CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- With lawn chairs and binoculars in hand, John Mishler followed his 4-year-old daughter toward the marshy shoreline, already crowded with spectators waiting for the wild ponies to make their 67th annual swim.
Being just minutes after 7 a.m., Mr. Mishler and his daughter, Libby, would have to wait another two hours before the herd swam the narrow channel between Assateague and Chincoteague islands.
"She's read the book ['Misty of Chincoteague'] and is real excited about this," said the Huntingtown resident.
That excitement matched that of some 40,000 spectators who applauded and cheered as the ponies emerged from the channel about 9:40 a.m. to rest and graze in a roped-off area on shore.
"The horses are simply beautiful," said Jim Russell, town fire company vice president.
The annual swim takes place the last Wednesday of July. The herd, rounded up and corralled days before, swam out of Assateague at slack tide, reaching Chincoteague eight minutes later.
Volunteer firefighters, mounted on horses, guided the ponies through the channel's marshy and shallow areas. Coast Guard and National Park Service officials picked up the task in deeper waters.
In the morning haze, the ponies, with only heads bobbing above the water, resembled a flock of ducks.
"It was neat," said Tony Mariani, who jet-skied about 35 miles from his Ocean City home to the event.
"I've often read about it, but this is the first time I've been here."
While on his jet ski, Mr. Mariani got roped into helping keep a stray pony in between rows of boats lining the channel.
"I was riding rodeo," Mr. Mariani said, laughing.
Today, about 60 colts will be auctioned at the Fireman's Carnival Grounds on Main Street, where a fair, featuring wild pony rides, runs through August.
Proceeds from the auction help finance the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co.'s annual operations. Typically, the auction raises $25,000 to $30,000, said firefighter Roe Terry.
The department owns the ponies and has a permit for ponies to graze at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island.
Concerned about the treatment of ponies before and after the auction, the Humane Society of the United States had representatives on hand yesterday. The society wants the fire company to adopt several changes, such as eliminating wild pony rides at the carnival and rescheduling the event to Labor Day when the weather is cooler.
Jim Tedford, the society's acting regional director, said the group also objects to the raffling of the first foal to reach the shore.
"They used to drag the foal up on stage at the band stand," he said. "They brought her out in front this time for about 20 minutes, but the pony was still panic-stricken.
"It's something that is just completely unnecessary," he said. The crowd appeared oblivious to any such concerns.
Many, like the Mishlers of Calvert County, had scheduled vacations in the area so they could see the swim.
People stood 10 to 20 deep along the shoreline. Some rolled out blankets for picnics; others waded in the murky water beforehand.
The best seat belonged to an inventive Tim Lemieux, 47, of Key West, Fla., who sat on a ladder.
"I always carry a ladder with me," Mr. Lemieux said. "I used it to fix my truck yesterday."