By Lynn R. Mitchell
Originally published in 2012 in the Washington Examiner
Along the wind-swept sand dunes of Virginia’s barrier island of Assateague in the Atlantic Ocean, the wild ponies roam as they have for hundreds of years. Today, however, they have been herded up for the annual swim across the channel to Chincoteague.
In 1925, Chincotague Volunteer Fire Department, looking for ways to raise badly needed funds for fire equipment, decided to round up the ponies and auction some to help raise money. At the same time, the roundup would help control the size of the herd and its impact on the fragile barrier island environment.
The roundup and channel swim, in conjunction with the fireman’s carnival, was so successful that it became an annual event, regularly drawing 40,000 spectators to watch the 150-175 ponies plunge into the ocean waters for the five-minute swim across Assateague Channel.
Today the tradition will continue sometime between 7:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. when the “slack” tide will make it easiest for young foals born in the spring to ford the channel. The first colt to make it to shore after the swim will be given away to a lucky winner at the carnival.
The event gained international attention in 1947 when local resident Marguerite Henry wrote the famous children’s novel, “Misty of Chincoteague,” a true story of a young brother and sister who grew up on Chincotague and raised money by selling clams so they could purchase “Misty,” a young colt with markings on her side resembling a map of the United States. Millions of visitors have since visited the area to see the ponies and the islands. The movie, “Misty,” brought even more attention to the pony swim, an event that continues to be popular with tourists, residents of the island, and receives national media coverage.
For more information and a schedule of activities check the official Chincoteague website.