|Janes Island is a popular kayaking destination on the lower eastern shore of Maryland. Several short kayak trails run through the small salt marshes to the west of the state park. The park is regularly visited by kayakers paddling along the twisting channels. Crisfield, built by and once an important center for the seafood industry, has now been converted to a tourist destination with restaurants and condos replacing many of the old factories, packing plants and shipping businesses that used to line the harbor. The few remaining crab shedding pens and working boats are pushed back away from the shiny new facades and gleaming fishing boats.
Still it is not like it was. "Civilization" creeps in. Daily runs of a passenger ferry bring tourists to the islands seeking the very thing that they destroy with their presence and their patronage. Much of the economic base of Smith Island has converted to the new "reality". More remote Tangier hangs on to more traditional pursuits, but the strains show in the faces of the people, in lined faces worn deep by years of sun. wind rain and cold. These are old faces of an aging island population. Young people move away to better economic opportunity on the mainland. Leaving their parents to carry on a traditional way of life as their grandparents did.
When first settled the life of these islands revolved around religion, farming and harvesting the bounty of the waters surrounding them. Outside influence and interference was resented and resisted. During the War of 1812, the British fleet occupied Tangier Island. The deep protected harbor provided a safe mooring for the fleet. Tangier's position about half way across the Bay and below the Potomac River with access to Washington was the ideal spot to base a blockade. British sailors grew gardens to supplement meager and unappetizing Royal Navy fare on the dry land of the island. British Marines took over some houses on the island, moving from the crowded and sweltering holds of the ships. The conservative population of the island were not all unwelcoming to the British and , except for the mosquitos, it was a pleasant place to be stationed, waiting for the American ships that tried to slip the blockade.
Gallons and gallons of oysters were sent across the Atlantic, each fetching the fantastic sum of $5.00. Workers, mostly black, shucked the oysters for $0.25 a gallon. Good shuckers could shuck five gallons per day. If you have ever shucked an oyster yourself, you may have some concept of what a incredible feat that represents. Since the oysters were abundant in great reefs all over the bay and particularly in Tangier Sound, the resource seem inexhaustible. But the great wealth to be had from the industry led to a rapid expansion of the fleet harvesting the unprotected resource. Soon over 600 skipjacks were dredging oysters from the reefs. In just 25 years the industry collapsed. Rules limiting the harvest were introduced but it was too late.
After the collapse of the oyster boom, the islanders turned to harvesting the blue crab. The specialty of Smith and Tangier Islands is the soft shell crab. This crab is the soft molt of the normally hard shelled blue crab as it sheds it old shell and develops a new larger shell. When it first sheds the old shell, it is soft. So soft that it is entirely defenseless. It can barely move or swim. Within two hours the new skin begins to thicken and harden. But in those first few hours, the crabs can be eaten without dealing with the hard shell. Both fish and people love to eat crabs in this stage. The crabs of course don't much like that idea so they try to hide until their skins toughen up. The broad shallow grass covered flats surrounding Smith and Tangier island are idea hiding places. Crabs seek these flat in huge numbers for the molting process. And the watermen are there to take advantage of that.
Dragging chain and board dredges across the sandy grass covered flats behind locally built boats, they scoop up the crabs in their pre-molt state. Collected into baskets they are transferred into pens where they are held until they molt. Constantly checked, they are collected when they are soft and put on ice or frozen stopping the hardening process. They are then boxed and shipped to restaurants and markets all over the world.
But trouble has appeared in this resource too. The pollution from burgeoning development elsewhere along the Bay has polluted the waters of the Bay reducing the amount of grasses to hide the crabs from hungry striped bass. Overfishing, with hundreds of thousands of crab traps up and down the length of the Chesapeake Bay have decimated the crab populations. This industry is dying too. Regulations limiting the catch of the islands and imposing rules on the way they have harvested seafood rankle the long time watermen of the islands. Arrogant dictates by "outsiders" without consultation and sometimes foolish ideas about how things work create resentment and resistance. Some regulations are true threats to their entire way of life. People of these communities are paying a heavy price for the sins of others.
With this background of history and culture, transition and tradition, the Tangier Sound area is an extremely interesting place to paddle. With less development than most of the Bay, it is still a place that affords "at-will" camping on the beaches, except for those areas purchased by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose first act was to make those areas off limits to the not only the visiting kayaker but to the people who have used them for generations. For years, for these and many other reasons, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been hated more in these islands than anywhere else. But there are more places to pitch a tent here than almost anywhere else in the Bay. Such opportunity must be treated with the greatest of respect however, and we must be careful to tread lightly upon these places unless the become closed forever.
For those without the means or desire to go the simple route, you can still access the islands utilizing the tourist facilities - the ferry and the Bed & Breakfasts on Smith Island. Ferries will transport your kayak over to the island, a way to get around the 7 miles open water crossing from Crisfield. Tangier Sound is open to the south with a long fetch and can get quite rough. Care in planning and experience in rough water is advisable before attempting any crossing of these potentially difficult crossings. That said, summer and early fall when waters are warm and winds usually light are ideal times to get out there.
