My third-grade teacher, Miss Johnson, put a copy of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague into my hands and I fell in love. Already horse-crazy, and an avid reader and rider, the book transported me from the Ozark foothills to the Atlantic coast. I dreamed of visiting one day. Can horses really live wild and free on islands off the coast?
Turns out they can and do. Not only on islands off the coast of Virginia, but as far south as Beaufort, North Carolina.
It took me fifty years, but I managed to see for myself. On a recent trip to the South Carolina coast, my husband pointed out that we were as close as I’d ever been to the island ponies I’d long dreamed of. A quick google search found the nearest island inhabited by wild horses was Shackleford Banks, North Carolina, only about two hundred miles — a day trip.
Accessible by ferry or private boat, the island’s only inhabitants are wildlife. Humans have done little to ruin the rugged beauty. Unlike most public beaches we’ve visited, I saw no empty water bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags or discarded toys.
The twenty-minute ferry ride dropped my husband and me, along with a half-dozen others, on a sandy strip of shoreline. The island stretched before us. A sandy beach curved around to the right. A dark brackish pond lay directly in front of us, skirted by rolling dunes of spiky grass stretching toward stubby trees farther inland. On this gusty day in late May, no horses were in sight. The ferry operators suggested, “For shells, head to the right around the end of the island to the Atlantic side. For horses, try heading inland toward the tree line.”
Before the ferry pulled away from the dock, raindrops started to fall. As we trudged through the sand toward the trees, the wind and rain both picked up, causing the temperature to drop. Most of our fellow travelers followed the shoreline toward the end of the island. We headed inland, searching for horses.
Luckily, we’d worn windbreakers, to help turn the worst of the wind and rain. My sandals worked great for the sandy strip along the shore, but proved less than ideal for climbing dunes in the island’s interior. A sharp stab in my foot stopped me in my tracks. Looking down, I found a small fleshy green pad covered in long, needle-like spines, one deeply imbedded right above the sole of my shoe. I’d never expected cactus to grow near the beach, but a quick glance revealed they were quite prolific among the cordgrass and spike grass covering the dunes.
Thick groves of juniper and cedar seemed impassable, but their nearness blocked some of the wind, giving us some welcome relief when we finally reached them. Signs of horses were scattered everywhere, but none looked fresh.
I’d packed a bag with beach towels, snacks, water bottles, and a plastic bag for collecting shells. I also dragged along a huge dream of seeing wild horses. Both were getting heavier by the moment, as disappointment soaked in with the rain. We were wet, cold, and tired. When we stopped for a break in the shelter of a juniper grove, I braced myself for the worst, determined not to cry if my husband suggested we give up and go back.
He didn’t say anything, and soon the rain stopped. As we hiked farther inland, my husband carried the heavy bag. I spotted something dark on a tall dune in the distance. It was too far to make out what the shape was, but with hopes buoyed, I hurried ahead.
As I topped a dune, I spied a sorrel mare backed against the next dune, protected from the brisk wind. Excitedly, I snuck up the dune, barely breathing, trying to be quiet and not spook her. As I got closer, I could see two more horses with her. They all stood with their backs to the dune and appeared to be dozing. I soaked in the sight for several minutes, my heart racing. We took some photos and passed within about twenty feet of them, careful not to disturb them.
Encouraged, I led the march farther inland, pausing to allow my husband to catch up. We spied another horse on a dune to our left, and as we got closer, we could see others in the edge of the trees. They moved in and out of sight, grazing along the tree line, paying no attention to us.
Careful not to crowd or disturb the horses, we walked on. They are wild animals, and deserve not to be harassed in their home. Besides, if they spooked and galloped in our direction, there was no way we could run in the deep sand.
I was so excited I couldn’t stop grinning and laughing. Seeing these horses had been a lifelong dream. The sun was out by now, and we trekked the rest of the distance across the island to the Atlantic side.
In the approximately one-mile distance, we saw more horses in two different areas. Each time, my heart raced with the thrill. Over the dunes, we could see the ships out in the ocean ahead. When we topped the last dune, I gasped at the turquoise water rolling up onto a sandy shore that stretched out of sight in both directions.
We walked along the shore, gathering shells and basking in the sun. No other people were within sight. The weather on this side of the island was far different from what had greeted us just a few miles away on the north side.
Moving down the shoreline, I turned and glanced toward the overlooking dunes just as a yearling stallion stepped onto the path to the beach. He and I both froze, startled. We studied each other for several minutes, then he took a step back and began to graze while keeping an eye on my husband and me. After a moment, we moved along, leaving him in peace, only to discover a mare that was likely his mother grazing nearby. The mare paid no attention to us or to him, but he stayed close enough to see her as they moved around the area.
The waves continued to break against the sand, depositing shells all along the shore. We ended up with a plastic bag filled with shells that weighed as much as the beach bag full of snacks and towels.
We encountered a few people, but never more than two or three at any time. The island was practically deserted. As the time approached to catch the return ferry, we made our way around the horn of the island. More people appeared and gathered near the dock, ending up with about thirty by the time the ferry arrived.
The excursion was a dream fulfilled. We spent the day on a primitive island, most of the time with no other humans within sight. We saw wild horses in their habitat, collected fabulous seashells, and watched beautiful waves crash to shore. It was a day I will relive many times in my memories, and will tell my children and future grandchildren.