1. There are no horses on Chincoteague.
No wild ones, anyway. Contrary to the connections perpetrated in the minds of thousands of pre-teen girls across the last 6 decades, the title of Marguerite Henry’s popular novel “Misty of Chincoteague” is a bit of a misnomer. It really should be “Misty of Assateague”.
In fact, when most people imagine Chincoteague, they are likely picturing Assateague in their minds. At least, I was.
Chincoteague and Assateague are two different islands, separated by a swath of swampy wetlands and connected by a bridge. Assateague is a narrow, 37-mile barrier island, bisected by the Maryland/Virginia border. Chincoteague sits at the southern end of Assateague, on the Virginia side.
While the island of Chincoteague is a town of approximately 4,000 people whose livings come largely from fishing, crabbing and summer tourism, Assateague is a protected wildlife refuge, whose miles of interconnected biospheres are divided into national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges, and national seashores.
And all the wild horses live on Assateague. One herd roams the northern section of Assateague Island on the Maryland side, monitored by the National Park Service. Another herd, which is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, lives on the Virginia side, largely concentrated in an area of protected reserve called (not to confuse matters too much) the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge of Assateague.
2. You’re more likely to see the horses from a distance…
…unless you take a private (and expensive) boat tour, or rent a kayak and paddle through the marshy coast – then you have a higher chance of coming within closer range. But if you are cycling across the island, as I did, you’ll probably only see the horses from a distance, fenced off and away from the dangers of the roads and the cars.
I would have happily kayaked to see the ponies up close and personally, except…
3. The mosquitoes on Assateague are intense.
And in a kayak, I wouldn’t have been able to put up a decent fight.
I should have taken the warning signs more seriously.
Upon arriving on Chincoteague, I stopped into Tom’s Beach Supply store to buy sunscreen, and noticed that an entire wall display was devoted to various brands of mosquito repellent.
“Do you have any natural versions?” I asked the teenager behind the counter.
“Natural? You mean with less deet?” She scanned the display.
“No, actually, with no deet” I replied, regretting that I hadn’t brought my own collection of tea tree oil and citronella with me. She quickly stood up. “No ma’am. You’ll need deet. That’s the only thing strong enough to get ‘em.”
I bought the deet.
The next morning, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a tank top, then doused my upper body with deet. I ignored my legs. Mosquitoes can’t bite through denim, I reasoned.
Halfway across Assateague, I stopped cycling to walk a half-mile path to a look-out point. And for the first few minutes, I was sold on the deet; I only had to swat a few away from my arms and neck, here and there.
Then I looked down.
My jeans were black and crawling. Those destructive buggers deem denim as a challenge. The faster I walked, the faster they trailed behind me, swarming my legs and crawling under my pants.
By the time I finished the walk, they’d outsmarted the deet as well, and I was in a full-blown retreat.
The deet’s only strong enough to get ‘em until they outsmart it.
A few mosquito tips:
-They don’t bite as long as you stay in motion. Cycle, don’t walk.
-Swatting and smacking doesn’t work. Instead, I found it more effective to keep a bottle of spray in my pocket and use it every few minutes.
-They don’t come near the beach.
4. It’s possible to find empty stretches of beach.
Despite only being an hour away from Ocean City, one of the East Coast’s most popular and populated beaches in America, the Assateague National Seashore is not densely utilized. Theoretically, the entire 37-mile shore is open, although the beach on the Virginia side is largely concentrated on the southern tip of the island.
Within a 10-minute, bare-footed, waves-lapping-at-my-ankles walk northwards from the life-guarded beach, the umbrellas and towels became more dispersed. I went minutes at a time without seeing other people. I started to notice the habits of the waves as they swelled, flooding the sand banks with shell particles and hermit crabs before momentarily plateauing and dragging everything back into the sea.
5. The interior of Assateague looks vastly different from the beach.
But it’s equally as isolated. A barrier island, Assateague is a complex biosphere – a mix of marshy wetlands, dense forests and tide pools that bleed onto the coast and that exist in as much a state of balance and flux as the Atlantic waves. About 10 miles of cycling and hiking paths cross the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge on the southern half of Assateague, trails that weave through forests, along swampy marshlands, and that eventually lead to the coast.
6. The seafood will be fresh.
Straight from the coast to the table.