The “Misty” Mystique

Chincoteague is a big island with a small town atmosphere.   Too big to walk end to end, but still manageable enough to get anywhere you want by bike.  Much more subdued than the Outer Banks with no pretentious golf carts recklessly roaming the streets.  There are plenty of artists and local bookstores in the town to offset the T-shirts, trinkets, and miniature golf courses.

It’s common to find things sold on the honor system here.

Tomatoes, corn, cantaloupe are all local, “Self Serve.”

I came to Chincoteague on recommendation from a guy I met at the Winnie Rally in Asheville last June.  He raved about the place, particularly Tom’s Cove Campground.  Prior to that, I had never heard of Chincoteague before.    Since he spoke so highly of the campground, I didn’t do much research beforehand, but just sent in my non-refundable deposit to hold my space, and figured I would sort it out when I got here.

Tom’s Cove Campground Map

When I saw the campground map, I almost passed out.   My worst nightmare.    Thankfully, my willingness to forgo the sewer hookups saved me a lot more than $2 per night.    The campground was surrounded on all sides by a solid wall of RVs, but no one wanted to join me in middle where there were no sewer hook-ups.   It ended up being a nice quiet place, a bit “retro,” kinda like the RV version of a Poconos summer camp, with giant clubhouse complete with juke box and a dance floor.

Sunrise in the Cove, (A rare sighting for me!)

As it turns out, a starlet by the name of “Misty” put Chincoteague on the map.   In 1947, “Misty of Chincoteague,” a children’s book was written and later made into a movie in 1961.  Never heard of either.  But the town is full of memorabilia…old copies of the book, posters, DVD copies, and even pony rides on “Misty III,” a horse billed as a descendant of Misty.     Misty and her foal Stormy are preserved in the local museum.   Forget the seafood, the fishing, the boating and biking.  It’s all about the ponies here.    Pony yard art, tee shirts, business names like “The Purple Pony,” street names like “Pony Lane.”

60th Anniversary Dedication from “Misty of Chincoteague Foundation”

The main attraction takes place the last Wednesday of July (gee, I just missed it) when a bunch of “Saltwater Cowboys” (no cowgirls allowed!) round up 150 horses from the Wildlife Refuge, and drive them to swim the channel to the delight of 40,000 tourists.   The first foal to reach the shore is crowned “winner” (winner of captivity?) and gets named “King (or Queen) Neptune” at the carnival, then raffled off to support the Volunteer Fire Department.  They separate approximately 60 to 80 foals to sell at auction, then swim the Mom’s back without their babies.

Check out those eyes! (Not my photo)

I am trying not to be the kill joy here, but this seems somewhat cruel and exploitative.   I guess it is a cultural thing….tough for me to celebrate captivity of any living thing.  They justify it by saying it keeps the numbers down, and maintains a sustainable herd in relation to food sources.   But the Maryland side of the island takes a much different approach.  Their herds are managed by the National Park Service, who controls the size of the herd through contraceptive vaccines.   Not forced swimming across a cove to attend a carnival.

The Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge is Chincoteague’s saving grace if you are not into fishing or shopping.   There is plenty to do just across a short bridge, which is actually the Virginia end of Assateague Island.    There is a nice network of hike and bike trails, several wildlife viewing platforms, kayaking in the marshes, a nice beach (if you brought your swimsuit!)

And yes, even a lighthouse!

Assateague Light, Built 1833, (unfortunately under renovation, so no climbing)

And, oh yeah…..did I mention there were ponies?

7 thoughts on “The “Misty” Mystique

  1. Great write up on Chincoteague. I agree 100% about the ponies and I’m a Virginian. I would never go see such cruelty and am appalled that 40K people do. Beautiful pictures. I’ve never taken the RV there. We always stayed in the last little motel before the NWR since that was our destination. Is there anywhere else on Chincoteague but Tom’s? That’s why we haven’t taken the RV there. Tom’ s is not my kind of place. Love your blue kayak, looks just like mine and love the picture of the library I always take one in any town I go to. Really enjoying myself here. Where do we go next??

    • Hi, Sherry! Thanks for the nice comment.

      Next up is the Maryland side of Assateague National Seashore.

      If I were to visit Chincoteague again, I think I would stay at Maddox Family Campground. It is the same price as Tom’s, but it didn’t seem as congested. And I don’t think there are as many permanent residents there. The price is the same, but it is practically walking distance to the entrance of the Wildlife Refuge. With Tom’s, it was a 20 minute bike ride just to get to the entrance. I would rather have stayed at Maddox FC, and spent the time biking inside the WR instead of on the streets to get there. Otherwise, I think they are similar. I saw a couple of very small private places, but they looked more like mobile home parks, or permanent spots.

