The Annual Chincoteague Pony Penning and Firemen’s Carnival is held every year during the last week of July on Chincoteague Island, Virginia. During this event, feral ponies living in the national wildlife refuge on the National Park of Assateague Island (adjacent to Chincoteague Island) are rounded up in order that the young horses might be sold at auction to keep the herd at a healthy number. This guide chronicles my experience with my girlfriend during this event.
A little explanation is needed about the general area first. Chincoteague Island, Virginia is an inhabited island home to about 4,000 people and very few industries (fishing and tourism are its largest). Assateague Island, which borders Chincoteague Island, is the home of the ponies. Assateague is roughly divided in two between Maryland to the north and Virginia in the south. Each state has its own population of ponies, Virginia being the group that makes the annual swim. This herd is less feral and the overall quality of the horses is higher. Travel is impossible from the Virginia side to Maryland by car since there is a fence separating the two and no driveable road that runs the length of the island. It takes about two hours to make the trip from each National Park Service station. The island is actually occupied by three different agencies: the Assateague Island National Seashore (National Park Service) and Assateague State Park (Maryland), and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).
So, even though it’s called the “Chincoteague Pony Penning,” there are no wild ponies on Chincoteague except after the swim. (Certain ponies are kept on Chincoteague for special care, but the associations that determine the well-being of the herd tend to take a very hands off approach.) The map is centered approximately on the area of the swim. The green area is a very vague map boundary that is actually marsh area. Half the time it is under water. The best map of the area is here: NPS Map.
The pony penning event was originally a general livestock auction held on Chincoteague and Assateague that had existed since the 1700s. By the early 20th century however, the horse auction gained more popularity and eclipsed the other animal sales. The swim itself was initiated in 1925 after a devastating fire ravaged the town of Chincoteague. It was decided that the money raised from ponies sold at the annual auction would go towards the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company so that they would be able to better protect the island from future fires. To this day, the money raised at the pony auction still goes to the fire company, along with the ladies auxiliary and one other selected charity. The government regulates the size of the herd to 150, necessitating the auction of roughly 60 foals (young ponies one year and younger). The Maryland herd is controlled through birth control.
The annual pony swim and firemen’s carnival gained international attention after childrens novelist Marguerite Henry’s published the book Misty of Chincoteague in 1947. Sequels to this novel included Stormy: Misty’s Foal, Sea Star, and Misty’s Twilight. The island gained even more fame after Misty of Chincoteague was made into a movie in 1961 filmed on the island of Chincoteague. Several individuals mentioned in the novel played themselves in the film, and younger members of the Beebe family who owned the real Misty pony had minor roles in the movie as well.
Accommodations, Food, and Travel
Chincoteague Island only has one road (Chincoteague Road) leading into the Island. From there, you enter into ‘downtown’ where you will pass most of the hotels and many small business stores. The only road from Chincoteague to Assateague is Beach Road, and is closed after dusk by the National Park Service. (The park is only open during daylight hours, but you can obtain special permits for fishing)
If you plan on going to the annual pony swim, you NEED to book a room at least a six months in advance. There are several hotels on Chincoteague, of which we have enjoyed staying at the Refuge Inn and the Comfort Suites on past trips. Expect higher rates if you are planning on staying during this season. Furthermore, many hotels and campgrounds require a stay of at least three nights during the Pony Penning Week, and there is little in the way of places to stay near the island on the Virginia mainland. To keep costs down, we camped at Maddox Family Campgrounds. Even this was about $40/night, but it includes use of a pool, showers, bathrooms, and small firepits. The flood prone campgrounds was a “claim your own area” field outside the main RV area. It had a fantastic view of the Assateague lighthouse. In the gallery below, you can see some highlights from our Summer 2009 trip.
We traveled primarily in a 2008 Subaru Outback that was home to the camping gear and the two kayaks. My kayak was a Dagger Crossover kayak that ended up doing fairly well on the bay. On the island the speed limit is 25 mph everywhere. Scooters are available for rent at $20/hr and up.
There are a couple things to keep in mind, especially if you are a novice camper: weather and mosquitoes. Both have the potential to be very severe. The thunder tends to keep you up all night as it rumbles around much longer than mountainous New Jersey is used to. Bad weather moves in very quickly, and the wind will test your tent to the limits. I definitely recommend several smaller dome tents if you’re bringing the family. If you wish to be closer to the Pony Swim, the Tom’s Cove Campground would be the best place to be, although this campground fills up very quickly. I find it hard to describe the hoards of mosquitoes that plagued our campsite after every rainfall. We found solace in our completely sealed tent, bathing in Off! bug spray, or hiding in the campfire smoke. Chincoteague Island was sprayed in certain areas from above in what looks to be a B-25 Mitchell.
We greatly enjoyed catching our own crab. (Since many other people had the same idea, we only got one that was over the limit.) If you decide to catch your own crab, don’t kill it by boiling. Take a large butcher knife and slice it right down the middle, or an ice pick through the bottom closer to it’s mouth. I will be posting a proper how-to very soon. Virginia regulations can be found here: Recreational Fishing and Crabbing in Virginia Tidal Waters
The week’s events surround the date of the swim, which is the last Wednesday of July. The Sunday before, the northern herd are rounded up and placed in separate pens approximately three miles north of Assateague’s main road. Monday morning is the first real “spectator” event of the pony penning week. The northern herd is removed from the north pens and is led down the beach by the Saltwater Cowboys so that it might join the southern herd in the south pens. Generally the herd is moved around 7 am, but it is necessary to be on Assateague far earlier if one wants to have a good view of the ponies traveling. For the remainder of Monday and Tuesday, the ponies are checked over by vets from the Eastern Shore Animal Hospital and any sick horses, young foals, or otherwise incapable animals are taken by trailer to the carnival grounds on Main Street of Chincoteague where they will receive additional care if needed. The pen is located closest to the bend on Beach Road by Woodland Trail. (National Park Service Map).
