Fox Island Magic

Smith

Tangier Island NYT piece

I first met CBF's Captain Jessie Marsh on the stern of the Susquehanna in Crisfield, Maryland. It was a perfect, calm morning for our 45-minute boat ride to Smith Island, my "home" for the next three days. This marshy oasis, 12 miles offshore, is among the surviving brethren of vanishing Chesapeake Bay islands. And Jessie's family has been calling the island home for hundreds of years.

The Susquehanna, a traditional Deltaville Deadrise fishing boat, was marked by its characteristic flat V-shape hull that makes it both useful in shallow water and forgiving in rough water. In a former life, Jessie would have joined his fellow watermen on such a boat to harvest crabs, oysters, eels, and fish. Oysters, called "Chesapeake Gold," for the profit they once brought their harvester, were Jessie's favorite. Jessie now captains CBF's Susquehanna for a different purpose: leading thousands of students and teachers each year through the "guts" or shallow marsh channels of Smith Island, helping them reconnect to nature outside of the classroom walls, helping them understand the importance of saving the Bay.

As we navigated our way to the island, it was easy to understand why English settlers inhabited Smith Island in the late 1600s, and why people like Jessie still remain. Flocks of pure white egrets danced graceful along the horizon. Clear blue water and lush green marshland mixed together in our boat-wake like watercolor paint. Picaresque watermen shanties surrounded the island's perimeter like sentinels. As night fell, I witnessed the most brilliant fall sunset. The growing bands of pink, yellow, and orange set fire to the sky; its beauty second only to the subsequent night stars uninhibited from city lights.

However, on the edge of this idyllic scene, this undeniable beauty, I found another story. The local population dwindles as youth, like their settler heritage, choose to move to pursue more promising jobs and a different life. The Bay's bounty shrinks with increasing environmental strains, forcing watermen like Jessie to re-think their life plans. Subsidence and sea level rise threaten the island way of life. In fact, over the last 150 years, Smith Island has lost more than 3,000 acres of wetlands alone. Some say in less than 100 years the island will disappear forever. Wondering if these changes were evident, I asked Jessie if there were any signs islanders used to foresee change. "Sun Dogs," he told me. Sun dogs are subtly colored patches of light that often look like a short segment of a rainbow in the sky. Jessie didn't claim Sun Dogs were a perfect science, but some islanders swear when they see a Sun Dog in the sky, change is coming.  

Over the next three days I awoke at sunrise each morning, walked the narrow dock to a dewy Susquehanna, and headed out into the Bay with Jessie. Letting the knowledge of the Sun Dogs seep into my sleepy brain, I tried to find other subtle signs of change on the island. To my amazement, they were everywhere. Jessie and I went �scraping� for crabs in thick Bay grass beds. Crabs need these grasses as critical hiding grounds when they change form, shedding their hard protective shells to make way for new growth. The distinctive �honk� of Canadian Geese could be heard overhead in the crisp fall wind, their arrival marking the change from summer to fall as they made their annual migration south. Even man-made equipment brought in from the mainland to deposit rocks and boulders along the north end of Smith Island to protect a rapidly eroding shoreline signaled another impending change.

On my final night, staring at another unbelievable sunset, I realized it was in these places of change, these edges, where I began to understand Smith Island better than if I was standing in its middle. The island was trying to survive; on the edge of a shoreline, on the edge of the tide, on the edge of now and then. Even Jessie, a man molded from these edges, who had once dreamed of forever being a Smith Island waterman, was forced to change, forced to adapt. I wondered if he had ever looked up a clear day and understood that this was the change the Sun Dog was foreshadowing for him?

As I boarded the Susquehanna for the last time, and we made the journey back across the Bay, my link to the island began to break, but in its place I felt wholly reconnected. I had rediscovered the instinctive connections between humans and the natural world that we always carry, yet easily lose. And I realized, only through these experiences, these connections, can we identify and understand how the changes around us � in the sky, the water, or on land � are affecting our future. Only through these connections can we fully realize that saving nature is the only way to truly save ourselves. Sun Dogs might foreshadow a change, but it is only our decisions that can prove them right.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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