Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Bankers of Shackleford Island

I have a very unique bucket list. And I'm serious about it. My goal is to check every item off…well…before I kick the bucket. 

Which brings me to today. 

Today I was able to check one more item off my list. And I swear, it's better than anything I've experienced so far, including climbing Croag Patrick in Ireland. I'm still smiling.

This bucket list item was to photograph the wild ponies of Shackleford Island in North Carolina. 



Here's the story. As the legend goes, in the 1500's, a Spanish settlement was attempted on the coast of North Carolina, with very few survivors. As ships continued to come this direction, they would either run aground, or land on the outer bank islands. Once here, the ships would abandon their livestock - including horses. This continued for  decades, with horses being cast overboard or released from Spanish ships, for whatever reason. Today, hundreds of years later, the descendents of these early equestrine pioneers roam the banks of Shackleford Island, as free as their ancestors. They are lovingly referred to by the locals as "Bankers".

There is a ton of historical references about these ponies - and I encourage you to research - but for now, for the sake of time and this blog, I'm going to focus on my up-close experience with these amazing animals.

My day started on an early ferry ride out to Shackleford Island from the quaint little town of Beaufort, North Carolina. The island is part of the National Park Service of North Carolina, and home to about 100 wild ponies. As our boat came closer to the island, I took note of the landscape. Typical island - not a lot of trees, hilly, lots of sand. 

And not a pony in sight.  

My time was limited, so a strategy was necessary. I decided to head to the highest hill. Should be easy to spot a pony from a high vantage point, right? 

Hiking through the marshy sand, working my way up toward the hills, I found myself asking, "Where would I go if I were a horse?" 

And that's when I saw it. I had wondered off into a shady grove. (if I were a horse I'd want shade, right?)

A horse grave. Of sorts.  

I had almost tripped over the skeletal remains of a horse. Not quite the encounter I imaged. But it certainly was a reality check. Horses live here…so they have to die here. Right. 

I continued on to what I saw as the highest point of the island. The sun was relentless and the humidity was not something I was used to, but I was determined. 

And just when the heat was getting to me and I was wondering if there were really any horses on this island, there they were.

I saw them first from a distance. There were about 6 ponies eating in a small valley about 50 feet away.

I dropped my pack, grabbed my camera, and moved forward slowly, so as not to spook. These were wild ponies, after all.

I moved closer ….slowly stepping, snapping pictures, afraid they would bolt any minute. Soon, I was less than 15 feet away. And they were unfazed. 

They raised their heads a few times, to check me out, but they seemed unconcerned about me as I moved closer. And then, an amazing thing happened. They started walking toward me. 

I stood still, snapping pictures as they silently moved closer and closer. I was so caught up in taking pictures, that when I finally looked up from the camera, I couldn't believe what I saw.

Two of the horses were running toward me. Really running. Straight toward me at a full gallop.

I had to make a quick decision. Do I move? Or do I stand my ground and not move? 

I stood my ground. And raised my camera. And that's when these shots were taken. 

It was the most thrilling, scary moment I've ever experienced. I loved it. 

Later, on the ferry ride back to Beaufort, I told our captain about that experience. He smiled at me and shook his head. "Why do you think they were charging you?"

"I have no idea. I was just standing there taking pictures."

"Girl, they could have run you over. It's happened. You are lucky. Or blessed. Those ponies have attacked people."

I smiled. He shook his head.

Standing my ground now has a whole new meaning.

It was an experience I will never forget, which is what a bucket list item should be.