To See Chincoteague Ponies, Wildlife Assateague Bus Tour Is Best Bet

By Cyndel Brunell

”What kind of bird is that?”

“How much smaller are the Chincoteague ponies from regular sized horses?”

“Are there any foals this time of year?”

“How deep is the water they swim in?”

If you want answers to these questions and many more you should take the bus tour out into the wilderness of Assateague Island on the East Coast of Virginia. On this ride you will see the world famous Chincoteague ponies and other wildlife in their natural habitat. 

The tour bus begins it 2012 schedule April 6 with a Friday trip at 4 p.m. For current information regarding wildlife tours, or to purchase tickets, inquire at the refuge visitor center or call the CNHA office at (757) 336-3696

The CNHA offers visitors the opportunity to tour the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the months of April to November. The tour accesses areas of the refuge that are normally only open to foot traffic. The tour covers approximately 15 miles and lasts about 90 minutes.

Depending on the time of year, foals may be frolicking in the vast forest and bush of the island or mares may be grazing in the saltwater grasses. Always standing guard nearby, is the stallion who commands a band of mares and foals. The bus leaves from near the information center and has now been in operation for a little over six years. In October I went on my first bus tour. The tours are ran by the Chincoteague Natural History Association, a large group of volunteers that supports agencies that run this national park in many ways.

The bus takes you 7 ½ miles out into the wilderness. Inside the bus there is a wheelchair lift, two double seated flip up benches, and individual seats two next to each other going down the aisle. Each seat has a very large window with hatches so you can take pictures without the interference of glass. Some drivers will tell you not to open the hatches, however. Many people from around the world go to the refuge to experience this tour of the island trails.

You can see many ponies of the larger northern herd on this trip, the herd that is kept out of sight of the public until Pony Penning. This is the big event that draws thousands to Chincoteague and Assateague each July. Ponies are not the only animals you will see on this relaxing yet exciting nearly two-hour journey. The smaller southern herd of wild ponies is sometimes seen right from your car on the right side of Beach Road, on the way out to the Atlantic Ocean.

On your bus trip you may also see sika elk, white tailed deer, turtles, egrets, snow geese, hawks, eagles, Canada geese, the glossy ibis and other migrating birds. With any luck you might see a Delmarva fox squirrel, an endangered animal that gets lots of attention from park managers. And in the nesting season you might get a distant look at a piping plover cage that provides protection against predators. The piping plover is a small at risk bird. Each trip promises something new.

The driver will stop or slow down whenever they see something and will normally give you a description of the animal. On rare occasions however, there can be a few surprises that you may not see regularly. Horses sometimes interact with other animals, or a predator bird catching food in a near-view. There are always unexpected happenings on this tour.

One thing is for certain though, you are sure to learn a lot about this historic barrier island from the driver-tour guides. The drivers are very well informed and just full of interesting details. You will most likely be with people from all over the country and even other countries. The questions above the first paragraph were asked on a tour this past summer by guests from Annapolis, Md., Long Island, New York; Michigan and Accomack County.

This is not a rushed tour and it is not expensive. For tour times and prices go to www.assateague.com. One word of caution, there are nice, clean restrooms at the information center where you buy your tickets, but this is the last one you will see until you return. Passengers are not allowed to get off the bus.

The information center which now runs the bus tours is where you buy tickets. It is a good idea to call in advance, because many trips are sold out. Officials of the historical association have talked about getting another bus. Also they run special tours upon request in advance. I hope I have inspired some readers to consider going on this tour. It is the only way, really, to be sure you will see the wild ponies up close by traveling on land. Unless, of course you want to hike the seven miles out, which some people do. The drivers and tour guides are well informed. I will assure you that you will at least be stunned, marveled, fascinated or surprised at things you may see or learn. I know I enjoyed this wilderness adventure and hope you will too.

 

Breathtaking Scenes in a Foot of Fresh Powder

By Tammy Rickman

On Saturday, January 30, 2010, winter made its presence known to the islands. The storm moved in late Friday night and the snow began to fall somewhere around dawn Saturday morning. Weather reports were calling for somewhere between 8 to 14 inches, a rarity along barrier islands which lay just off the coast line of the Eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

The snow continued to fall throughout the day and grew in intensity causing near whiteout conditions at about a quarter of a mile. As the snow fell, I ventured out and about taking what pictures visibility allowed, of scenes like the ducks huddled in large groups in unfrozen canals. The Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge gates were down so pictures and an investigation would have to wait.

