It is a truth universally acknowledged that if two inhabitants of the Tongass Alaska Rainforest convene in an alternate location, the rain will follow. And so it was that, having invited my parents to join me in Chincoteague for my birthday, we spent our last night with a storm chasing our tails. Micah and I arrived in Chincoteague first and found ourselves on day two standing outside at night at a trolley stop in the middle of a torrential downpour while lightning flashed and thunder boomed overhead. We had hoped this unusual sized storm was sufficient enough punishment for our entire party’s escape from the Rainforest, but my parents’ later arrival was not to be overlooked by the all-knowing weather system, and so we were in for a second, although thankfully lighter, storm.
It was also this night that we decided to tempt fate by hiring a private sunset boat cruise. With a recommendation from a couple at our B&B, after breakfast we reserved a 6-person luxury pontoon boat and captain with Daisey’s Island Cruises for the evening. The tour would take us along the shore of Assateague Island where we could see the lighthouse, dolphins, birds, and most importantly the ferrel Chincoteague Pony herd that grazes in the marshes of Assateague. It is possible to see them from the car while driving along the nature reserve road on Assateague, but much of the time this requires viewing them through binoculars. A boat would be able to get us closer to the grazing animals.
Our captain for the night was a local 8th grade geography/physics/chemistry teacher. He was entertaining as well as knowledgeable about the shifting geography of the area, local animal life, and was able to provide interesting facts about individual Chincoteague Ponies. As we started out we passed a rather odd sight, a cabin standing on pilings in the middle of the channel. Our captain explained that during violent storms, the sand that makes up the majority of the islands in the area gets picked up and moved. In his memory, the land here has turned over and moved significantly at least three times. This means that the cabin used to be on an island and now there is no longer land beneath it. Not surprisingly, our captain informed us that the cabin is for sale due to its accessibility problems. Remote living, anyone? At the same time the boat dodged a small spit of sand which our captain told us used to be a small sandy island which he would stop at and let his passengers walk around. That clearly wasn’t going to be an option any more. When the boat later puttered past duck blinds, he mentioned that he duck hunts in these waters in his spare time and regaled us of tales of duck hunting with friends during cold winters. Also, as a local, he recognized many of the horses we saw by sight and was able to tell us their names and background stories. Other ponies he was able to identify for us with the help of an annually locally sold publication.
As we set, out the weather was a little breezy, but it was a warm wind. The sun was low on the horizon and like mermaids at twilight, suddenly dolphins came up to swim around our boat. The tour boats crowded the dolphins. We seemed to run right up on top of where they last came up. Just when I thought there was nowhere for the dolphins to escape, they would surface on the other side of the boats. The ship captains had no qualms about getting too close to them.
Finally the Ponies…
After harassing the dolphins for a while we headed toward the shore of Assateague Island in search of ponies. As we approached the lighthouse, the sun was setting and the light was just at that golden hour where everything seems calm and perfect. We drifted lazily at the outer edges of the marsh where tips of plants swayed around the sides of our watercraft. We could see Riptide’s band of South herd ponies back in the trees. I asked our captain if he’d heard about the fight between Riptide and Chief before the auction. He hadn’t heard about it but wasn’t surprised. “He’s a fighter. He takes after his father,” our captain shrugged.
I kept my eye out for Beach Boy, a 2015 foal and Misty’s first descendent to live within the wild herd on Assateague. Unfortunately, our captain didn’t know whether he had joined the northern or southern herd, so he could have been anywhere.
From the lighthouse we moved on to find the south herd, hoping they were more visible. Luckily they were. They were grazing just at the shoreline. We spotted Surfer Dude’s Gidget, she was brown with a white stripe down her nose. She appeared to be the lead mare of the herd, though according to our captain, that could change.
We spotted Wild Thing, who is brown with a white shape like Italy down his side. We also saw Unci who we’d seen in the pen. She has a very defined swayback, but apparently is in no pain and still produces beautiful offspring.
The radio crackled to life. One of the other captains was calling in to report that the north herd had moved closer to the water’s edge. so we high-tailed it back towards the lighthouse. It was not Riptide’s group that had moved, but Ace’s Blacktie Affair. We couldn’t distinctly see Ace, but there were some adorable foals with this group.
By now the sun had really set and the breeze had cooled. As the captain turned the boat back towards Chincoteague, the clouds rolled in, the sea got choppier, and the weather chilled. Darkness descended around us rather quickly and as the boat plowed through waves, picking us up and dropping us violently, the radio crackled to life again. One of the other captains was having difficulty in the choppy water. As our boat rocked, all we could see were running lights of other boats in the channel. We waited for the other cruise boat to appear behind us so that it could ride in the calm wake of our trail as we broke a path through the waves. Being in the faster boat, however, we eventually pulled too far ahead for the other boat to keep up. Our captain decided to return us to the dock before the weather picked up any further.
It had been a beautiful and wonderful birthday sunset cruise. And to top it all off, as we disembarked at the dock, the captain handed me one of those whelk shells impossible to find other than by purchasing from a yard stand, and said “Happy Birthday.”