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Thread subject: I went to Chincoteague last wekend (long and partially OT)
Name Date Message
Melanie 07/29/12 01:03 pm PICTURES HERE

I like islands. I like the idea of being detached from the main, the norm, the herd. Considering we were on Chincoteague I hope you will pardon the pun. For a lovely, brief time I am not being driven by insistent schedules and telephones, where nothing else is happening in the world except what is immediately affecting me. In short, I like living on island time.

The three-hour drive from the Bay Bridge in Annapolis went quickly (once we cleared Friday beach traffic at 5:30) and we arrived by 8:30. Unlike many other beach resort towns, Chincoteague keeps its own hours even though they rely on tourist dollars. Everything closes up by 10 p.m. – even restaurants and ice cream shops. There are no clubs, late night movies or even a single bar. Time to go home and go to bed.

Assateague is a barrier island that spans Maryland and Virginia and was established as a National Seashore in 1965. The National Seashore is actually the Maryland end of the island, and administered by the National Park Service. Both the MD and the VA ends have wild ponies, but a fence was built at the state line to keep them separate. The southern half of the island is formally called Chincoteague NWR and even though it is on Assateague and manned by NPS personnel, it is administered by USFW. Conflicts often occur because F&W has a different agenda than the NPS. Suffice it to say the relationship between F&W and Chincoteaguers is not always warm and fuzzy, mostly centered around the wild ponies. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) have always administered to the ponies since the first formal roundup and auction over 85 years ago, but in order to retain their grazing permits with F&W the permanent pony herds must not exceed 150. Considering Chincoteaguers have been grazing the horses on Assateague since the mid-1700’s, having the Feds come in and lay down rules doesn’t always set well for a people who have had to be very independent and self sufficient for generations.

After two devastating fires destroyed much of the town in the early 1900’s, they began to auction off ponies to fund their own fire department. Each year the Saltwater Cowboys (all members of the CVFD) round up both the northern and southern VA herds, swim them over to Chincoteague where this year roughly 75 foals got auctioned off. There are a number of ponies designated as “buyback” ponies - they are bid on but returned to Assateague to replenish the herds. The event was a popular local event until Misty of Chincoteague was published in 1957 and then it just exploded. The CVFD is also responsible for the health of the ponies and in the fall a second roundup is held that is more of a equine health clinic. They get their shots and checked for worms and overall health. They are not really ponies, but regular horses of unproven origin. Some contend that they are remnants of the herds that were historically grazed over there (along with sheep), taking advantage of a natural corral and few predators. Others make a case for Spanish shipwrecks. Take your pick. They have a stunted appearance due to eating cord grass that is not very nutritious. Foals that get auctioned off and are fed as a normal horse do not retain their pony appearance. They grow up into normal, full-sized horses.

There is a set schedule very year that takes place the last full week of July. Saturday and Sunday are the roundups – Saturday for the smaller southern herd and Sunday for the larger northern herd. On Monday they walk the northern herd down the beach at dawn to the holding pens where the southern herd is already waiting. Tuesday is a rest day. Wednesday is the swim to Chincoteague, Thursday is the auction and Friday they swim back over to Assateague. During July the CVFD also runs their carnival on weekends – they have permanent fairgrounds and buildings. They own, maintain and run their own rides like what you would find at any traveling summer carnival and runs Friday and Saturday nights through July.

This year (as with much of the country) it is bone dry over on Assateague. While there is still lots of salt water marshes, the ponies need fresh water to drink and it basically dried up so early that many of the southern herd (50 ponies) started swimming over to Chincoteague on their own, no doubt because they knew they would be given fresh water and sweet hay. They were right. By the weekend of the roundup 43 ponies from the southern herd had already come over on their own. They were trailered back over to Assateague on Saturday morning to the holding pens so would have a good showing for the swim.

To get to Chincoteague you have to drive a 5-mile causeway through an expanse of saltwater marsh. On the mainland side is Wallops Island NASA facility. The island is roughly 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and perhaps half is buildable. Water is EVERYWHERE. The highest spot on Chincoteague is perhaps 30ft. Just about everywhere you drive, water is never far away, whether it is in a ditch by the side of the road or just a foot lower than the road itself. What looks like a green grassy meadow is almost always marsh. In 1962 they (like much of the mid-Atlantic region) endured their own Perfect Storm where three low-pressure systems converged on Ash Wednesday and sat there for three days. Most of the island went under 6 ft. of water. There are roughly 400 owner occupied houses, 150 rental properties and 3000 seasonal properties. All grades are combined in one school with anywhere from 20-30 students in each grade. If you’ve lived there for several generations, chances are you are related to just about everyone else, one way or another. Approximately 25% of working age adults are considered blue collar. There used to be big shrimpers, clam and scallop draggers that would tie up where the old bridge used to come onto Chincoteague. Most of those are gone since the fisheries managers abruptly closed down scalloping in 2007. Even though they are still fishing for flounder and crabbing and there is plenty of aquaculture for mussels and oysters on the island, fishing as an industry is no longer based on Chincoteague.

