Chincoteague and Assateague

On October 21, 2012 · 3 Comments

The dirty little secret of the geo-oddities blogger community is that there’s only so much geographic weirdness to go around. We all tend to overlap with our material from time-to-time, and that’s fine. We each apply our own spin on a common set facts to come up with things original and creative.

I’d been trying to think of somewhere to take the kids during their brief Autumn break from school. Right around that same time "Weekend Roady" posted his Extending the Summer in Chincoteague article so I stole his idea. Blatantly. A tip of the hat goes to Weekend Roady for inspiring the 12MC family to spend four wonderful days on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

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The Eastern shore is the commonwealth’s own little exclave consisting of two counties separated geographically from the remainder of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. A 17-mile Bridge Tunnel does connect the tip of the peninsula to the rest of Virginia although that didn’t happen until 1964. This might lead someone to question whether the Eastern Shore is truly an exclave or not. That would also ignore more than three hundred years of prior history extending back to the colonial era when settlers of European descent first arrived here.

The bridge does create an interesting situation if I may go down a tangent for just a moment. It makes it possible for someone to drive 600 miles (965 km) over 11 hours using an efficient route without ever leaving Virginia (map). One will experience the opposite phenomenon in my circumstances. I began our journey in Virginia, left the state within a few minutes, and experienced the odd sensation of re-entering Virginia three hours later (map). Thus, the physical territory of the commonwealth involved but a tiny portion of my road trip on either end. Both situations arise from Virginia’s unusual triangular shape.

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Anyway, let’s get back to Chincoteague and Assateague, and untangle their names since designations can become confusing. They are both part of a chain of sandy barrier islands separating the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Assateague is on the ocean side, is long and skinny, and extends another 30-miles-or-so northwards towards Ocean City, Maryland. The large preponderance of Assateague Island is protected parkland (e.g., the National Park Service’s Assateague Island National Seashore). Chincoteague sits immediately west of Assateague’s southern tip, protected from the ocean by Assateague. It rests comfortably within Chincoteague Bay.

The usage sews confusion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains its Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island directly across a short causeway from Chincoteague Island and the town of Chincoteague. Got all that? Assateague is an island. Chincoteague is an island, a town, a bay and a wildlife refuge.

Likely, fewer people would travel to this beautifully remote spot if it weren’t for the wild ponies made famous in the 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague and 1961 movie Misty. Nothing has done more to transform Chincoteague from a fishing village focused on the bounty of the sea into a tourist destination harvesting travelers more than the renowned Misty mystique.

Even so it still manages to hold onto a small-town feel unlike its Maryland and Delaware counterparts further up the Atlantic coast. This can probably be attributed to geographic isolation and government ownership of its beach. Nobody will ever be allowed to build ocean-front hotels, rickety boardwalks or tacky t-shirt emporiums along the ocean waterfront here.

Ponies have occupied Assateague Island since the colonial era although nobody really knows exactly how or when they arrived. I’m a believer in simple solutions. It makes sense to me that people would have plenty of incentive to stash or hide their livestock on a barrier island to avoid paying taxes. The tax evasion explanation seems more plausible to me than the alternate theory of Spanish galleons laden with ponies shipwrecking off-shore. Feel free to come to your own conclusions.

Also "wild" ponies seem a bit of an exaggeration unless one defines wild to mean "mellow ponies without saddles." Take the Assateague ponies five miles inland, drop them in a large field and nobody would bother to give them a passing glance. Stick the very same ponies on an island, combine them with romantic tales of Spanish shipwrecks and an iconic children’s book, and watch tourists gawk. I’m not mocking the phenomenon — I was right there with them pointing my camera as one can see plainly from the short video above — just amused by the situational difference. I’m glad the town earns a living from it and the local volunteer fire department uses the annual roundup as a fundraising activity. I’m not sure Chincoteague necessarily needed to taxidermy poor Misty and put her body on display after she passed away, although who am I to judge? People want to see Misty, dead or alive I suppose.

Pony-watching kept the kids happy. I rather enjoyed the lighthouse (yes, I have a lighthouse thing along with my various other fixations). The Assateague Light is easily accessible, open to the public, and continues to serve as a functioning navigational aid. This one is 142 feet tall (43 m) and sits on a naturally-elevated part of Assateague Island to extend its focal plain. The tower could use a new paint job although it seemed to be in pretty good shape structurally. We could see the tower all over Assateague Island as we biked along miles of flat, paved pathways.