Sunday dawned bright and clear. A crisp sharp wind blew and even though the sun shown bright temperatures never reached above 22 degrees. The scene was like something from a winter wonderland as evergreens hung heavy with heavy fluffy snow and the island was almost hushed in the early morning hours beneath a foot of snow. While taking it all in, the pristine…untouched hand of God, of nature, one became suddenly aware of how out of place it all felt.

A brief drive around the island found only more snow and out of place scenes. Hoping the refuge had been opened I headed out Beach Road and rejoiced when I found the entry gates in an upward reach and pushed forward. The scenes along beach road on Assateague were breath taking. Woodland floors were blanketed in a foot of fresh powder, evergreens hung heavy with fluff, and a quiet hush lay in the air…everything was fresh clean and new….

Wildlife ventured out into strange surrounding. Egrets tested ice sheets in the canal along the road and ponies grazed on tall grasses reaching through the snow. They looked oddly comfortable and out of place all at once. They created a beautiful scene in the snow covered marshes.

The beach was a mix of blown sand and snow drifts. A scene unlike anything I’d ever seen. Of course, I grew up in Mississippi. Walking was a chore at times because a light layer of sand covered portions of the snow creating an allusion of solid ground. As you attempted to step on the sand you sunk to your waist in a snow drift several feet thick. Wind and water created rippling effects in the landscape. Sand and snow mixed, mingled, danced, twirled, separated, and began the cycle over and over again as far as the eye could see.

Barrier islands are ever changing. They grow and shrink then rise and fall… their fate at the hands of the winds and waters that carve and shape them. The snow storm is just another reminder of how miraculous and surprising life here can be.

That said, the weather was not done throwing punches at us and the very next weekend February came roaring. Friday afternoon, February 5 a wet snow began to blow; occasionally sticking to the ground but not the roads or sidewalks.

Later, it turned to rain and the nor’easter dumped a couple inches of rain, melted snow from both storms, and caused some flooding.  Winds howled somewhere around a sustained 45 mph with gusts reaching near 60 mph. 

The winds blew into Saturday and temperatures fell, turning rain back into snow. The rain waters and melted snows began to freeze and the snow began to mount. The winds whipped the wet sticky snow and at times it almost seemed as if we had been transported to some foreign land in the middle of a blizzard.

Around 2  p.m. we lost power. Near dark the heat began to wear off. We opted to take a ride around the island before deciding whether to tough it out with the fireplace and wet wood or opt for a hotel.

We soon discovered that large parts of the island were out of power. The power company and Chincoteague Fire Department personnel were riding around inspecting the island. We decided riding around looking for down trees in a warm car was better than sitting in a cold dark house.

We did eventually find a tree down on Sunnywood and reported it about 8 p.m. but once they cut it down and tried to fire the power back up the lights flickered and then went out again. Somewhere in the blowing snow and darkness was another problem.

The snow slowed to a few floating flakes and I noticed the stars blinking brilliantly in a velvet black sky. The air was fresh and crisp and the world was quiet.

About 9 p.m. they finally found and fixed the problem and the lights went on and we returned home.

Sunday was clear and brilliantly bright. The sun sparkled on pristine snow. It seems Jack Frost is determined to make his icy presence known before giving way to a spring thaw. But if the weather forecast for the upcoming days are any indication, he’s not done yet….

50 Years Later, Residents May Share Stories Again

50 Years Later, Residents May Share Stories Again

It has been 50 years since Chincoteague and Assateague Islands went under water from the now famous Ash Wednesday Storm of ’62.

The stories of survival and evacuation have been told and retold down through the years. Island residents and visitors are invited to share their stories once again at a commemorative program. The event, co-sponsored by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Museum of Chincoteague Island, will be held in the refuge’s Bateman Center auditorium on Saturday, March 3, at 1 p.m.

In the storm the island’s chicken industry was ruined. Boats, cars trailers and campers were lost. More than 100 wild ponies died from drowning or exposure.  The storm changed the character of the islands forever.

Across Chincoteague Bay the damage in Greenbackville was just as bad. Homes and businesses along the waterfront were destroyed and the town’s sister city, Franklin City, never recovered. 

People are encouraged to bring their own storm photos and survival stories to share with others. Admission is free. Seating is limited. For additional information, call the museum at 757-336-6117.

