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Long-lasting friendships can be found online, too

True friendships stand the test of time. I've heard it said that people without a least a few strong friendships die young. It would not surprise me if that were true. Friends hold us together when we are falling apart and pat us on the back when we are holding strong. They can be brutally honest when we need it. They hand us tissues and listen to our problems. They laugh and cry with us. They share our interests. Everyone needs a diverse, well-rounded group of friends to trust.

There are many kinds of friends, but no matter the type, good friendships are solid and strong with ties that can't be broken. There is the best friend we call about almost anything. Then there are childhood friends with whom we share the secrets of our youth. Most of us have group friends, drawn together through membership in a specific club or organization. There are workplace friends and neighbors, and who doesn't have a wise mentor friend, someone older who shares years of wisdom? My husband always had a "polar opposite" friend. Because he was so well-behaved he jumped ship when observing the adventures of his wild "opposite" friend. But these days we have a new kind of friend: the online friend.

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New friendships spring up every day through social media. Frequently, the friendship starts out with membership in a group. Shared interests draw us together.

I am co-administrator of the "I Love Chincoteague Ponies" Facebook page, started by Alabama resident Beth Haynes. We have more than 3,400 members who all love Chincoteague ponies. On the page, pictures posted daily share our favorites. Now that it is foal season many of us keep watch for updates and photos of newborn foals, and it seems we all take turns visiting the islands and posting new foal photos. Last weekend was my turn to visit, but these days it seems it isn't just about the foals — it's also about the multiple friendships formed through association with the ponies.

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I couldn't wait to arrive on Chincoteague Island and meet up with my pony friends. Some are friendships formed at the fence before Facebook came along, while others are new.

On our first day on the island my husband Dan, my dog Ryley, and I met for lunch with friends Darcy and Steve Cole. There's a lovely outdoor deli called Sea Star Café that makes amazing overstuffed sandwiches. With outside benches by the water we could bring Ryley and catch up on happenings in the pony world. Darcy and Steve are both photographers from DSC Photography, and to regularly get current photos they hike 18 miles to the north end at least three times a week. This is an area only accessible on foot, so their reports are like nuggets of gold. Our friendship began with the ponies, but online chats about anything and everything in life solidified that friendship. Just seeing them was gold.

Pony fever was at an all-time high. With more than 140 ponies on Assateague Island's Chincoteague Refuge there are always ponies to "ooh" and "ah" over, but add to those numbers the newborn foals and we pony lovers are as happy as honeybees in a clover patch. So far this year 40 foals have been born, and about two-thirds of that number are on the way too. By the time this article prints even more fresh foals will be on the ground.

We biked the Woodland Trail with my daughter Shannon, her husband Tony, my grandchildren, and their neighbors who had come along. I have learned that daughters can also be true friends. We shared pony sightings and more along the trail.

Over the weekend I photographed a plethora of wildlife, including Delmarva fox squirrels, black squirrels, snakes and birds. The species of birds on Assateague and Chincoteague run into the hundreds when you take into account the migratory masses. I've photographed blue heron, tricolored heron, little green heron, black crowned night herons, killdeer, vultures, wild turkey, cormorants, glossy ibis, white ibis, piping plovers, bald eagles, great egrets, cattle egrets, Canada geese, kingfishers, all sorts of ducks and more. We saw horseshoe crabs, too. It is nearing the first full moon of June, when masses of them come ashore, the female dragging the male, holding onto her tail. She digs a hole, lays her eggs and drags him across to fertilize them. Sharing these sightings with friends who appreciate and love the same thing makes it special.

We were able to catch up with Kris and Jerry, our friends from Canada and hear about how their Chincoteague Ponies are doing across the border. I shared a Captain Dan boat cruise with my dear friend Liz, who I've known for decades, as well as my daughter and grandson, several online friends, and Linda Kantjas, the illustrator of my picture book "Wild Colt." Captain Dan located several herds, but excitement was at an all-time high when he found Wild Thing's herd. His mare, Black Star, has a distinctive new foal. The bay pinto has a marking under the jaw in the shape of a starfish. The star points wrap up the right side of his face, making this a very uniquely marked foal.

We shared meals with friends from Eldersburg who were on their first trip to Chincoteague. We caught up with online friends for first-time face-to-face meetings on Beach Road where everyone stops to observe passing herds. One online friend whom I'd only met a few times in person prior to this gave me a gift, a gorgeous portrait she'd painted of my dog, Ryley! I am still in awe.

The strong bond that can grow out of online friendships is as tough as braided leather. While there are always a few troublemakers in an online group, they can be weeded out or identified fairly quickly, and I've learned that online friendships are no longer to be feared.

Friendships are an important part of life. Friends keep us honest and on track, they hold us accountable, and they share the good, the bad and the ugly in life. Having varied friendships is a gift never to be taken for granted, and the gift list now includes online friends.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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