MD - Smith Island - 2009/07/31 to 2009/08/03 - 28.0 miles

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Smith Island has a long and interesting history of watermen making a living from the once abundant waters of the Chesapeake Bay. We visited the newly designated water trails surrounding the town of Ewell, a hope for increased tourism.

Smith Island lies about eight miles to the west of Crisfield Maryland. This once much larger island is slowly being eaten away by the wave action and rising waters. Before the island's physical destruction plays out, the economic destruction of the once much larger community may well be complete.
Fifteen miles further west across the open Chesapeake Bay is the mouth of the Potomac. Over there a much faster paced life insulated from the effects of their own excess consumption contributes to the pollution that drives generation after generation of watermen on Smith Island to reluctantly abandon their traditional ways and economy and join the burgeoning horde on the higher ground of the mainland.

Hoping to preserve some of their quiet island lives, the residents are trying to establish a tourist industry on the island where making a living from crabs and oysters in the surrounding waters once was a sustaining and satisfying livelihood. With several B&B establishments, a couple of restaurants and ferry service twice a day, a trickle of visitors to the island comes to add a few dollars into the small community. Here the visitors will still find people who used to be common all over the lower Chesapeake. People who elsewhere have been overwhelmed by the condominiums of the last real estate boom and the fast food restaurants and supermarkets that come with it.

Originally settled by immigrants from a small region in England, the natives to the island retain a lot of their original English accent, have some peculiar speech idioms, and a remarkably similar body morph of sandy hardy, fair complexion, generous freckles and a tendency to large girth.

Though they are isolated from the rest of the state by at least eight miles of water, they are not isolated from their own neighbors, like so many of us back in "the real world". Like the small town of fifty years ago, everyone here knows everybody and everybody else's business. A siren that goes off at 4:30 A.M. is the talk of the town. By 7:30 everyone in the other two towns on the island knows who was involved and what happened. Gossip is nearly a professional sport and a fascinating spectacle for those outsiders lucky enough to get an opportunity to see a session.

This year has been particularly hard on the economic health of the three towns on Smith Island. First the economy has driven the small nascent tourist industry to the edge. Few are coming to the quaint little town as strapped families stay home, eschewing the forty dollar round trip ferry ride for less expensive pursuits nearer home. Then the fishing industry tanked After a promising start in the spring, the crabs disappeared. Many fishermen pulled their crab pots and stacked them on the docks, row after row of carefully coiled rope and floats waiting for a turn in fortune that would once again make it profitable to leave the harbor.

We came to check out the newly designated water trails in the marsh and leads surrounding the three towns of Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. Next year we hope to lead a least one trip to the island for clients. At the same time Maryland Public Television was there to film us paddling the trails for an Outdoors Maryland special about water trails to air next spring.

Unlike most visitors we had an option about how we would get to the island. We could have paddled the nine miles from Crisfield to Ewell. On arrival however, it was clear that we would have a lot more fun if we took the standard option of taking the ferry and having our kayaks carried as cargo. For $20.00 per person and another $5..00 for each kayak, we could avoid the twenty knot winds and three foot waves and white caps rolling north on Tangier Sound. We arrived a 11:00 A.M and helped load the kayaks onto the ferry for the 12:30 departure. Somewhat inexplicably, all the ferries, four of them, some passenger only, leave at exactly 12:30 P.M. when the siren sounds. They travel in a line, like ducks, over to the island, all arriving in the same five minute window.

The trip over was quite smooth and comfortable due in large part to the skill of Captain Terry who kept the throttle set to a hard plane and steered so as to minimize the roll and pound of the sturdy little diesel driven ferry. It was still a very wet ride for those who had chosen poorly for a dry seat across the bay.

Having left precisely on time, we arrived in town at 1:15 with anticipation of getting our gear into the B&B and then getting out for an afternoon paddle. I was surprised to see the number of pots and boats in the harbor instead of out working the waters ( a result of the poor crab harvest we learned later) . While many of the docks were in decaying condition, the boats and the fishing gear where clearly tended meticulously with care and pride.

We hauled the kayaks over the docks along the waterfront to the B&B while our gear was transported by truck for the three house ride. The two little ladies of the house, Cassidy and Ashley, moved everything from the truck into the living room before we could finish bringing the kayaks from the ferry dock. With a cursory stowing of our gear, we got the kayaks ready for launching on the oyster shell ramp at the next door neighbors. We headed out for the nearest water trail, Doctors Gut, even as we expected passage to be difficult at the low tide conditions of the mid afternoon.

We were not wrong about this particular trail. At half tide or lower it is quite difficult to enter and transit this trail, requiring walking through the too shallow water at the north end of the trail and prying our way through the clawing mud at the half way point. As we neared Rhodes Point, a line of thunder storms rolled across the bay from the northwest. We beached the kayaks in town and went to visit some friends from the Chesapeake Kayak Association who coincidentally were also kayaking this weekend on the island. A fierce line of thunderstorms rolled through the little village. Rain pelted the glass of the picture window while a strong wind made the silver leaves dance on a tree in the front yard. It was good to be inside.

After the passage of the storm, but with still darkened skies, we launched the kayaks and headed southeast along the canal toward Tylerton, then followed the red trail back to town. A nice shower, a little chow, a bottle of wine put a perfect ending on our first day.

