Assateague Island

There's just something about the image of horses running along beaches, crashing gallantly through the surf, muscles rippling beneath windswept coats. It's the stuff of Hollywood and the silver screen (as seen in the 1961 film "Misty"). But on Assateague Island, it is also part of daily reality. While bicycling or walking the Maryland State Park, you're just as likely to encounter one of the island's wild horses (commonly referred to as "ponies") as you are the other forms of untamed wildlife that inhabit the area. The equine foragers roam the park's 680 acres in small bands, or "harems," nibbling on a steady diet consisting mostly of indigenous cordgrass and American beachgrass.

Mealtime: Assateague's ponies enjoy a diet of cordgrass and beachgrass. (Sun Photo by Amy Davis)

And make no mistake: The allure of wild horses is what draws many, if not most, of the approximately one million annual visitors to this remote strip of scabrous barrier island wrapped around a 34-mile shoulder of coastline shared by Maryland and Virginia.

The horses are separated into two herds, the northern and the southern. They're kept apart by a fence at the state line, and each consists of about 150 horses. While the Virginia herd can only be viewed from a distance, or while on a guided tour, the Maryland herd is free to roam the State Park and Maryland's portion of the adjoining Assateague Island National Seashore. And they do roam. It's not unusual for a camper to wake up with a harem of the beautiful beasts right outside his tent, poking around with the casual curiosity of a window-shopper.

A quiet moment: The Virginia side of the State Park offers less horse sightings than the Maryland side. (Photo by Jay Livingston, Special to SunSpot)

So where did all the horses come from? Most likely, they're descended from 17th-century stock placed on the "natural corral" created by the island, which is sandwiched between Chincoteague Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. (The arrangement spared settlers from having to build fences for, and pay taxes on, their livestock.) Today's stocks are most likely "feral," having reverted to a wild state from their former domestication. Another more colorful version of events has the horses swimming heroically ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon centuries ago, but that version is considered spurious by most historians.

Whatever their lineage, the remaining Assateague horses are a big draw. And visitors to the State Park and Maryland's portion of the National Seashore will have plenty of chances to see the fabled creatures -- often up close and personal.

Incidentally, the ponies are not in danger of extinction. To the contrary, their population is controlled to preserve the island's resources. Maryland manages its stock by using treated darts to inject the mares with a contraceptive. Virginia rounds up the herd annually, shuttles them across the channel to Chincoteague Island and sells off selected foals to keep the herd down to approximately 150 head. This is referred to as "pony penning."

While Assateague does host some day-trippers, most come to camp for a weekend or a week. The majority of campsites are located along a four-mile stretch of northern Assateague Island (there are no campsites on the Virginia lands, otherwise known as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge). After crossing the bridge from Route 611, the first right-hand turn will be Bayberry Drive, which leads into the National Seashore. The next right turn leads into the State Park's camping area.

If you're a camper leery of cold showers and chemical toilets (portable and non-flushing), which is all the National Seashore sites provide, choose the State Park campground, where several bathhouses among the campsites offer hot showers, dishwashing stations and clean bathrooms. Unlike the National Seashore's two campgrounds, the State Park also offers a store with ice, firewood, mementos and a snack stand. (Although many campers just shuttle back and forth between the parks, enjoying the best of both worlds.)

Out in the open: The wild ponies are not shy about approaching campers at the National Seashore. (Photo by Jay Livingston, Special to SunSpot)

The next choice you'll have to make is whether to pitch your tent (or your RV) on the beachside or the bayside. The State Park only offers a beachside campground, while the National Seashore offers two campgrounds: on the Atlantic shore and the piney, less windblown shores of Chincoteague Bay. In the height of summer, it is advisable to take a beachside campsite, where the Atlantic breezes keep the heat and mosquito levels more tolerable. During the spring and fall, the bayside may be preferable. It tends to stay a bit warmer and the breezes, while still noticeable, won't blow your family away.

Beach-length tent stakes (12 to 15 inches) are a must, particularly if you are camping on the Atlantic side of Assateague. While the sites are accessed by paved roads, they are set upon soft sands behind the dune-line and the winds can whip up fantastically any time of the year. You should also consider the wind factor when it comes to cooking equipment and the like. Don't expect that portable grill to stay lit and cook evenly under the windy conditions common at Assateague Island. But do bring that kite that's been collecting dust in your attic for the past few years.

Should you venture to Assateague any time after the sand fleas hatch (in mid-May), be prepared. Along with the island's infamous mosquito population, sand fleas are prevalent in the summer. A good bug spray and close attention to keeping your tent's screen door zippered shut will help immensely. There are also horseflies to be wary of when the weather turns warm. These winged brutes grow to the size of 25-cent gumballs, and their bites have been known to drive even the most rugged horse into the ocean for immediate relief.

On the water: In addition to horses, Chincoteague Bay features canoeing and other water activities. (Photo by Jay Livingston, Special to SunSpot)

But the challenges presented by Assateague's untamed environment are more than made up for by its assets. Maryland's portion of the island is great for hiking, biking and canoeing on Chincoteague Bay (beach cruisers and canoes can be rented at a shop at the end of Bayside Drive -- follow the signs from the National Seashore entrance). Bird watching is another popular activity on the island. This reporter logged a good number of specimens into his bird book while on weekend assignment, including black terns, laughing gulls, red-winged blackbirds and even some endangered piping plovers.

Oh yeah, and did we mention the wild horses?