When I sat in my first sea kayak, I realized how much it was like the horses I had grown up on: both carry me on The Journey, respond to the rolling shape of land or water and the tilt of my body. Both have their own quirks and require some skill to ride.
There's a place at the edge of the world (or at least, the continental US) where horses and the sea meet: a set of sandy barrier islands, shapeshifting in wind and tide, just off the east coasts of Maryland and Virginia. Assateague is a long, protective dragon shape, the place of the wild things: National Seashore, state park, wildlife refuge. Chincoteague, a small round egg tucked inside Assateague's southern tail tip (the Virginia end), is home to watermen, craftsmen, artists, "saltwater cowboys", and the only wild horse roundup on the east coast.
Local legend claims the ponies swam ashore from a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure. Surely Spanish galleons, and hundreds of other ships wrecked on the shifting sandbars of these shores (a chart I saw marked sixty of the known ones; the beach is about forty miles long). Science and history say the ponies came from a more prosaic place: colonial livestock turned loose on a pasture fenced by the sea.
I've lugged a fifty pound backpack barefoot up Assateague's beaches, stood in Chincoteague's muddy marshes (shrimp bite nearly as hard as the infamous saltmarsh mosquitoes) to watch the annual swim of the ponies across the narrow channel between the islands. I've stood eye to eye with Misty and Stormy, of Marguerite Henry's famous kids' books; "Misty of Chincoteague", and "Stormy, Misty's Foal". But it was the kayak, galloping over the waves, that showed me the real islands; the little blue heron feeding yards from beach houses, the stingray the size of a stall door inches below my fins, the low-flying skimmer unzipping the dawn lagoon for tiny fish.
Here, you can chill on the beach, leap the waves, or dive below the "undertow" searching for that perfect whelk shell. Or, empty-handed, search the back streets for shell stands, where you plop your quarters into a can for the Perfect Whelk, collected by a local kid after winter storms. You can eat real oyster sandwiches, buy a handcarved canvasback decoy, or a signed print of a great egret. Or take your own photo of one, right from your car. You can buy a T-shirt from The Purple Pony that says (upside down) "if you can read this, please put me back on my horse". You can paddle up the channel at twilight in the company of dolphins, or shove your boat off the beach and wonder if there are sharks down there bigger than you (the fins turn out to be more dolphins). Here you can still climb a working lighthouse, or follow its flashing beacon at night, where you might hear the snort of a wild pony in, where else, Horse Marsh.