CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- Coast Guard Seaman Apprentice Robert Bonham held the flare aloft, pulling out the string. Thick orange smoke spiraled high above the water, signaling the cowboys waiting on nearby Assateague Island to begin the 69th annual pony swim to Chincoteague.
As the smoke dispersed into a faint pink haze, more than 100 ponies came into view on Assateague. At first barely discernible through the early morning mist, they ran in a straight line toward the channel, hesitating only slightly when they splashed into the water just after 8 a.m. yesterday.
Behind them, the cowboys shouted and cracked whips, herding stragglers into the water. In front of them, 40,000 people cheered as they watched the four-minute equine journey toward Chincoteague. The annual event, held to benefit the island's volunteer fire department, draws thousands of people from over the nation.
"Basically, you can figure the whole herd's here," said Ed Moran Sr., a past president of the fire department.
"If you don't have the stallions, the mares don't come," added Fred Hipple, another volunteer.
The ponies were allowed to rest for more than an hour before being driven by the cowboys to the carnival grounds in a Pamplonaesque procession that wound through the tiny town of Chincoteague.
Today, the foals between 3 and 5 months old will be sold at an auction, which begins at 8 a.m. The rest of the herd will swim back to Assateague tomorrow. Once at the grounds, the horses were herded into a corral stocked with mounds of hay and troughs of water. As they began to eat and drink, a crowd pressed against the fence.
"I brought the credit card," said Cathy Ray, who came from North East with her two children. Matthew, 6, and Katelynn, 7, are accomplished riders and both had already picked out their favorites, she said.
The family has three horses -- "and one on the way," she said, as her children, noses pressed against the mesh fence, watched the herd moving around the corral.
In the bleachers, others were sizing up the herd through binoculars.
"Our son came with the intent of buying a spotted colt, and now we've decided we're going to get two horses -- a colt and a filly," said David Wilkerson of Bowling Green, Ky.
What were the Wilkersons looking at to help them decide? The horses' general appearance, the sire and dam, the coloring -- "And of course, one that looks like Misty," said his wife, Nadine. Like many children at the swim, their 12-year-old son Ryan had read Marguerite Henry's children's story, "Misty of Chincoteague."
By noon, the crowd had begun to thin out around the corral, many moving over to the carnival with its rides, oyster and clam sandwiches, and bingo game.
The day was pronounced a success by the cowboys, many of whom have participated for years in the roundup, swim and sale.
Cool weather and an early start helped make the day a good one, said Robert "Pop" Tingle, another roundup veteran.
"When you get hot, everybody gets aggravated, including the horses," he said.
"Everything went well -- no problems of any kind," said Accomack County Sheriff Robert Crockett.
"I've done it all my life -- I still love to do it," said Herman Daisey, 74, who helped round up the last stragglers Monday and rode with the herd yesterday.