Questions about the tours can be directed to the visitor center through email at FW5RW_CNWR@fws.gov and by phone 757-336-6122. Other information can be found on at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco.
Admission for the tours is $12.00 for adults and $6.00 for children 12 and under. Tickets are sold at the Bateman Educational Center and visitors should board the bus at that location.
The following article was written by a student staff member, her assignment after riding out on the bus in the fall of 2010.
By Brianna Bowden
I have lived near Assateague Island in Virginia all my life. Most of my ancestors were born nearby, on Chincoteague Island and many have lived there for years. I have visited them often over the years and have been to the beautiful Assateague Beach many times.
But today I got to see a part of Assateague that was new to me. I got to ride 7 ½ miles into a wilderness seen only by a few of the 1.5 million visitors that come each year not only from all over the U.S. , but all over the world.
Along the way, as part of a group on a small tour bus that leaves from the information center, I learned a lot. The driver, Mrs. Joanne Lapole, carefully told us about everything that crossed our path including a snapping turtle, a Sika elk, the glossy ibis, which is a long-beaked wading bird; the nesting boxes of the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel, Canada geese and the snowy egret. She didn’t mind stopping, or even backing up, for us to get a clearer view.
Our guide told us about the history of the Chincoteague Lighthouse which is a favorite stop for visitors. She said that at the bottom of the lighthouse there was a village, the families that lived there had to change the candles that provided lights for the ships and boats that came along.
Joanne has two other jobs. She is a county school bus driver and is a teaching assistant at Kegotank Elementary here in Accomack County. “I love my job as a tour guide,” she said, and my other jobs.”She is the mother of two daughters, 21 and 24.
The wildlife tours are not without some amusing incidents. “When grown men ask me to stop the bus so they can go to the bathroom,” she said, they had better hope she stops near a large tree because, other than the woods, there are no bathrooms. All of the birds and animals we saw share this wilderness in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, with some pretty famous four-legged residents, the Chincoteague ponies. And boy did we see ponies.
There were newborn foals, some sleeping and others bouncing along after their mothers. The older ponies were grazing and being themselves, only a few feet from us. Passengers are not allowed to get off the bus, but the bus has large windows that give everyone a great view. We learned from Joanne that the pony mares live in bands of six or seven that belong to a stallion who keeps a watchful eye on them.
One colt came right up to us trying to figure out who these intruders were, looking at him through the bus windows. As we took photos he seemed to say, “Hey, what are you guys doing out here?”
This colt and most of the others don’t have much time left to enjoy their freedom in the wilderness where they were born. On July 22 he will be rounded up with all the others and run into a large corral, where the next morning they will be escorted by the world famous Salt Water Cowboys along the sand of the Atlantic Ocean in front of several thousand anxious spectators. (See story, the Beach Run, on the story menu.)
They will be moved into the corral on Beach Road to await the big day when they will swim Assateague Channel in front 30 to 40 thousand people. The foals, except for a few holdbacks and buybacks, will never return to their homeland, but will move on to new homes after being sold one by one to the highest bidders at the auction on July 26. Money from the auction, with some ponies going for $7,000 or more, supports the Chincoteague Fire Company.
The ponies of the Virginia northern herd, not seen by most visitors to the islands, share a vast wilderness with other wildlife, including snapping turtles, Sika elk, white tailed deer, wild turkeys, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel and birds of all kinds. On our way back we got to see a lone elk just springing across the shallow water of Chincoteague Bay near the shoreline. He went a long way before finally coming onto land just a little ways from us. There is just something about seeing an animal completely free in their natural surroundings that is hard to describe. These little elk are hunted, though, in the fall to keep their population under control.
This was my first time on a tour, which is sponsored by the Chincoteague Natural History Association. This is a large organization mostly of volunteers that supports the educational goals of the agencies that run the national park.
I had a great time with my friends on this trip, which took two hours, but it was not just a pleasure outing. I am one of the newest writers for this on-line magazine. So along with me were two other writers, Harley Gooldrup and Misty Thornton, and Robert Boswell, the publisher of www.wildponytales.info and our journalism teacher. Harley is a rising 8th grader at Nandua Middle School here in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. Misty and I are both students at Arcadia Middle School where she is going into the 8th grade and I am going into 7th.
For us it was a learning day, as Mr. Boswell calls it, with us taking notes and learning to use the cameras, especially the one with the 100-400 mm lens. As he tells us, we get to share what we see and hear with our viewers around the world. It is a good feeling to be able to do this, to tell people who may never come here, about this place so close to my home.
If there is one more thing I want to say, it would be that if you are coming to Chincoteague, take this inexpensive bus tour, only $10 for adults and $5.00 for children. (The prices are now $12 and $6.) It is almost the only way you are likely to see the ponies up close in their natural, wild habitat. There are commercial boat tours that take visitors up to the shoreline where the ponies roam and sometimes you can see ponies from the southern herd up close, but not often. These tour buses are air conditioned, comfortable with big windows and the tour guides are the best.
Just remember, use the restroom before you board the bus, two hours can be a long time.
Since this story was written, the students mentioned including the writer have all moved on to high school. Misty Thornton, now in the 11th grade, is a co-editor of the publication.