Assateague's mane event follows a tradition spanning generations

July 30, 2014|By Will Fesperman, The Baltimore Sun

CHINCOTEAGUE, VA. — — "Once you've seen it, you've seen it," said Tom Shutt of Hershey, Pa.

Still, Shutt and his wife Martha returned Wednesday to Chincoteague Island in Virginia, their seventh trip since 2000, to see "it" — a herd of wild ponies swimming from Assateague Island to Chincoteague.

After 89 years, the pony swim follows a strict tradition. About 150 ponies are herded from their year-round home on Assateague Island across a channel to Chincoteague, where they are paraded through the streets to the island's carnival grounds.

Thursday morning, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company will auction the foals to raise money for trucks and ambulances. The rest of the herd then swims back to Assateague on Friday.

Though the motions are the same — the ponies, the plunge into the water and the auction — generations of people and ponies have cycled through. Observers said the shoreline where the two species meet, once a sandy beach, has eroded to mud flats.

Jim Hopper's family and hundreds of others waited for the ponies in the muddy tidal zone Wednesday. Marsh grass pricked thighs and tiny crabs nipped at toes.

For the Hoppers, the 2014 pony swim is bittersweet. Hopper said his 78-year-old mother — who first came to the pony swim in the 1940s as a child — was too old to join them in the muck this year. But his daughter Paige, 18, the oldest of the third generation of the family to come to the island, will be one of six riders assisting at the the auction.

Such tradition is braided into hundreds of other Maryland families. Ashley Lewis, 25, of Snow Hill, watched Wednesday afternoon as her father, Walter Marks, corralled ponies to the parade route.

Marks, 65, has been coming to Chincoteague for 50 years, and is one of the Saltwater Cowboys, a team that guides the ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague and back. He joined the group 30 years ago, and his son is now a member as well.

Lewis has been attending the pony swim since she was a baby. It was at a fall pony roundup — when the animals receive vaccinations and health checkups — that Lewis met her future husband.

"When I was a kid, I said I was going to marry him," she recalled. "I was 11 or 12 when I came home and said that to my mom."

Many people learned about the tradition by reading "Misty of Chincoteague," the popular 1947 children's book by Marguerite Henry featuring a domesticated Chincoteague pony named Misty.

Angie McDowell of Columbia, S.C., begged her mother to take her the pony swim after reading the book as a 9-year-old. After attending, she learned to ride horses, and has attended 17 pony swims.

Though many people buy Chincoteague ponies of their own, McDowell makes a special claim — she says she has a great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Misty.

McDowell said her pony was in a New Jersey auction house and slated for slaughter when volunteers at the Chincoteague Pony Rescue, a Maryland nonprofit that saves abused or abandoned ponies, bought the animal and brought it to its rehabilitation center in Ridgely.

The pony would have gone to Canada or Japan for human consumption, said Debbie Ober, executive director of the rescue group, but instead, McDowell adopted the pony, named Misty's Stormy Bay, last April.

McDowell said one day she hopes to pick out "a little brother or sister" for the pony. Wednesday, she and her mother lounged in hammocks tied to the bottom of a dock to watch the action. The pair said they scoped out the site the day before and arrived at 7 a.m.

The first pony to reach Chincoteague arrived Wednesday afternoon, stepped onshore and stood still, breathing hard. The animal turned its head left, then right, watching the crowd.

wfesperman@baltsun.com

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