THE 74TH annual Chincoteague Pony Swim and Auction, immortalized in Marguerite Henry's classic children's book "Misty of Chincoteague," takes place Wednesday and Thursday.
On Wednesday morning, the wild ponies on Assateague Island will swim across the Assateague Channel -- less than 75 yards wide -- to Chincoteague Island for Thursday's Wild Pony Auction and Carnival. "The swim takes place between 7 and 11 in the morning," said Margie Christensen, administrative assistant for the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, one of the event promoters. "By the 26th [of July], we should be able to narrow that down to a two-hour window. The ponies will swim at slack tide, when there is nocurrent. We want very still water for the ponies to swim in. The place they will swim is a very shallow point. The adults probably will be walking across most of it."
Before the swim, she said, veterinarians will check out the animals. "Pregnant mares, very young ponies and very old ones will be trailered to the carnival grounds for the auction.
"We have a permit from the federal government to keep 150 adult ponies. We don't keep track of the foals because they are going to be auctioned off. More likely 125 to 135 adults will swim across the channel.
"Once on shore, the ponies will rest for an hour. Then they are herded through town by firemen riding on horseback. They will go on Ridge Road, then Beebee Road and down Main Street to the carnival grounds."
Christensen said the average price paid at last year's auction for a pony was $1,731. "The highest price -- a record for us -- was $7,000," she said.
The money raised goes to help operate the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. "The total raised last year was about $155,800," she said. "That's what we have to run our fire company. That's what maintains the building and equipment. We don't have tax money. The firemen are out every weekend on horseback maintaining the pony herd. The park rangers help, too.
"We round the entire herd up three times a year at least for vet checks. They get shots, their hooves trimmed, they are wormed, and bites and whatnot are tended to."
The swim and auction are big attractions for the small island community of Chincoteague.
"Normally we have 50,000 to view the swim, and not quite that many for the auction. The return swim on Friday morning -- usually just the adults -- draws about 5,000, but that's gaining in popularity."
If you are planning to come, Christensen warns, lodging is practically nonexistent. "We have some cancellations every day, but they fill right up." If you plan to visit Chincoteague on Wednesday, she said, you "need to get here by 5 a.m."
After crossing the bridge to Chincoteague, turn left on Main Street and drive 1.5 miles to the high school. There is ample parking there and free shuttle buses will take you to the swim area. On Thursday, the auction takes place at noon at the carnival grounds. After crossing the bridge, turn right on Main Street and continue to the parking area at the carnival grounds. "If you are a serious bidder," Christensen advises, "I suggest you get there at a quarter to 7. The bleachers fill up and you are not going to get a good view [of the ponies]."
And if you do make the winning bid, you have to have your own horse transportation -- "a certified horse carrier," Christensen said.
Some auctioned horses never leave the island, she noted. "We have `sendbacks' -- five to eight a year. The ponies are designated prior to the auction. You purchase them at auction, but they are sent back to Assateague Island. And the pony will never be sold. It is your pony but it stays on Assateague. But you can get your picture taken with it."
Christensen, who says she's been involved with the pony swim for 25 years, admits she, too, has submitted a bid on a foal. "But I've never won."
CHINCOTEAGUE PONY SWIM AND AUCTION -- The Pony Auction is the centerpiece of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company Carnival, which continues Friday and Saturday, Monday through July 31 and Aug. 6-7 from 7:30 to 11 each night at the carnival grounds on South Main Street in Chincoteague. For more information about either event, call 757/336-6161.
From the Beltway, take U.S. 50 east to Salisbury, turn south on U.S. 13. Eight miles south of Pocomoke City, turn east on Route 175, which leads directly into Chincoteague.
The wild ponies can be seen on Assateague Island. Take Maddox Boulevard east to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (757/336-6122), but follow the guidelines -- no feeding, no touching -- when you see them.
CAPTION: The annual Wild Pony Auction and Carnival raises money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.