughter also had a blast running in and wrestling the waves by my side.
Reveling in Icy Waters
Princess Elsa from Frozen would have loved swimming in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in June. The temperature took a while for me to adjust to. That is why I dipped my entire body in all at once and I didn't feel so frigid after that. My daughter did the same.
Once acclimated to the icy ocean temperature, we were ready to ride the waves as if they were a pod of dolphins. We appealed to Poseidon/Neptune to roll some big ones toward us so that we could hug them, body surf, tumble back to shore safely, then do it all again. Poseidon heard our plea and obliged. Seaweed wove through our hair and the foam made us giddy, so we rose to our feet to keep running in to catch the next waves that rolled in. Only when the clouds sprayed us with showers from above and the waves grew too mighty for us to safely ride them did we run to the cabanas to change back into our street clothes.
Sea Star Gourmet
All that wave wrestling made us hungry. My mother drove straight from the Assateague National Seashore to find a place to eat lunch. That afternoon we found the Sea Star Cafe Gourmet Carryout. The owners and their employees work hard to make fresh, healthy sandwich wraps and nutritious beverages to their patrons. There were charming picnic tables for sitting on sunnier afternoons, but that day we brought our sandwiches and drinks back to our hotel room to enjoy.
Museum of Chincoteague Island
Sustained by our delicious lunch, my mother brought us to visit the Museum of Chincoteague Island, which hosts the original Fresnel lens from the Assateague Lighthouse. It also has statues of Misty with more information about the famous pony immortalized by Marguerite Henry's books. Their other exhibits that reflect more aspects of the island's history and culture. We stayed a few hours, invited to linger by the museum's docents.
Highlights of Virginia's Eastern Seashore
Storms and shipwrecks
Lifestyles and Livelihhoods
Trades and Crafts
Woodland flora and fauna
Native American heritage
Maritime & Equestrian
Young astronaut ready for a mission...
Flying to the Moon at the NASA Center
Friday was our day to say farewell to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands and return to Williamsburg. On our way off the island, we passed the Wallops Island NASA test site for MARS~Mid-Atlantic Regional Spacecraft. The site also hosts NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association) equipment. That area is entirely fenced in with tight federal security.
The NASA Visitor's Center
Across from the test site there is a NASA Education Center for people to visit. They have a suspended spherical screen on which they show videos of the surface of the sun, moons, and planets of the Milky Way. There are also exhibits there that illustrate how astronauts prepare for space flight and a place to take a picture as an astronaut, which my daughter was delighted to do.
My mother, daughter and I took a whirlwind tour of the center that lasted just 90 minutes, but we recommend leaving at least an entire afternoon free to spend there. There is a deck to watch test craft take off and land, and model rockets of past missions on the property. On our way out, my mother bought my daughter a patch for her Girl Scout sash and I bought her some freeze-dried mint chocolate chip astronaut ice cream.
Places to visit on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands
This is the place to ride a tamed Chincoteaue Pony. The teachers work well with a variety of experience levels.
Serves an abundance of creamy, home-made ice cream in a variety of flavors from Strawberry to Coconut to chocolatey rich Wallps Island Rocket Fuel.
The theatre that premiered the classic "Misty of Chincoteague" film. In front are the hoofprints of the original Misty owned by the Beebes.
A National Park, the National Seashore is a familly-friendly wildlife refuge where a visitor can see wild ponies, climb the lighthouse, and swim.
A testing site for rockets destined for space exploration that hosts multi-media exhibits dedicated to space exploration history, and a gift shop.
This cafe sells very delicious, healthy sandwich wraps and nutritious beverages. There are picnic tables to enjoy lunch or dinner on sunny afternoons.
© 2014 Karen A Szklany