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Chincoteague, VA, Eco-Tours

Chincoteague, VA, is famous for its wild ponies, nature refuge and fishing legacy. Taking an eco-cruise with Captain Charlie Birch is a great way to spot the horses, see less-visited stretches of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and to learn about the region’s clamming and oystering plus enjoy two hours of boating.

On a windy day, we board Captain Birch’s Chincoteague Cruises at the town dock off Main Street. Native son and certified eco-tour guide Birch, a seventh generation islander, shares his enthusiasm for and knowledge of the area with no more than six passengers at a time. That makes us feel comfortable asking questions. And there’s much to learn.

Birch tells us that the cormorants, the black birds swirling overhead, dive deep in the water for fish as opposed to skimming near the surface. That’s why we see them posed on the pilings, drying their half- spread wings. Birch then heads to a tiny islet so that we can watch a herring gull catch and swallow a fish.

The white poles in the channel, Birch tells us, mark the borders of locals’ oyster farms. He explains the process of oyster farming, of how oyster spawn free drift until attaching to an oyster shell, becoming a “spat” and growing. Next, we cruise over to Tommy’s to see his flat, a wooden enclosed staging area just offshore. Beneath the water’s surface orange, red and green plastic bushel baskets fill to the brim with oysters and clams Tommy keeps ready for local restaurants.

Then comes the real “catch” of the day: the wild ponies. From the water we get to view more meadows and beaches favored by the horses than we can see from the land. After all, the ponies go where they like and they might not be close to the trails.

Birch cruises near a beach. The herd of eight he spots munching grass moseys over to the sand, affording us one of those picture perfect sightings. Next we boat near a stretch where another family group gathers amid the trees to shield themselves from the wind. On the way back to the town dock, we pass an osprey nest in a duck blind, the male bird circling with twigs in his beak.

Cruising the channel gives us a sense of the real island life--the lure of sea spray and sun, the sound of oyster catchers dropping shells on docks and the slow, graceful rhythms of the ponies, those island denizens made famous by Marguerite Henry’s book Misty of Chincoteague.

Chincoteague, the town, offers the only Virginia access to Assateague Island, site of Assateague Island National Seashore and of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. You can swim on Assateague Island’s undeveloped beaches, crowded in season, but less so than bigger, boardwalk-edged Virginia Beach some 90 miles away. Chincoteague offers many lodgings, including bed and breakfast inns. Miss Molly’s, a graceful Victorian bed and breakfast, offers a friendly welcome, a good morning meal and several porches for simply relaxing.

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