It’s only 10 miles from Crisfield to Deal by water, but it will take most of an hour to drive there. The edges of the shore are deeply frayed. Water and land trade places back and forth so often it’s hard to tell which is which. To get around the ingresses of water, you have to go miles inland all the way to 13, make a short jog north, then one turn and head back out again. On the way, you cross over broad expanses of beautiful open marshes, places not quite land and not quite water.
The place names here have a curious history of their own. On the way to Deal Island is Dames Quarter, where we’ll launch later today. The original name was Damned Quarter or Quarter of the Damned. Deal Island, not far beyond, was originally Devil’s Island. The grim names allude to a time when they were havens for some very rough characters who preyed on shipping up and down the Bay. Appropriately enough, the only thing separating The Devil from The Damned is a place called Chance.
It’s a long way back to services on the main road, and the plan isn’t to head back. Instead the goal is to get all the way to the end of the road, then come back this far to join the ranks of the Damned. Chance may be the last chance to get gas. There’s a single small store there, and it still has the old analog pumps out front. A woman, maybe the owner, is outside in apron, and another woman in a station wagon is pumping gas. When I pull up, the one in the apron tells me, You’ll have to wait if that’s ok, only one of the pumps is working, but she’s only getting $10 worth.
No problem, no hurry. I get out and wait, listen to the birds and the wind in the marsh. The two women catch up on news as the pump chugs away.
The one pumping hollers, How’s things going with you and your man?
Oh, you know, not going at all. Nothin new there.
They share a big hug, and the one in the apron wipes her eyes with the heal of a hand. The other waves and drives off.
She folds my ten dollar bill into an apron pocket. Says, Mind, the pump won’t shut of at $10. Won’t shut off when it’s full, either. Just so you know. She shades her eyes with a hand and looks across the marsh, then up into the sunny sky, turns to go back inside.
Before she’s through the door another fellow pulls up and a new conversation starts. She probably spends most of the day outside talking with friends and neighbors, stopping more for the company than a few dollars worth of gas.
Deal Island, though an island, is hard up against the mainland, separated only by the Upper Thorofare inlet. There’s a high bridge across, high enough for some masts to pass under. From the bridge you can see a seafood operation and loading docks, a large boatyard, and some workboats, including a skipjack or two. Deal Island is one of the last places on the Chesapeake where there are still working skipjacks, some of the last working sailboats in North America. It’s also not really one island, but a series of several small, low islands linked by marshes and creeks – very low islands, barely above the high tide line.
There are a couple of pretty churches, old ones, one is so well maintained it really shines in the sunlight. The other straddles a narrow bit of land between two marshes, where the road jogs at right angles and does almost an about face just to keep it’s feet dry. It’s a beautiful spot, but a risky one. Water from the creek is standing in pools in the small churchyard, patterned like a checkerboard by graves capped with heavy concrete lids. Like those on low country islands in the deep south, the water table is so high, the graves so shallow, it takes concrete slabs to keep the coffins from floating up out of the ground. During big storms even that isn’t enough, and coffins with bodies inside will wander about and have to be reburied.
Recent hurricanes seem to have done some damage to the church, but there’s restoration work underway. That’s good to see, it’s a pretty church.
These islands have been inhabited for almost 400 years. Barely above the surface in the best of times, they have always been at the mercy of water and weather. Margins are so slim a little difference makes a big difference. All of them – Deal, Tangier, Smith, Hooper, and others – bear the brunt of big storms and rising seas.
Due to a unique combination of geology and hydrology, water is rising faster here in the Chesapeake than anywhere else in the country. The water is rising and the land is sinking. Also, this area in particular lies directly across the Bay from the mouth of the Potomac –floods pouring out that river hit this shore like a giant firehose, pushing water levels even higher.
Some islands have already gone, though they’re still fresh in memory. Navigation charts still show them, even their descriptions appear in the Coastal Pilot; but when you go where an island should be there is nothing but water. Such places are already as mythical as Atlantis, but gone so recently there are people still around who once lived there.
Six miles west of here, between Smith Island and Bloodsworth Island, was Holland Island, first settled in the 1600’s:
By 1910, the island had about 360 residents, making it one of the largest inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. The island community had 70 homes, stores and other buildings. It had its own post office, two-room school with two teachers, a church, baseball team, community center, and a doctor. The islanders supported themselves mainly by dredging for oysters, fishing for shad and crabbing. Their fleet of workboats included 41 skipjacks, 10 schooners and 36 bugeyes, some of which were built on the island.
The last remaining house on Holland Island fell to its knees a few years ago. Standing alone, surrounded by water, waves lapping through hallways and rooms on the first floor during high tides, it was an iconic symbol of how things are changing and the challenge of battling the elements. It finally succumbed, then quickly vanished. That house was built in 1888 – there’s that year again, the year on the plans for the Melonseed.
From a great article The Last House on Holland Island:
a photo from 1953
only water where the house once stood
Parts of Holland Island are still there; but it’s all marsh now, and at high tide all is underwater.
I pass a hair salon, and the woman in the station wagon is out front. Her place. She recognizes me, too, and watches me pass. Hard to stay incognito hauling this boat around.
At the south end of Deal Island is Wenona, a small village around a working harbor. There’s a cool old general store in Wenona, a fine new public launch ramp, and a lot of workboats. While walking the docks, a head boat came in filled with smiling fishermen. They’d caught their limit of striped bass for the day. Nothing but workboats in the harbor – no yachts here – a bunch of stately deadrises and, glory be, a couple of skipjacks in working order.