Assateague, since I’m on the topic now, was the name of a Native American tribe who lived along the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula. They were Algonquians as were many of the people who greeted European explorers and colonists as they arrived on the Mid-Atlantic. I don’t know where Chincoteague came from although I’ll guess it derived from something Algonquian given the common suffix.

Assateague Chincoteague Beach

The beach on Assateague Island is another good reason to come to Chincoteague. Government ownership allows the island to exist naturally so it shrinks and grows and wanders as barrier islands are likely to do when not disturbed by human intervention. This can lead to controversy. Chincoteague first earned a mention on Twelve Mile Circle last year when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed moving the Assateague Island beach and busing people to it. I don’t know what happened to that idea or whether it’s still being considered or not. I can confirm that we were able to drive through the wildlife reserve and park directly on the beach as of October 2012. I might have to side with the Chincoteague residents on this issue. Taking a bus to the beach would be a hassle.

October air temperatures were fine for lounging next to the ocean. The water itself was a bit nippy although the kids splashed around a bit. Generally the sky wasn’t as angry as this photo implied either; I took this photo for dramatic effect and the clouds quickly parted.

Chincoteague Viewed from the Water

I love traveling during the off-season. We rented a two-bedroom cottage and saved literally hundreds of dollars from what one would pay for an ordinary hotel room during the summer. Mid-October is considered "winter" at the beach, yet this is often the best weather in Virginia: warm, not oppressively hot, and plenty of sun. Another off-season joy we discovered on Chincoteague was the ability to call about pontoon cruises around the island without advance notice. We were on the water later that same day. A two-hour tour on a party boat offers a completely different perspective unavailable to those who remain on dry land.

NASA Wallops Flight Facility

I’d be a liar if I claimed we had perfect weather the entire time. We did experience one gray, rainy morning. This was the only time we left the islands. We stopped at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility visitor center about ten minutes west of Chincoteague. NASA launches sounding rockets and high altitude balloons from Wallops, one of the oldest and most active rocket facilities in the world. The center kept our attention long enough for the rain to clear.

Too soon, and it was time to come back home.

On October 21, 2012 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Chincoteague and Assateague”

  1. Philip Sites says:

    More than happy to take credit for inspiring a well-earned family break! The Assateague/Chincoteague area has always intrigued me – but I don’t often think of it as a Virginia exclave, which it truly is (been tricked too much by the bridge/tunnel). I’ve mapped out that same westernmost-to-easternmost drive as well (never tried it, probably never will) and it’s astounding to think how different the state is at each of those points – and not just the scenery. I can’t think of many more states more ripe with geo-oddities than quirky-shaped Virginia…

  2. MIinTX says:

    Speaking of lighthouses, have you even visited the Crisp Point Lighthouse in the U.P. of Michigan? Until recently the only way you could reach it was down some narrow, unkempt, and dangerous two-tracks (which made it both fun and frustrating). My friend and I drove several miles on winding two-tracks in the dense forest up there over steep drops, through beach sand, only to come to about 1/2 mile from the light house and find a portion of the road, err, two-tracks, err, forest trail at that point, was completely wash out from a flood. I was driving my Saturn Sport Coupe, so we couldn’t go any further. Now this was also before the use of GPS… just us and my detailed map of the area with some dotted lines where the “Roads” where “supposed” to be.

    With no place to turn around I drove reverse those several miles, BACKWARDS through the winding death traps to find the alternate route. But I’ve never seen such beautiful scenery of the forest before though… even though we did find an abandoned rusty RV, shot up with hundreds of holes (Not the best feeling, sort of like from a horror movie). We eventually got there, but the lighthouse looked abandoned and was run-down.

    In recent years my wife and I visited the lighthouse only to find they PAVED a whole road to the site, and the lighthouse was being restored. The shore of Lake Superior in that region is great for finding agates and other precious stones. (Our reason for going).

    It’s a bit out of the way and far from any towns, but it was worth the trip. Although I think I prefer the two-tracks over the pavement.

  3. Fritz Keppler says:

    That Algonquin prefix leads to the interestingly named water feature in Maryland a short way up the coast.

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