The helicopter circled ever closer and then finally we could see them. The cavalcade of ponies surrounded by Saltwater Cowboys on horses appeared at the head of the lane. Suddenly the whole group thundered by us, splashing mud everywhere and stirring up the marsh so that the stink of decaying organic matter overwhelmed us. It was quite by accident and good luck that we found ourselves so close to the action. I had learned today that sometimes you have to let go of reservations and you might just end up at the right place.
Friday of Pony Penning Week is the day the Saltwater Cowboys return the Chincoteague Pony herd, minus the auctioned foals, home to Assateague Island. In chatting with locals during the week, we had been told that although the Wednesday Pony Swim towards Chincoteague is more popular with the tourists, the swim home is more fun to watch. Not only will the crowds have thinned, because most people only stay for the swim and auction days, but the ponies are more excited because they know they’re going home. I’d determined not to miss Friday’s event as I had the auction on Thursday.
With bicycles at our disposal, borrowed from our Inn, we set out early to claim viewing spots at Memorial Park, where we had watched the swim on Wednesday. Not knowing what time slack tide was (when the ponies could swim the channel), or exactly how crowded the park would be, we left ourselves ample time to ride. This time since we didn’t need to find car parking as we had on Wednesday, we wended our way through residential roads with an eye out for whelk shell stands in front of houses. –This is a thing in Chincoteague. People collect whelk shells and then leave them with a coffee tin and price list in their yard. Some people hand-paint the shells. I had my eye out for some hand-painted souvenirs- which I acquired along with 20+ mosquito bites for being foolish enough to stop in a grassy area! After shoving the requisite cash into the coffee tin, I rode on furiously attempting simultaneously to spray myself with bug dope. Not an easy feat.
When we arrived at Memorial Park, boats were already lining up in the channel and it was true that a considerably thinner crowd than earlier in the week was forming along the park’s shoreline. The tree that had mercifully shaded us on Wednesday, today stood far from the crowd. It seemed silly to park ourselves under it when we could nab a closer viewing spot. Unfortunately, there was no other shaded spot along the shoreline and the wait for slack tide quickly became unbearable. It wasn’t long before we were dripping with sweat standing still and too hot to be comfortable. With 45 minutes left to wait, Micah suggested we hop back on the bikes and take a spin to cool ourselves with what little wind we could create. I had reservations, not wanting to lose our spot and miss this event too. Uncomfortableness prevailed, however, so I followed him back towards the park entrance.
We had only biked a short way when we saw a street sign that read “Pony Swim Lane”. Intrigued, we drew even with the street and peered down it. We saw a wooden fence running the length of the lane which ended in a long, long, wooden pier. The fence seemed to be leaning under the weight of bicycles propped 3-4 deep against it. People had ditched their bikes on their way to the pier, which was filling quickly. We made an impulsive decision to follow suit. Leaving the bikes, we walked the pier until we found an opening.
Looking down at the marsh below us, we were able to see a lane designated by orange tape leading towards the channel. We had accidentally found ourselves right next to the Ponies’ path. Some people were even waiting in the marsh, but not having the right footwear for that adventure, we elected to stay up on the dry, sun-baked, pier.
Compared to our view on Wednesday, where we needed binoculars to even see the ponies, we couldn’t believe our luck! This time, despite wishing we’d brought a sun umbrella, feeling the sunburns forming on all parts of our exposed skin despite the layers of sunscreen we’d put on, and wiping away sweat as it trickled down from every pore, we stayed put. We found out later that you usually need a press badge to watch from here. Perhaps that’s only for the swim to Chincoteague? Nobody stopped us now. We waited, watching the news helicopter circle closer. We overheard a man not far from us announce that the ponies and their Saltwater Cowboy escorts had left the fairground pen at 11am and it would take the small parade about 45 minutes to reach us. We’d heard that one year the ponies escaped their escorts and ran wild through the lawns of Chincoteague residents until rounded up! We could tell the ponies were getting closer as the Helicopter circled closer.
Almost before we realized they had appeared in the lane, the whole group dashed past us in a blur of flying mud, pounding hooves, and whooping cowboys. At the water’s edge the cowboys broke formation, pulling their horses up short.
The Chincoteague ponies plunged alone into the channel. They knew where to go! They were going home! With just their heads above water, the swim lasted about six minutes. They reached the other side, shook off, and without looking back, took off into the wildlife refuge.
Back on our side of the channel, we made our way back along the pier, past the mud splattered Cowboys (and girls!), and found our bikes right where we’d left them (I guess it’s true, you don’t have to lock up your bike in Chincoteague!).
Although the chance we’d taken in leaving our first viewing post was small on the scale of things you can take chances on, it was still a good reminder that sometimes it’s ok to take an unplanned chance. Something even better might come along!