CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- They came by the thousands, wading through the mud and baking for hours in the hot sun -- all for a glimpse of a five-minute spectacle that has become a rite of summer on the shore.
By noon, 40,000 or more people lined the banks of the Assateague Channel as the first mares and colts stepped into the water for the annual Chincoteague pony swim.
Among the crowd was 12-year-old Kristyn Crescent DiPane of Berlin, dreaming the same dream as so many children who have been entranced by Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague." She wanted a pony of her own.
She's already mapped out a plan for persuading her mother to let her buy one when the ponies are auctioned today.
"I'm going to beg," she said.
Kristyn's mother, Lisa DiPane, didn't need much persuading. She had already picked out her favorite, a dark colt with white markings that she had spotted on an earlier trip to Assateague Island.
Mrs. DiPane said she needed only to persuade her husband.
"We're working on him," she said.
The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which organizes the pony swim and auction each July, had predicted that the crossing would begin around 10 a.m. yesterday. But the water currents wouldn't cooperate.
And so the tourists were left to swelter and wait.
By mid-morning, cold drinks were in short supply, and a man jokingly offered to sell a cold soda for $5.
Relief came at 11:53 a.m., when the first ponies started the swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island -- a distance of a quarter mile.
About four minutes later, the ponies were standing on dry land while the crowd quietly oohed and ahhed.
While the ponies rested, barges ferried the firefighters who work as roundup riders and their mounts over to the mainland.
Then the wild ponies were lead in a procession down Main Street to the carnival grounds. Spectators lined the route to get a closer look, and jumped out of the way when errant colts briefly detoured onto front lawns.
Chincoteague rolls out the carpet each year for the pony swim, a tradition since 1924 when the fire company bought the ponies from the federal government.
Town folklore has it that the first ponies swam ashore several hundred years ago from a Spanish galleon that had run aground in a storm.
But the National Park Service says the real, if less romantic, story is that the ponies were put on the island by 17th century Eastern Shore planters trying to avoid taxes and laws requiring them to keep ponies behind fences.
Grazing threatens isles
The ponies may symbolize the natural beauty of barrier islands such as Assateague.
But the irony is that new evidence reported as the town was preparing for this year's swim suggests that the ponies are a threat to idyllic scene.
Their grazing destroys plants that help keep the fragile islands from eroding. As a result, the Park Service is studying ways to manage herds along the East Coast, including experiments in birth control being conducted at Assateague.
Whatever their effect on the islands, ponies are big business in Chincoteague.
The 175 or so colts sold at the auction today will raise about $30,000 for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company -- not to mention the thousands more that will be spent in town by tourists drawn to the event.
The average price of a pony is about $375, said Roe Terry, a volunteer firefighter.
"But one once went for $2,500," he recalled. "It had pretty markings to it."
The money raised will be used for a new firetruck that is expected to cost $250,000 and to maintain present equipment, Mr. Terry said.
"It's something special to own an Assateague pony," he said. "These horses are more like puppies. They respond to verbal commands. They are more like a pet than a show horse."
That is what worries the Humane Society of the U.S. -- that buyers may regard a colt more as a puppy.
"We don't have any problem with the pony swim," says James Tedford, regional director for the south central office in Knoxville, Tenn., who was monitoring activities at Chincoteague yesterday.
"We are concerned with King or Queen Neptune," said Mr. Tedford. That is the title given to the first colt to swim ashore each year. The colt is then raffled off on a 25-cent ticket.
"A person who has invested no more than a quarter, may not know how to care for a young pony," Mr. Tedford said.
"And they insist on bringing the pony up to the bandstand," he said. "I don't see any need putting that foal on a stage before a loud crowd."
Wild pony rides criticized
Mr. Tedford said the organization also isn't pleased with the wild pony rides that are scheduled for this afternoon.
"If the whole idea is to promote the legend of the ponies, then do it by not making a mockery of them," he said
Mr. Tedford said that, aside from raffling off a colt and offering pony rides, the volunteer firefighters do a good job of caring for the ponies in the opinion of the Humane Society.