Two weekends ago, my friend Nancy and I hopped in the car and headed to Chincoteague Island. Nancy is the angel who gave me my miniature horse, Georgie McLittle and Chincoteague was on her bucket list. Since I needed to deliver the quilt that I made for the Chincoteague fireman’s carnival, the timing was right!
On the drive down we chatted about the ponies. I told her that by the time we returned home she would be hooked on Chincoteague Ponies. With a busy two days planned, I had no doubt she’d catch the fever, if not from me and my island friends, then straight from the ponies themselves.
As we came onto the island, I rolled my window down to smell the marsh. “It’s the smell of coming home,” I said. Nancy smiled at me in a way that told me she understood exactly what I was talking about.
I turned onto Main Street. Coming onto Chincoteague is a lot like stepping back in time. It’s that slow pace, and the gentle care that goes into the cottages and homes, with walks that are lined with flowers and colorful crape myrtle trees.
Our first stop was to deliver books to Jane and Jon at Sundial Books. A store filled with books about Chincoteague Ponies and island life seemed like the right sort of introduction for my friend. Then, we were off to cross the bridge to Assateague and the National Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge.
As of May 1, there are 20 foals on the ground on the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge it. How do we know that, and most of their genders and the coloring? Because there are reports daily on Facebook from friends on the island.
The 2018 yearlings were out along Beach Road with Heide’s Sky, a late 2017 buyback that I’d been a part of. We’d stopped to take pictures when my friend Dawn pulled up, a cool surprise! After hugs, we were all about sorting out the ponies along the road by name.
In the evening, we met with pony aficionados Darcy Cole and Hunter Leonard with his fiancé Rebecca. I’d planned the dinner so Hunter could share pony stories with me for my next book. His family has been involved with the ponies for decades. In fact, I’d interviewed Hunter’s grandfather Donald for my book “Little Icicle,” and had interviewed his dad Arthur for my book, “The True Story of Miracle Man.” Hunter was in a highchair, back then! Now, a college graduate about to be married, he was the one with the tales.
As I listened to one story after another, Nancy leaned forward to listen, too. There’s always another tale it seems, just like episodes of “As the Marsh Turns.”
The next morning found us on the Refuge Bus Trek, listening to our well-studied guide Bob share the history of Assateague’s relic dunes. He told us how climate change has helped the pine bark beetles winter over to cause more destruction. He shared birdlife we passed and stopped for pony herds along the way. The trek always makes one stop along the way for riders to get out and photograph the ponies. This time, it was along the Dyke Road where two pony herds were in sight, one across the way, towards the ocean, and one on the other side of the service road, along the bay.
Wearing a “Cancer Picked the Wrong Kid” shirt, Brianna smiled through it all, accepting not only a check from the brewery, but multiple checks as other nonprofits donated their checks to her fund. My heart overflowed with emotion.
As we stepped off the bus, my friend Sue Johnstonbaugh hurried over. She seemed sunburned and harried, and as soon as she spoke, my heart plummeted. One of our favorite 2019 foals had been separated from her dam, Thunderstorm.
Sue said she’d taken over standing watch from our friend Nicole, who had watched the stallion Neptune steal Thunderstorm away from the stallion Ajax, not allowing her foal to follow. Now, they were miles apart, with one on the bay and one closer to the ocean. This beautiful foal would not survive without her dam. I ran to the bus, getting my phone to message Hunter, even though Sue said they’d left a message at the firehouse.
To add to our fear, the foal, who had been frolicking with another foal in the herd, must have realized his mom was not there. He ran to a neighboring herd to try to find her. That herd’s stallion, named Ken, took off after the foal, teeth bared, chasing him all the way back to his friends in Ajax’s herd.
“Everyone on the bus,” Bob was saying. It was time to head back. I took my seat, while someone told Bob what was going on. My phone pinged. It was Hunter. “I’m on my way, but stuck in traffic,” he wrote. I sent back a description of Sue, so he could look for her on the service road, and then stood up. “Could I jump off and tell Sue to wait?” I asked Bob. He nodded. Not everyone had made it to their seats, so there was time.
As the bus headed back down the service road to conclude the tour, Hunter passed, on his way in. I breathed a sigh of relief. These saltwater cowboys are the best. They would reunite the mare and her foal. Of that I was certain.
After the bus, we headed to the docks to meet Captain Dan for a tour by boat. I wanted Nancy to get the full experience! Along the water, we found the first black and white pinto of the year, a newborn with Millie Sue. We found Legacy’s herd, Rainbow Warrior, the 2017s, and saw Wild Thing’s herd up close, watching his foals frolic along the shoreline.
My phone pinged from time to time, letting us know that Hunter had called for cowboys on horseback, and then letting us know that Thunderstorm and her foal had both been brought to the carnival grounds, along with a young mare name Chili, because they saw she had a small cut.
Heroes to the rescue again, I thought. Just another episode of “As the Marsh Turns.”
By the time we left the island, Nancy was trying to remember the names of all the ponies. She was listing her favorites and looking through pictures of the newborn foals. Another one hooked, I thought. And I wasn’t even surprised.