The gallery below shows the pen in which both the northern and southern herds stay before the swim. Two rows of fences separate the spectators from the ponies. It’s also a really good time to see some of the herd dynamics. The foals will often be bathing in the sun while the older ones groom each other on their shoulders. Some smarter (meaner) ponies escape the roundup and won’t be around for the swim.
Wednesday is the highlight of the pony penning festivities; between 8 and 10:30 am (and this is very rough – it has been earlier and later) the ponies are removed from the southern pens and are driven towards the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague. There, once the channel reaches slack tide (low tide), the ponies swim to Chincoteague with the aid of some cowboys and firemen boats. After a rest of about an hour on Chincoteague, the ponies are led by the Saltwater Cowboys down Pony Swim Lane to Ridge Road, then to Beebe Road and finally to Main Street. Upon reaching Main Street the ponies have only a short walk before they reach the pens in the Firemen’s Carnival grounds. On this single day nearly 40,000 people flock to Chincoteague in hopes of seeing the ponies swim or parade down Main Street.
In order to see the swim, it is necessary to either stand on the marsh between Memorial Park and Tom’s Cove Campground on Chincoteague or take a boat out onto the channel itself. Boating is the easiest and best way to see the swim; one can launch small motor boats, kayaks, or canoes from the East Side Dr. public boat launch ramp after purchasing a permit for $5 from the Chincoteague Town Hall (call ahead). Parking can be quite an issue during the swim morning, so it is necessary to arrive at the boat launch ramp by no later than 5 am. The swim occurs only 0.5 miles south of the East Side Drive ramp so this is a great way to get right up close to the swimming ponies.
It’s a good idea (whether you are in a boat or on land) to bring bugspray, snacks, and sunscreen.
After the ponies reach the carnival grounds on Wednesday the first foal to swim across the channel (known as King or Queen Neptune) is raffled off with tickets costing only $1.
The nice thing about the kayak is that they were easy to launch and we were able to lash up to a pontoon boat that we made friends with. We recommend traveling to the side of the swim that is closer to the Chincoteague Inlet and Tom’s Cove. You have to leave early enough because the Coast Guard shuts down crossing the path of the ponies well before the swim. A line of boats is created by the yellow buoys present in the harbor. There are certain spots on this side of the inlet that you can actually stand in, just watch for jellyfish. Some people spent their time waiting by “clamming” with their feet. The only downside of traveling by kayak is obviously the weather. It’s about a mile from the East Side Drive ramp to the swim. After the swim the weather picks up and the wind will typically be against your travel.
As far as equipment and experience goes, I do not recommend a kayak that you have only brought out on flat water. Several people were in “open” sea kayaks that seemed to work well, although I did not see as many life jackets as I wanted to. You will be in a crowded area with many boats if you choose to travel by kayak and it would be easy to get knocked and drown. Take basic safety precautions. We packed a rechargeable air horn, but didn’t have to use it. Plan to sit in your kayaks for awhile, so make sure it’s comfortable. (We sat for 4+ hours waiting).
After the swim, you cannot cross the pony swim path since they need to ferry an old barge back and forth and can not have wake. We beached our kayaks on the Assateague marshes and rested long enough for most of the boats to clear. If waiting in your kayak is no fun, several groups gather on the Assateague side and wait there in the marshes.
Thursday is the second most exciting day of the pony penning week. Foals of all ages are sold at an auction where all proceeds go to benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Foals that are 2.5 months old and older are allowed to go home with their new owners immediately after the auction, and those that are younger than this age cut off are kept with their mothers until the October Roundup. Some of the purchased foals, however, are a part of a program known as “buy backs.” Certain foals are selected by the firemen and saltwater cowboys to replace members of the herd who are older or who did not survive the previous winter. These foals are still sold to the highest bidder, but they are then “donated” back to the wild herd by their new owners to live their lives on Assateague. Prices for these ponies can reach upwards of $17,500; far in excess of the average price of $1344 in 2009 for a foal who leaves the island after the auction.
Parking for this event can also get very challenging, but there are many people on Chincoteague who allow parking on their lawns for $10 a day not far from the carnival grounds. Friday morning sees the end of the pony penning events as the southern ponies are removed from the carnival ground pens and are swum back to Assateague Island.
Carnival and other sights
During the week of the swim, the fire department hosts a carnival where you will find BINGO, various raffles (including the pony raffle), several rides straight out of the 1950′s and 1960′s, and typical carnival food. It’s free to enter. Once the herd makes the swim, you can see the herd in the pen at the Carnival grounds.
I definitely recommend taking day before or after the swim to see Chincoteague and Assateague’s other sights. The lighthouse on Assateague still operates, and you can visit during the day. Visiting Assateague can vary and can be found here. Assateague is open from dawn till dusk. The beach is quite nice (especially as you head north past the main parking area) but be mindful of restricted areas. If you are trekking around on the island (whether on the wildlife trail or other) be mindful of the ponies. They are wild animals, and will defend themselves (espeically the stallions) if they feel threatened.
Return to the Wild
On the day after the auction, the ponies are lead back to Assateague Island in another (less attended) swim by the Saltwater Cowboys. The ponies follow the same return path. We walked along with the ponies. During the walk, there can be escapees, so make sure to get out of the way if one breaks out of the herd. If you want to watch the swim from the Chincoteague side, be prepared to get muddy. Most people end up wading to their knees in mud in order to watch. I hope this was a good document. Leave comments below if you have them.