By MARSHA MERCER
Not many people catch a wave of public emotion the way Surfer Dude did when he died at 23.
He hadn’t been seen since February and many on the Virginia coast feared the worst. Volunteer firefighters known as saltwater cowboys kept searching until they found his remains last month at the remote, southern end of Assateague Island off the Eastern Shore.
On Facebook, news of Surfer Dude’s death received more than 51,000 page views and hundreds of condolences in two days. The New York Times, USA Today, many other newspapers and TV networks ran stories about his demise.
“He was the man,” Denise Bowden, a spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, told the Associated Press.
What’s surprising about all the attention is that he may have been “the man” but Surfer Dude wasn’t a man.
He was a Chincoteague wild pony. Not just any pony, but a stallion legendary for siring dozens of offspring.
Decades after Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s book, “Misty of Chincoteague,” and the 1961 movie version put the windswept fishing village on the tourist map, the island’s wild ponies still enchant young and old and draw huge crowds to the island. The sadness people shared about Surfer Dude’s death speaks to the need we humans have for a connection to nature.
About 1.5 million people annually visit Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, where the wild ponies roam, making it the sixth most visited refuge in the country. Forty thousand visitors are expected for the 90th annual pony swim and auction July 29 and 30, where some of Surfer Dude’s foals will be sold.
It’s the season when people turn to nature as the antidote to stale air, information overload and our unhealthy attachment to electronic devices. For me, spending a weekend outdoors at the refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore adjoining the refuge was restorative beyond measure.
Time outdoors in the presence of God’s grandeur clears the head and helps us see ourselves as part of a larger picture. No wonder some doctors now prescribe a walk in the park instead of pills.
You don’t have to go to Chincoteague to get the benefit. Every state has at least one national wildlife refuge. Find one near you by entering your Zip code on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s site, http://www.fws.gov/refuges/
About 47 million people last year visited a wildlife refuge, where recreation centers on the “Big Six” activities – wildlife observation, environmental education and interpretation, hunting, fishing and photography.
Few people think of thanking Washington for the pleasure of walking, relaxing or fishing on a pristine beach, swimming and surfing, biking and hiking on nature trails or marveling at waterfowl and other birds and animals – but they should.
Since President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1903 permanently setting aside Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge, the system has grown to more than 500 refuges with more than 150 million acres of land, submerged land and waters, including nearly 18 million acres in the lower 48 states.
In 1943, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service acquired 8,808 acres on the Virginia end of Assateague Island and established the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge as a winter habitat for the migrating greater snow goose and other birds. The refuge has since grown to more than 14,000 acres with about 280 species of birds.
The Maryland part of the island was on its way to being developed in residential lots when a powerful storm in 1962 washed over the island and destroyed roads. Developers abandoned their plans, and in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson designated the Assateague Island National Seashore on the rest of the barrier island.
Were it not for the two designations, Assateague likely would be as heavily developed as Ocean City and Virginia Beach.
Even 50 years ago, it wasn’t easy to set the land aside. Some local officials favored a commercial beach with concessions and restaurants, and others complained that only “the magnifying-glass nature lover and the bird watcher” would come to the national seashore.
Today, people can hunt and fish and drive vehicles on the sand at certain times. Currently, the Over-Sand Vehicle Zone is completely closed to 4x4 vehicles, horseback riding and pedestrians to help the endangered piping plover and other birds nest on the beach.
Wildlife comes first – as it should. That’s why they call it a wildlife refuge and a haven for wild ponies.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.