Chincoteague Residents Share Memories of the Ash Wednesday Storm in 2009 Program

Originally Posted on April 23, 2009

By Tammy Rickman

When the people of Chincoteague Island went to bed on March 6, 1962 it started out the same as any other night.  But in the early hours of the next morning people awoke to find that the surrounding waters were invading their homes.

Much of the Island, whose residents depended on the salty bay waters for their livelihood, was now being engulfed.

On March 21, 2009, 47 years later, a theater full of residents gathered at the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center on Assateague Island to share their memories. Few have forgotten the details. The occasion was sponsored by the Chincoteague Island Library Oral History Project and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. John Jester, vice mayor of  Chincoteague and board member of  the library, was moderator. Violent nor’easter storms are a part of life along the Eastern Shore but this time no nor’easter had been forecast. According to Roy Jones, who lived on South Main Street at the time, the storm was literally one

Cecil Watson shares her memories while husband Frank waits his turn.

in a million. Those are the odds that were given for the events to transpire which created the March 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm, Mr. Jones recalled.

In a clear voice, Mr. Jones now in his late 80′s, told how three low pressure systems from different parts of the country merged into one large system. As he told it, a stationary front formed off the coast stalling movement for three days. These conditions along with a full moon and high winds pushed the already high tides even higher and kept the water from receding.

Mr. Jones said that at sundown the water was just beginning to come across Main Street; nothing he hadn’t seen many times before. “This time, the water didn’t stop,” he said.

As Mr. Jones recalled the events of those days he said the water spared their house and never came inside. With a big grin he said one of the things he did recall was looking out the back door to find a Maltese cat “riding the waves.” He said he brought the cat into the laundry room and put it in a cabinet drawer. His mother asked him what he was doing with the cat, and he told her the cat was going to drown. She promptly told him there were plenty of places for that cat to go. Laughing he said he told her, there were plenty places alright but there was ocean every place you looked.

One by one the survivors and descendants recounted harrowing, heartbreaking stories. What came from those stories was not the bitter remembrance of hard times or “poor me” stories of how everything was lost and life wasn’t fair. Instead, it was a time to remember what makes Chincoteague the place so many love. Islanders came together. They found comfort in neighbor’s homes and in the strength of friends and family. As one resident said, “Chincoteaguers will talk about you, but they’ll help you too.”

One granddaughter, who was two at the time, didn’t remember the storm. However, she said that through the stories she was told by her grandparents she came to know that there is a deep kinship even today.

Bob Conklin, who ran a small photo service business at the time, said he received a call from the Virginian Pilot on Tuesday night at about nine. When he answered the phone the caller told him they thought the causeway was flooding and some cars had been washed off the road.

The causeway is a five mile stretch of road that is the only land access between Chincoteague and the mainland.

Mr. Conklin chuckled as he repeated what he told the person on the other end of the telephone. He said, “I told them it’s just raining and the wind is blowing a little.” He said they told him all right and he went to bed. 

With a chuckle he said he got up the next morning and looked out the window. At that point he said he told his wife Nancy she wasn’t going to believe it but they were under water. He said he began taking pictures thinking that if he sold the pictures for three dollars each he was going to be rich. The problem was, there were so many other people from various organizations taking pictures from the land and the sky that he never sold a single picture. He jokingly told the crowd he still had the pictures if anyone was interested.  Mr. Jester asked if the price of three dollars was still the same.

Mr. Conklin’s wife, Nancy, spoke after him. She told what Mr. Jester called “The rest of the story.” She said he hadn’t mentioned the most exciting story. Their boat floated off the trailer and Bob brought it up to the back door. She and the two children, who were four and 18 months, got into the boat, but Bob could not get the motor to start. Bob had to jump into the water and pull the boat with the rope. The wind gusts during the storm were very strong,  and as he pulled the wind pushed him and the boat over into the bushes which were full of thorns.

Mr. Conklin finally managed to get them over to her mother and father’s house. Her parents owned a chicken house with about 5,000 chickens. In those days, according to Nancy, the houses had coal stoves to keep the chickens warm. The chickens in the house at the time were older so the protective covers that kept the chicks from falling in had been removed and placed outside.  With a playful laugh, she said that Bob couldn’t see the holes beneath the water so he kept stepping in them, falling under the water, and coming back up again. She said that was the scariest part of the trip. They finally made it to her parent’s home. Bob was wet, cold, and a bit scratched from the bushes, but she said they rode the storm out all right because the water stayed out.