July was probably a little late for good birding – there is a much larger variety visible during spring and fall. What surprised me is that I DIDN’T SEE A SINGLE OSPREY anywhere. I saw nesting platforms, but no signs that they had been inhabited. Perhaps they are minimalist nesters. There are several breeding colonies of Laughing Gulls, which comprise probably 95% of the gull population (lots of immature LAGU’s dead on the causeway). Boy, they are a raucous and aggressive bunch. There is actually a McDonalds now on the island and we made frequent iced tea runs. The LAGU’s hang around, just waiting for a window to roll down or a door to open and boom - they are right there at your feet, waiting for a morsel of anything. We saw many Great Egrets and Glossy Ibis (the smaller black birds in with the GREG’s) in huge groups in the marshes, and in the mornings we watched Great Blues and Great Egrets fishing from our room, even had some kingfishers diving. Cattle egrets (they have the coral blaze on their chest during mating season) follow the ponies because they stir up bugs that makes for easy pickings. They also think nothing of “hitching a ride” on the ponies as they wander and the ponies don’t seem to mind.

We left late Sunday afternoon and by then the traffic was picking up for The Big Event. There was nearly a two-mile backup on the causeway. The locals have mixed feelings about the massive influx of people for that – on one hand it benefits the island. On the other hand they say that so many people come they can feel the island just about start to tilt.
Celeste 07/29/12 01:44 pm Great shots Mel, love the shells on each fence post! Great idea! Of course, as you know we love Chincoteaugue also. It's definitely an escape!
Lyn 07/29/12 02:17 pm Great bunch of photos Melanie! Loved seeing all those horses and young ones. I've heard about the round up and walk across the water area, but never have seen it. Must have been exciting to watch.
Nancy L 07/29/12 02:26 pm A nice reminisce for me & photos, too. My grandfather lived in Chincoteague & we visited him a few times when I was a youngster. He died in 1957. I have a photo of myself with him on his back stoop when I was 12. At that time, there was no bridge to Assateague Island. My grandfather was a carpenter & had his workshop in his garage, right next to his chicken coop & the outhouse. Oh, yes, when we visited Grandpop,we had to use the outhouse!
The trouble was, my father's vacation always came the 2nd week in August. I would walk down to the Fairgrounds & see the signs about the Pony- Penning, and I always had to miss it! I always felt upset about not seeing the ponies. We used our binoculars to look for ponies over on Assateague.
My grandfather lived just a jog in the road from where the old bridge came onto Main St.
For our 25th anniversary, Jim & I drove down to Chincoteague. By then they had built the bridge to Assateague, so we go to go over there for the first time & see the lighthouse & ponies.
Last year just after our 50th anniversary, we were visiting friends in Salisbury & got the chance to drive down to Chincoteague again. We always drive past my grandfather's old house. Memories. Thanks, Melanie.
vickinish 07/29/12 03:33 pm Very interesting and great photos. Sure is a different area compared to our west coast. Looked hot too!

Tell me Melanie, as I just had all my photos transferred to Shutterfly from Kodak's now defunct site, how did you link us directly to that album? I do see I can view other albums too, liked them too.
Trishrg 07/29/12 04:38 pm Thanks for taking me along on your trip.
Loved the photos!
Melanie 07/29/12 05:20 pm Vicki - you start logged into Shutterfly. Then you choose the album you want to make public and click on the "Share" tab. If you are doing that for the first time you will probably be prompted to set up a public persona for the account - hence mine starts out with featherhead.shutterfly.com. I'm on a Mac and I have a Shutterfly interface with iPhoto. It's under File >> Export
Pam 07/29/12 05:38 pm Very interesting - thanks Mel. I liked the picture of the Heron with wings outstretched.
FOB Webmaster 07/29/12 07:54 pm Just to provide some additional info: The ponies are managed because they're non-native and have caused issues with overgrazing and getting into trash cans, as well as biting/kicking tourists and spreading disease. So there has been a need to manage their populations.

Both the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague National Seashore have protected the beach and natural resources from developers so the public could enjoy them and so the local towns could reap the economic benefits of tourism. And it's the Feds that keep using taxpayer money to repair the parking lots on the beach that keep getting washed out year after year with rising sea levels - an ongoing controversy. It can cost from $200,000 to $700,000 to repair the lots each time they're washed out.

Meanwhile for each $1 spent on the budget for Chincoteague Refuge, it returns approximately $155+ in local economic benefits, including attracting over 1 million birders to the Refuge each year. So while the locals don't like the Feds telling them what to do, it's clear the government (and taxpayers) have a lot to do with the economic success of the area.
Anne-UK1 07/31/12 09:16 am What a fascinating read - I was almost there with you and I haven't even looked at the photos yet. Thanks Melanie. It sounds like the perfect place to switch off for a while :)

Interesting points from Lisa too. I guess there's always a price to pay - you just have to balance one against the other and pick out the bonus points.

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