On the last scorching hot Wednesday in July, the wait is painfully long. Thousands of men, women and children gather along the docks, in the marsh, in the water and in every type of water craft for a glimpse of an annual spectacle – wild horses crossing from one island in Maryland to another in Virginia.
This is the 86th annual Chincoteague Pony Swim, in which wild ponies that live on Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland are rounded up and herded to Chincoteague Island in Virginia, where they parade to town and the ponies are auctioned off during a carnival. This all takes place to thin the herd and to raise money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.
The event is so popular that the island, which has about 4,500 residents, was inundated with an estimated 40,000 visitors this year during the main events that play out during three days of the 13-day carnival.
For many the wait would take hours as officials delayed the swim until “slack tide” when the current is at its weakest. The crossing takes a mere four minutes.
Folks begin arriving in the early morning for best viewing spots along the waterway and by 1 p.m. when an orange flare shot from a boat signals it’s time for the ponies to cross, the crowd swells to tens of thousands.
Cheers go up and the wait and the heat are momentarily forgotten when the 130 horses are spotted galloping across the Assateague Island National Seashore toward the water. Some 40 “saltwater cowboys” as they’re known here keep watch on the herd and spectators. And as the animals emerge on the banks of Chincoteague Island, they appear lethargic but only for a short while. Then the whinnying and jostling around begins as ponies separated from their mares and groups try to find each other. The equines then settle down to graze on grass. Once or twice the cowboys chase down and redirect a pony that breaks from the herd and heads across the channel.
Retiree Walter Marks has been a saltwater cowboy for 31 years. He says he can’t imagine being anyplace else on the last Wednesday of July. In fact, three generations of Marks men are participating this year. His son Tyler, also a saltwater cowboy, is nearby on horseback, and Walter Marks’ 10-year-old grandson Mason Marks, visiting from Lone Grove, Okla., watches from the sidelines and has been promised he’ll ride along during the parade.
Kimberly Shaw of Moyock, N.C., is a 14-year veteran of the festivities. With her ankles in marsh mud, she waits in the shade under the dock with a growing number of others seeking relief from the heat. One person sways in a hammock attached to the underside of the dock.
Shaw recalls that her dad, who died in 2007, loved attending the swim and auction and it’s become a family tradition. She’s been bringing her mother Bonnie Shaw here since 2008. In 2009, her mother shocked her when she participated in the bidding and purchased a pony for a girl who couldn’t afford one through the Feather Fund. Her winning bid was $1,300.
Shaw calls it a “natural reality show” and says she loves “the heritage, the history” and the hospitality of the folks on Chincoteague Island.
For Sarah Jedlicka, 20, of Burbank, Calif, it’s a visit to her boyfriend’s home in Falls Church, Va., that’s resulted in her attending the festivities. But what motivated her was a book she read when she was much younger, Misty of Chincoteague, which was written by island resident Marguerite Henry in 1947. The tale about a girl and ponies on Chincoteague Island became a popular read and was turned into a movie.
“I said, ‘yes, please take me,’” says Jedlicka, sitting in a folding chair on the carnival grounds near the pony corral.
“She was very excited,” says boyfriend Craig Wilson, who hoisted her onto his shoulders during the swim so she could see better from a viewing spot that was pretty far from the action.
“It was nice to see the book in reality,” she says.
At the auction, which begins early the day after the swim, Denise Bowden, secretary and public relations officer for the fire company, reminds the crowd that the local fire company receives no tax dollars and to bid enthusiastically.
“This is who we are. This is what we do,” she says.
The auctioneer starts the bidding for a 4-month-old of stallion described as a “red and white paint” at $2,500 but spectators don’t bite until he reaches $500 then a flurry of waved hands escalate the bid in $50 increments to $750.
“All in, all done,” says the auctioneer.
Wayne Gibson takes the first horse.
In all, 67 ponies were auctioned off this year – some surprise gifts for unsuspecting horse lovers –bringing in $99,500 for the fire company. The rest were unceremoniously herded back to the shore for the swim back to Assateague where they were returned to the wild.