Cecil Watson who was 19 at the time had two small children and was expecting her third. She and the kids spent the night in the living room under blankets due to a loss of heat. The next morning, she said, she took the kids into the kitchen and used the oven to keep them warm while fixing them breakfast.

As she fixed breakfast the kids noticed that the water was beginning to come into the kitchen. Watson said she moved the kids and put them on top of the table where she then fed them. Amid a room full of giggles Watson said, “Kids always got to go to the bathroom so they just peed in the floor with the water.” She recalled how much fun her kids had after they moved to the upstairs floor going to the top stars to “pee” in the water near the bottom of the stairs. Watson said eventually the water was near 18 inches deep, and when the boat came to evacuate them it sailed right into the living room.

Cecil’s husband Frank told how his vehicle went off the side of the causeway and sank. He said he stood on the left side of the road waiting for a telephone pole to float past so he could try to make it across the bridge. Problem was, the pole never moved.

The power company came along and gave Frank a ride over to the Island where he spent the night at the firehouse. In a voice that was rich and steady he told the gathered crowd about how boats came loose and floated through the backs of stores. His face spoke more than his words as he described those who got into outboards and used crab nets to gather the merchandise that floated out. He said the boats were sailing right over the tops of cars as they went. Mr. Watson paused for a moment before saying that a rooftop came floating down the street with a doll-baby on top of it. He sat silently for a moment as if he could see the scene unfolding before him. At last, he said, “We made out all right.”

Jay Cherrix, who was12 at the time of the storm, brought several awards that belonged to his father. His father coordinated the helicopter evacuation and received the Policeman of the Year award that year. Mr. Cherrix recalled how one of the last helicopters to leave Chincoteague was for his family. He read a poem that he had written for his dad called, “The Man in Blue.” The admiration in Mr. Cherrix’s  voice rang out loud and clear as he read the poem about how his dad helped neighbors because, as his poem said, “that is what men do who wear blue.” Mr. Cherrix’s father died in the fall of that same year two weeks shy of his 40th birthday. After the storm was over, heavy equipment had to be brought in to help with the cleanup. Dead cattle and ponies were loaded into dump trucks and then hauled  to containers at the high school. Donald Leonard, who owned a large stock of the famous ponies, lost most of his herd to the storm. Likewise, the fire department’s herd of wild ponies on Assateague Island was seriously depleted. To rebuild the herd, ponies were sought from owners who had purchased ponies at previous Pony Penning auctions.

Nearly every business on the island was damaged, particularly those along and near Main Street.  Boats swept from anchor in Chincoteague Channel and rammed into the back of stores on the western side of Main Street.

As many as 350,000 chickens drowned, and every oyster shucking house on the western side of the island was damaged, those on the East Side less so. Oyster boats were damaged, and, because of fear that sewage had contaminated the Island’s oyster beds, oyster harvesting was prohibited by health officials for weeks. By the time the oyster houses could be cleaned up and reopened, buyers had located other sources.

The storm tested the island but didn’t defeat it. That following Sunday the famous Misty, who had ridden out the storm in Ralph Beebe’s kitchen, gave birth at a veterinarian’s home in Pocomoke City to her third foal, Stormy. In that same enduring character, the July carnival and Pony Penning went on as scheduled.

The herds of both the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and Donald Leonard thrive still today; another testimonial to the strength and fortitude of the Island inhabitants.

In the lobby of the visitors center tables were set up where copies of news clippings and photos were displayed. In one photo a small boy stood on the hearth of a fireplace with several pieces of furniture. The water in the house lapped at the hearth about an inch below the top. That five year old child was Kelly Conklin, son of Bob and Nancy Conklin. When handed the microphone he grinned and said, “What do you want to know?” Mr. Jester laughed and replied, “What was it like for a boy of five to go through this?”

Kelly said it was pretty scary. He said as a child he got up expecting to go to his grandmother’s like they did every morning. Only difference was he didn’t realize that on this morning he’d be going by boat. He remembered looking at the water from the window. He also remembered his dad pulling the boat to his grandparent’s house. Kelly said he missed the helicopter ride so many other children remember from the storm because they were able to ride things out without having to be evacuated.

These are just a few of the stories recounted . Some were told amid laughter and others with chocked voices as people fought emotions and tears. Whatever the mood, they were all told with a sense of togetherness. Anyone who has been here knows that this is a place of strength, beauty, community and family. The rare natural beauty that abounds on the Islands is just another factor in the uniqueness of the place, people and spirit that resides here.