Skipjacks are oyster dredgers, essentially sail powered bulldozers. A big sail on a simple rig makes them powerful even in light airs, but manageable by a small crew. The flat shallow draft, wide at the stern, makes them stable work platforms. Incredibly seaworthy, but still capable of working the shallows, and able to carry tremendous loads. At one time skipjacks numbered in the thousands, hauling in 15 million bushels of oysters a year. Now there are maybe a dozen left.
It was always a hard and dangerous way to make a living. Oyster season is the dead of winter. I remember in the ’70s when the Claude W. Somers, sailing from here on Deal Island, went down in a storm, losing the whole crew of six. The boat has since been raised and restored, cared for now at the museum in Reedville.
a skipjack in working order
When I was a boy, my grandfather owned a couple of oyster shucking houses on the Rappahannock. My brother and I used to climb on the shell piles built up beside them over the course of a century. We found oyster shells in the pile as large as adult tennis shoes. But oysters nearly disappeared from the Bay in the second half of the 20th century. Over-harvesting was followed by diseases and chronic pollution. By the 1980’s very little was left.
Unfortunately, beautiful as skipjacks are as sail powered bulldozers, they can be as destructive as bulldozers, too. At least for marine environments already under stress. The dredges claw across the bottom, raking through whatever habitat manages to become established. The bottom life, struggling already, just can’t recover quickly enough to regain a foothold. It’s an unsustainable cycle. The skipjacks that are left, which are expensive to maintain, can’t support themselves on the limited harvest that survives.
The disappearance of oysters has far reaching economic effects beyond just the skipjacks. Essentially, oyster reefs formed living stone armor that protected shorelines from the most destructive force of storms, a front line defense for the marshes that then absorbed the water. Once the reefs are gone, soft shorelines erode quickly. Without the oysters, the economies that sustained the islanders eroded quickly first, followed by the very islands themselves.
The oysters served another valuable purpose, as well – they kept the water clean. Oysters, like the once vast schools of menhaden, are filter feeders. An acre of oysters can filter 140 million gallons of water an hour. Historically, the former native population of oysters filtered the entire volume of water in the Chesapeake Bay in less than a week.
Menhaden used to darken the Bay in vast schools even into my childhood. A single adult bunker or pogy can filter 6 gallons of water a minute. As recently as the 1950’s there were over 80 billion of these fish swarming through the Chesapeake. My Uncle James was cook on one of the big factory ships out of Reedville that swept the Bay clean of Menhaden every summer. Using spotter airplanes and nets deployed by small chase boats, they encircled whole schools and literally vacuumed them into the hold. Now menhaden have been fished out, too.
With both oyster and menhaden populations decimated, there’s nothing left to filter the water naturally. Add excessive nitrogen and phosphorus washing into the Bay from fertilizers and animal and human waste and you have the perfect environment for growing algae. Most people born after the 1960’s think the water of the Chesapeake Bay is naturally green. It’s not. When I was a boy the water was perfectly clear. Even in the summer you could see crabs crawling around on the bottom 6 feet down. By the time I was in college the algae formed a thick pea soup that lasted the whole warm season. The algae blocks out the sunlight, choking off the other plants that live below, where fish and crabs live and bred.
My father started his own seafood wholesale business 40 years ago right here on the Bay. By the year 2000 the seafood stocks were so diminished he had to include pork and beef and chicken just to remain viable, finally moving the business out of the area altogether.
Now there’s a resurgence of oysters in the Bay, but not so much wild as farmed. In many ways oysters are ideal for aquaculture. Other species have to be unnaturally confined – salmon, shrimp, etc. – becoming so stressed they have to be fed antibiotics, and their concentrations pollute the waters. Same as livestock on land. All are meant to move, grazers that pass through an area quickly and move on. They aren’t adapted to be contained in a small area.
But oysters are the opposite – they not only have to stay put, they like it that way. You don’t even have to feed them – they eat what’s in the water. In turn, instead of polluting the water they purify it! Successful oyster farming operations have popped up around the Bay in only the last few years. There’s a big one on the Rappahannock directly across from my grandfather’s old shucking house, and several smaller ones scattered around the Bay. There’s another here on the Eastern Shore on the Atlantic side – H.M. Terry Company – producing some of the tastiest oysters I’ve had in years.
It would be great to see oyster farming expanded dramatically around the Bay, with support from the states and federal government. Grants to get started, technical knowhow provided by the Marine Institutes, and tax credits and loans when necessary. It could save small traditional waterfront communities like Crisfield, Tangier, Smith Island, and many others, which are far from urban centers – far from other revenue sources, and far from their contaminants – in other words, ideal for aquaculture. No other technology known is so effective at removing nitrogen and algae from water. And the technology is edible. It would be a win-win for everyone.
Maybe even give loans and tax credits for using skipjacks to haul the oysters instead of dredging for them. One day, with the harvest pressure off and a head start, wild populations might start to return.
The window is closing quickly, though. Purdue and Tysons have opened large chicken farming and processing plants here recently, bringing much needed jobs to the area. But chicken manure is among the highest in phosphorus and nitrogen loads, and is spread on low lying farm fields all over the Eastern Shore, never far from the water. It washes out of storage piles and ponds. It will be a challenge to work with those businesses to keep the manure out of the water. Might be better to take some of the government support that’s now going to big chicken corporations and use it to foster independent oyster farming operations. Make the chicken operations responsible for cleaning up their own manure.
After taking a few more photos, it’s close to noon, and time to head back to Dames Quarter to meet the rest of the guys and launch the boats.