So in late October I found myself and friend Wayne headed to Crisfield for a three day weekend trip. We left Bel Air at 6:20 and crossed over the Bay Bridge and on to Crisfield arriving about 11:00 A.M at Janes Island State Park. The kayak launch there is free and it is a safe place to leave your car. We loaded up our kayaks with all the gear for two nights and three days and headed south down the canal toward Crisfield. About 30 minutes later we were past the condos that loom over the harbor, looking so out of place with the once quiet and nearly abandoned waterman's community.
As we got closer to the land more and more of it appeared on the horizon. The once solid horizon line was broken by little bits of tree line that first pierced and then slowly expanded as we drew nearer. Eventually all was a solid line and i could make out Watts Island to the west of our destination, Beach Island. Little bits of low lying marsh were now visible on our starboard and we needed to paddle a good bit further west to get around the point.
After a seven mile crossing we were ready to hit land and stretch. We saw a beach and headed for it. By the time we got there, which seemed like in interminable 20 minutes, the wind had picked up and a northwest chop was splashing onto the hard packed marsh that fronted the sand on the beach. The little waves reflected back from the sharp fronted low bank and made an exit difficult. We got some water into the cockpits as we negotiated the mini surf zone.
With the tents up and supper underway, we were enjoying the cool air and the complete lack of annoying insect. No mosquitos, no flies, no no-see-ums. Paradise. Soon the sun was headed for the horizon in a clear deep blue sky, turned flamingo pink for nearly 90 degrees of the horizon circle. I watched carefully as the sun sank beneath the waves of the widest part of the Chesapeake Bay. I was rewarded with a sighting on the fabled and infamous "green flash", the third of my life.
Up on the beach, walking on the sand felt good after the nearly two hours of the crossing. The wind picked up some more and the waves rolled foam up onto the low marsh bench. We decided to call it a day and camp right here. We would look for Beach Island in the morning. The beach looked like it went under, or nearly so at high tide, so we set up camp on some sand that had washed over the top of the little dune. That required that we walk through the grass, but we were careful to pick the least dense portion of the tough sedges, step in between the stalks as best we could and minimize the number of trips we needed to make. We placed the kayaks in the grass, safe from the high tide and hidden from passersby.
The next morning the wind was down and the sun rose hot in a cloudless sky. The sky all around the horizon shown pink even down sun. With a quick and efficient breakfast, we launched from the now friendly little beach and headed south to find Beach Island. We covered the short quarter mile in no time and found a nice protected hooked spit on the Northeast side of the island that would have made a better camp than the one we had stumbled into the prior evening. Much of the beach on the west side of Beach Island was steep and backed at the high tide line by a strong bank of marsh grass. Camping up in the grass would have been possible, but the beach on the end of the island was a much easier and more eco-friendly spot.
Back into the kayaks we paddled the other half of the passage to Tangier Island, skirting the shallows of the entrance to make our way to the protected docks and shedding pens of the Tangier Harbor. The little harbor is unique in all the bay with the little sheds. docks and pens set on spindly legs of trees driven into the shallow bottom. You can feel the pulse of a community living off the waters as you paddle through this strange little place.
Turning northwest from Beach Island, we headed to the south end of Watts Island. Behind it we could see the water tower on Tangier Island and the radio tower, but most of the island itself was over the horizon. The four miles to Watts passed quickly as we enjoyed a tail wind for the second straight day. In the lee of the southernmost beach on Watts, we ran into shore. The long beach on the east side of the island begged to be explored. We walked up the entire thing and saw several appealing camping places.
Once through the harbor and out the other side to the open bay on the other side, we turned north and followed the coast and a series of spits north toward Smith Island. Once past the end of the main island, the water shoalled and we found ourselves nearly grounded in the half tide. At dead low much of this area is impassable even for our shallow draft.
We paddled until late afternoon until we found a spit of sand that looked like it would survive high tide. We set up our tents on the thin spit and watched another beautiful sunset.
We left the little spit and began our 14 mile return to Janes Island. With Crisfield eight to nine miles away, it faded in and out of a light fog. I marked a course of 70 degrees magnetic in case the fog thickened and we lost sight of the condominium complex on the edge of the harbor. They surely made a good navigation mark, as big and ugly as they surely are.
Incredibly the next morning sunrise was even more spectacular as some clouds reflected the fiery light of the dawn. Each moment brought another noteworthy sunrise view. Finally the sun cleared the horizon free of the clouds that hung there all morning.
AS we were breaking down camp, we had a visitor from Tangier who had come up in his working skiff to walk the beach looking for Indian artifacts, mostly arrowheads. He said he has found quite a few here as the island erodes back into the bay. When the Indians inhabited this place, Tangier and Smith island were all one much bigger island. now all the t remains are these two major island areas connected by shallows and a few remaining spits of sand sticking above the waves. The place I camped just two years ago is now washed away to a point where it no longer remains above high tide. the few little clumps of grasses that I used for a photo foreground are washed away. Soon there will be nothing between Smith and Tangier to camp on at all.
We paddled across the open water which became silvery with a high cloud covering the sun. The wind was once again behind us having swung into the west during the night. What a treat this weekend had been. A circular course and tail winds the whole way. Of course we were aware of the weather forecast that predicted the winds as the actually happened and we had decided which way to go around the circle to take advantage of it. It never seems to happen the way it is predicted, so I has thrilled that for once, it did.
Tangier Sound is the heart of the bay, not only geographically but culturally and historically. You should go there.