The next morning we were up a first light for a stroll down the road to Rhodes Point. The bugs were out in swarms, mosquitos mostly at this early hour. There was no breeze to hold them down a little and it was rough. The one mile road goes out through the marsh skirting the channels we had paddled the previous afternoon. All was quiet until the 7:20 rush hour when at least five vehicles hurried down the narrow two lane to catch the 7:30 ferry.

With the tide well out the mud banks were exposed and the birds were taking full advantage in pursuit of the small fish and crabs. The morning light over the leads was beautiful.

Back in town all was quiet in the harbor with the departure of the ferry. Few boats were out again this morning. We returned to the B&B for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.

After breakfast we wet out for a short paddle before the arrival of the film crew with the mid day ferry. We found an interesting little lead with lots of snails on the grasses and ospreys and bald eagles sitting in the trees.

The crew arrived promptly at 1:15 P.M. and set about getting a few shots of the town, the B&B and the launching of the kayaks. We waited as they piled their gear into the boats and then miked a few of us up for sound. When all was ready we began paddling down along the harbor with the boat just pulled out from the dock. We tried not to look at the camera boat, a common error of the "amateur" actor. We paddled down to the cut out from the harbor and out into the start of the trail. i decided to look back to check the progress of the chase but, only to discover that they were not is sight. We turned around and paddled back into the harbor and still did not see them. We went all the way back to the dock to learn that the engine had conked out just 100 feet from the dock. After messing with the very smelly new Mercury 75 horsepower engine ( it smelled like burned electrical wires), a new boat was arranged for, the cameras were transferred and we started over.

During the filming we went to all three of the towns on the islands and several of the different types of marsh and open water available on and near the water trails. The weather cooperated marvelously. I think we saw several opportunities for some gorgeous shots. We finished up the day with interviews for sound at the end of the dock in the harbor. Hopefully we won't sound stupid when the final editing is done. Then all the camera crew got on a hired boat for the return back to Crisfield. and we were left once again in the quiet of the island life.

The film should run as a 2.5 minute segment on water trails on Maryland Outdoors program, Maryland Public Television, some time in the spring of 2010.

Sunday we went out to paddle some of the trails we had not yet seen. These included the ones to the east of Tylerton and down to the pelican rookery, Unlike the previous day, the weather was overcast with a strong wind blowing. We retraced some of the trail (red and green) towards Tylerton and then headed down the black trail to the east side of town. This trail has deeper waiter so it is definitely one to enjoy when the tides close the shallower trails.
When we exited the marsh to the open waters to the south of Tylerton the winds had increased to twenty knots. The water was heavily white capped. We decided not to push on to the rookery which required a mile of heavy upwind paddling. Instead we turned and took the green trail back into Tylerton. From there we pushed up into the marsh south of Ewell. None of this is on the trail system, but is easily the most interesting of the marsh. It is only accessible at half tide and above. We wound through the leads until we were quite close to town. With a threatening thunderstorm and a weather watch warning for high winds, lightning and hail we decided to exit the marsh just ten feet from the Ewell to Rhodes road and carry the kayaks back to the B&B. The biting flies took every opportunity to take advantage of our preoccupation and full hands. Blood was dripping down my calf by the time we got all the boats back to the yard.

With our early return to town we got ourselves over to the only restaurant in town before the 4:00 o'clock closing time. We all had various delicious dinner plates based on crabs, either soft shell or cakes.

Monday dawned with a friendly weather and wind forecast. Ten knots from the west, perfect for a downwind return paddle to Crisfield. We dismissed any brief thought of taking the ferry. With a final breakfast at the B&B we were ready to leave. The wind apparently didn't understand the forecast because it was from the Northeast already instead of arriving late in the day. Oh well. It is just over nine miles from Ewell to Crisfield. On this hot day, the 5 knot headwind was welcome to keep us cool.

We headed out the long channel through the marsh that makes the first mile and a half of the passage. The the open seven and a half mile crossing lies before you. With the humidity it was difficult to see the usual stark landmarks of the apartment building at Crisfield harbor and the water tank in the center of town. The proper course is about ten degrees to the south of these marks as Janes Island sticks out to the south and lies in the way of a course straight toward these prominent features.

The paddle across was pleasant in the gentle waves of the northeast wind. We crossed a couple of interesting tidal lines where the waves suddenly got higher and steeper as they ran into the little tongue of opposing current. We made the crossing in a little over two hours and landed on a nice sand beach on the south end of Janes Island. Between the wind and the fleets of dragon flies patrolling the sand we had no problems with the bugs here.
After a short time we were back in the kayaks fro the quick paddle over to Crisfield. All the ferries had left the harbor so the dock was completely empty. We exited the kayaks at a ladder and pulled them carefully onto the dock. For those less experienced at such delicate procedures, there is a ramp on the other (south) side of the harbor. We retrieved our cars from the JW Tawes lot where we had paid $3.00 per day to park. Loaded up, we headed into town looking for some lunch. Both restaurants we stopped at were closed on Mondays so we hit the Subway for a couple of foot longs to go and began the three and a half hour ride back home.




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