A huge thrill for this animal lover was taking the opportunity to visit Chincoteague Island. January in Chincoteague is cold and the ground is pretty marshy. If you don’t mind getting out in the cold and getting your feet a little muddy you’ll basically be alone on this island. I think we probably saw five other people the whole time we were exploring. The first glimpses of the famous Chincoteague Ponies were pretty far off in the distance but very exciting. We were able to see them closer a little bit later in our hike. The horses are beautiful and watching them gave me a sense of peace and wonder.
These ponies have lived on this island Chincoteague/Assateague since the 1600’s. It’s believed that the ponies were originally from a wrecked Spanish Galleon. There are two separate herds living in two different states Virginia and Maryland. Each herd has approximately 150-160 horses and each state manages them differently. The Maryland herd’s population is controlled by contraceptive for the females. Chincoteague is the Virginia side and they control resources and population by having a pony swim every year to gather the herd and auction off a number of horses. This keeps the population at a point that doesn’t drain the resources on the island. All proceeds from the auction goes to support the local volunteer fire department. I would love to be there for this one year.
The horses have no natural predators so without human interference the population would quickly grow out of control. The ponies are facing a more recent threat that is being referred to as swamp cancer. Swamp cancer is not really a cancer but an infection that causes itchy lesions clustered across their bodies. They have had some success with early treatment but because the horses live wild on the island authorities sometimes won’t see that a horse is sick before it’s too late for successful treatment. They have lost seven of these precious ponies so far. They are worried that warmer temps in the spring will exacerbate the problem and a lot of good people are working to get the infections under control.
The Assateague Lighthouse was completed in 1867 and is 142 feet high. The twin lights revolving from this historic landmark can be seen from 19 miles out to sea. We didn’t get to climb to the top although it looks like you can get an incredible 360 view from up there. The Lighthouse is only open from June through September. Another reason to come back.
I mentioned that you’ll have the whole park to yourself in January I meant as far as other people. This is a wildlife refuge and there are a lot of natives besides the horses. We saw grey squirrels, a woodpecker, seagulls by the beach, a lot of crains, ducks, swans and this beautiful cardinal.
We don’t have these little guys in Colorado so I’m always thrilled to see them. All of this with ten of us walking around making noise.
Another native of the island I discovered is not so pleasant. Briars! They are not just in children’s stories! Vines with nasty thorns that I swear actually reach out and grab you. The thorns easily go through jeans and left us with a few souvenir scratches on our legs. All the more reason to stick to the beautiful paved paths that weave through the park.
The hero of the day was our two year old grandson that hiked almost four miles without complaining. He’s a trooper! The boys both loved all of the wildlife they got to see and thoroughly enjoyed the Island.
After the woods we ended our exploring at the beach. It was really cold but the beachcoming was amazing. This beach isn’t as cultivated as the ones closer to Virginia Beach and everyone enjoyed finding bigger and more unique shells. The van on the drive back to VB was a little smelly but with some happy treasure hunters inside.
I can’t leave Chincoteague Island without mentioning the most amazing waitress of our trip. Linda at Bills Seafood Restaurant in Chincoteague was wonderful to us. From diverting the attention of some very tired kiddos by making special chocolate milk with whip cream and chocolate syrup to efficiently cleaning up the linen table cloth when one of them promptly spilled his all over the table. If you ever eat at Bills ask for her and tell her we said hi! She even brought out another special chocolate milk, brave lady!
Chincoteague is a paradise for photographers and wildlife lovers and this was in January. It ended up being a pretty long day but we were so glad we included Chincoteague in our itinerary. Highly recommended, maybe we’ll spend a couple of days next time.