CHINCOTEAGUE, VA., JULY 29 -- Saltwater cowboy Walt Clark, the feathers in his leather hat blowing in the Eastern Shore breeze, sat near the marshes of Chincoteague Channel today, for once on the sidelines of this town's annual spectacle.

Clark, 66, a Willie Nelson look-alike, has been herding wild ponies in the town's pony roundup for 50 of the event's 62 years.

But not this year.

"I would have been out there except for this," said Clark, pointing to a scar running from the base of his neck to his navel, the result of open-heart surgery.

To appreciate Walt Clark's long-running association with the two-week carnival that has come to define this fishing village, consider this: Before there was a "Misty of Chincoteague," there was Walt Clark.

"I love this to death, love it to death," Clark, a native of the island, told a reporter today, using the occasion to show off his tattoos, including an eagle that "flaps" its wings when he flexes his muscles.

Clark is not alone in his affection for the pony swim and auction, a two-day event that raises funds for the island's volunteer firefighters and for the care of the ponies left behind on Assateague Island.

Upwards of 40,000 tourists invaded this town of 4,600 today -- some of them arriving before dawn -- to watch the firefighter-cowboys drive about 150 wild ponies 200 yards across the channel to Chincoteague. The swim, conducted at low tide, took about seven minutes.

The herd is rounded up on Assateague, a pencil-thin 37-mile-long barrier island shared by Virginia and Maryland and managed by the National Park Service, as a means of keeping its pony population at a manageable level.

About 50 of the ponies will be auctioned on Thursday, at prices averaging $300, according to Roe Terry, one of Chincoteague's 46 volunteer firefighters. The rest of the herd will be taken back to Assateague.

"The horses are the mainstay of the community," Terry said. "We don't have any fund-raising programs besides them. We wouldn't have any equipment if it weren't for them. That's why they're special to us."

Chincoteague's mayor, Anthony Stasio, called the pony penning "a lovely little tradition over the last 62 years."

What may have seemed little at first has grown over time -- helped along by Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague" books -- and brings in tourists from as far away as California. The once-sleepy fishing spot is now a major tourist attraction, taking in about $24 million each year, according to Stasio.

People seemed hypnotized by the ponies, which some think are descendants of Spanish horses that came ashore after a shipwreck in the 16th or 17th century.

Christine Hunt, 34, drove 12 hours from Monroeville, Ohio, to fulfill a childhood dream. "I've wanted to come here since I was a 5-year-old," she said, adding that she had read all the Misty books. "I love horses."

David DeWitt, 21, of Oakland, Md., found a spot on the marshes and didn't leave it for four hours.

As noon approached, the crowd became more excited and so did Clark, who had been spinning yarns to tourists and reporters all morning. As the first ponies stepped into the channel, Clark told the crowd, "Here they come. Here they come."

The horses, circled by about 30 cowboy-firefighters, were greeted with applause and whoops.

Jim Sweeney, 33, of Silver Spring said the event is "a little-known piece of Americana right on the East Coast."

"The people here have been incredibly friendly," he added. "Even this morning when we were asking people where to go, no one seemed irritated even though it was the 50th time they may have been asked that question. This is one of those things in which everyone benefits and nobody loses."

"This is like a homecoming for Chincoteague," said Clark. "They used to have pretty good crowds when I was a boy, but not like this."