Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wild, wild ponies

Living on one of the largest and last undeveloped stretches of middle Atlantic coastline, the herds of wild horses that roam around Assateague Island were made famous by a book and movie featuring Misty of Chincoteague.

Written in the 1940s and filmed in the early 1960s, the true-to-life Misty story tells how these wild “ponies”--whose ancestors were sent here by English settlers in the late 1600s--are rounded up from the wildlife refuge on Assateague Island for a forced swim across to Chincoteague. The annual roundup and swim, which attracts thousands of spectators, takes place today (annually on the last Wednesday in July). The auction, which benefits local firefighters, follows tomorrow.

And if you like the idea of seeing these wild creatures in their wild environment, rather than penned up behind a fence, you may consider exploring the undeveloped backcountry of Assateague Island. But before you go, I have to quote one of the most intentionally discouraging bits of visitor information I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Talking about seeing the wild ponies (which are indeed WILD, so keep your distance – they bite and kick!), the semi-offical Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) website for Assateague Island describes how prospective hikers must bring all their own water, firewood, extra-long tent stakes (because of the wind) as well as copious quantities of the most potent insect repellent you can find.

Or else. Here is a sample:

"... Other critters will demand your attention: biting insects. You must respond effectively to enjoy an Assateague backpack. Insect repellent is ESSENTIAL, possibly more so even than sunscreen, at least in camp. Greenhead flies, the small midges known as "no-see-ums," and several species of mosquito are present in numbers that must be experienced to be appreciated. Greenheads are large, day-flying, solitary raiders with painful bites; they can attack all the way to tide line, but usually go after stationary targets. As long as you're moving, they aren't generally a problem. No-see-ums can be annoying, and are a good reason to make sure your tent has no-see-um netting.

Greenheads and no-see-ums, however, are but pale imitators of Assateague's infamous mosquitoes. They can be active at any time of day, but particularly so from dusk to dawn. They attack in large groups, with a disconcerting purposefulness, settling simultaneously at several locations on the chosen victim. Swatting them requires developing a sense of priorities with regard to bodily parts. Commercial repellents, preferably with a substantial DEET content, are probably the best bet. Even these may not be adequate to ensure comfort at bayside sites in summer. (Canoeing or hiking into bayside sites is most comfortably done during October through April, and is strongly encouraged by the Park). If strong breezes and sunshine did not effectively discourage mosquitoes from invading Assateague's beaches, it would be impossible to recommend backpacking here at all to any but the most intrepid. During cloudy, windless weather, however, you can find them (rather, they can find you) on the beach too. If this sounds bad, it is."

Forewarned in forearmed, as they say.

PS: Anyone want to run a competition to which part of the country has the fiercest bugs?


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