At the northern tip of Virginia, just east of the Chesapeake Bay, a group of islands is scattered across the Atlantic Ocean. Together the islands make up the Eastern Shore, home to tiny historic towns, marshes, undiscovered beaches and plenty of fresh seafood. Travel further into the grips of the Atlantic and you’ll find Chincoteague Island, Virginia, where legends and wildlife abound.
Historians believe that the word “Chincoteague” comes from an Indian name that means “beautiful land across water.” Unlike many Atlantic “islands” which are really glorified sandbars or extended peninsulas, Chincoteague was wholly cut off from the rest of Virginia until 1922, when its first causeway was constructed.
Today, the island remains a quiet, natural retreat from modernity and its excesses. The skyline is free of high rises. All summer long, kayakers, fishers and hunters meander through Chincoteague’s glittering channels, creeks and waterways searching for the day’s adventure. And just across a channel on Assateague Island, Chincoteague Wildlife National Refuge brims with rare plants, endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtles and a host of flocking waterfowl.
But perhaps the most famous island creatures are its horses. As the legend goes, in the 1700s, a Spanish Galleon shipwrecked on the island and only a band of wild Arabian horses survived. And while no one will ever know the true story of how these horses arrived on the island, the fact remains that wild ponies still run free across the Chincoteague Wildlife National Refuge. There, two herds of 150 horses are separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia state line.
The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Every year since 1924, select firemen, also known as “Saltwater Cowboys,” take two days to round up the ponies and lead them down to the beach. Then, on the last Wednesday in July, 150 horses swim across the channel, heads bobbing in the water, cheered along by spectators. The day after the swim, yearling ponies are auctioned off to the highest bidders. Last year’s most expensive horse went for more than $11,000.
This year’s swim and auction will take place on Chincoteague Island July 24-25. But if you can’t make it to see the famous swim, rest assured that the wild horses, along with the rest of the island’s charm, history and legend, are there for you any time of year.
Photo by Travis Modisette