      Unfortunately, the little blue kayak was a rental. ;-( I have a soft-top tow vehicle, so I can’t stow a kayak on top. I do have a Sea Eagle inflatable, but once I got a look at the marshes at low tide, I didn’t feel comfortable paddling over the tops of all those gaping oyster shells in a “rubber boat!”

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. I have read your entire blog and am enjoying following along, especially since there are relatively few RV bloggers in the east. We went to Chincoteague for quite a number of years for pony penning as our daughter grew up reading Misty and wanted to see pony penning. She ultimately had a Chincoteague Pony although it was not purchased at the auction but we knew its full lineage. That pony got up to 4th level dressage and was a great pony. Loved your take on the town but disagree re pony penning. The herd is not a wild herd. Rather, it belongs to the Chincoteague Fire Department and is a free range herd on Assateague in the National Seashore. It is rounded up several times a year for veterinary checks, inoculations, etc. The swim itself is a very old tradition, predating the book. Not only is it an important economic event for the town in terms of tourism but the proceeds of the auction itself is what supports the fire department. Every year a number of the desirable young ponies are taken out of the auction and returned to the island to keep the strength in the herd. Also, there are very strict rules on how the auctioned ponies can be transported (i.e. horse trailers are required or professional transport) as in the early days, people transported the ponies in all sorts of inappropriate conveyances. I think that the big difference with the Maryland herd is that it is indeed a wild and not managed herd. At times that herd has had a bunch of issues. This herd is well cared for and like any herd (whether horses, cows, pigs etc.) that is a commercial herd animals get sold off out of the herd. Also, BTW, the swim occurs at slack tide and there are firemen in boats in case any of the ponies have issues. I recognize that this may not change your mind but the pony swim is a very long standing local tradition with deep roots. Again, I love your blog and enjoy following along. We have a truck camper and will get to travel more in coming years and your blog is full of great ideas and information. Plus, you do have a way with both words and the camera. Thanks.


  3. There are many “traditions” involving man’s treatment of animals, but that doesn’t make everything Ok…even if it does fund the local Fire Dept. Maybe I’m a hypocrite because I enjoy Thanksgiving turkey and the occasional steak dinner…and if given some Elk meat by my hunter friends, I gladly accept. So yes, I do eat meat. That said, certain animals like dogs and cats, and, in my opinion, horses, rise above the “food threshold;” and become “pets,” if not adopted members of our families. We do no eat them, and try not to harm them by making them do something they wouldn’t choose to do naturally. It is cruel to force horses to swim that far in a circus atmosphere. The following from the Vet. Journal of Medicine:

    “But this JAVMA article, in its description of our colleague’s exploits, made plain the risks involved in corralling and swimming these horses:
    Mares just transitioning into weaning their younglings are especially susceptible to a life-threatening hypocalcemia—an electrolyte imbalance that makes their muscles “seize up.”
    These mares have been the casualties observed in years past. And their foals, easily confused by the unexpected swim, are also likely to become disoriented and attempt to swim back. Boats that accompany the swimmers have had to rescue mares, presumably by injecting them with calcium mid-swim. Confused foals have been hoisted from the water to board the boats.”

    Box Canyon Mark

  4. In the 70’s I bought a pony at auction there and she was one of the best ponies we ever had. The swim brings in a lot of money for the fire dept.
    There several cg on Ch and the one Inlet Cove is great not fancy ,but clean.
    I had a camper parked there year round all the other cg close in winter.

  5. As a horse-crazed pre-teen living in the suburbs with no hopes of ever getting a horse of my own, I had to get by with lining my bedroom walls with horse posters and reading my 2 favorite horse novels over and over again, “Misty of Chincoteague” and “Black Beauty.” That, and my weekly visit to a horse stable for riding lessons! I finally made it to Assateague a few years ago, but your post has now convinced me that I missed the full experience and need to see Chincoteague as well (being careful to avoid the madness of pony swim week and the mega RV park!). The kayaking there looks spectacular and bike rides thru the refuge sound like lots of fun!

  6. Thanks everyone for the great comments! It is an interesting discussion, and I can see where both sides are coming from. I guess for me, it is a matter of seeing that same look in the pony’s eyes that I have seen all my life in my poor Mom’s eyes, who is TERRIFIED of water, yet time and again, she gets in there when one of her well meaning, water-loving children forces her. Haha!!

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