Across the Chesapeake Bay to Tangier

June 15 -- The Chesapeake Bay.  Those of us in the mid-Atlantic involved in watershed protection hear and talk about this place all the time.  It is the crown jewel that we ultimately seek to protect, or at least the end by which we often justify our work to reduce pollution in discrete parts of its watershed.  Yet, although I have crossed narrower portions of the Bay on bridges, the physical extent and significance of this ecosystem have still felt somewhat nebulous to this western Virginian.  Today I got a better grasp of what it's all about.

Entrance to marina near Reedville, where we caught the ferry.
Ryan and I got up at sunrise, packed up our tent, and said goodbye to Trish Geeson who was already up.  We had to make it the seven miles to Reedville before the 10:00 a.m. ferry to Tangier Island.  We treated ourselves to a hot sausage biscuit at an old roadside convenience store and after sitting for just a couple minutes decided we better keep moving.  A group of older gentlemen were sitting around chatting and asked if we were walking or hitching.  I explained that we'd been hiking across Virginia and headed for the ferry to get over to the Eastern Shore.  A couple miles down the road, one of the gentlemen saw us walking along the highway and called over to say something.  He just wanted to make sure we knew that the ferry goes to Tangier Island and not all the way to the Eastern Shore.  Some people, he said, even pull up to the marina expecting to be able to drive right up onto the ferry and be delivered all the way onto the Delmarva Peninsula, car and all. We thanked him for checking on us and explained that we had done our homework and made arrangements to take the other ferry from Tangier Island to Onancock later that afternoon.
Vertical boat storage building at the marina
Our greeter at the marina, hoping for a tip.
It turns out we got to Buzzard Point Marina in plenty of time.  Our fifty or so co-passengers gradually boarded the Chesapeake Breeze, most of us making ourselves comfortable on the open top deck.  As we cruised out of the harbor toward the Bay, the captain gave us tidbits of information about the area.  In the late 1800s, for example, Reedville was claimed to be the richest town in the country as a result of the burgeoning menhaden fishing industry there.  That wealth apparently shows its mark on the town where extravagant Victorian-era homes line some streets.  It was evident from the strong fertilizer-like smell as we passed the Omega Protein plant that the fishing industry is still very much alive there.  According to the Omega Protein website, the company reduces Atlantic menhaden from the Bay and the ocean into fish oil, protein additives for poultry feed, and fertilizer.  It's big business in Reedville.

Heading to Tangier Island!
Girl looking out on bow.
Tall ship from Nova Scotia.
The eighteen miles to Tangier Island took about an hour and a half.  As we crossed, we never lost sight of land in one direction or the other.  With that realization, my impression of the Chesapeake Bay changed slightly.  Now, the Bay seemed to me less like a vast swashing sea way out there on its own, impossible to grasp, and more like a giant farm pond cupped in the hands of the land.  No doubt the Chesapeake is huge, but I hadn't fully recognized how land is so much part of the water here.
Chatting it up with the Captain.
Coming into Tangier.
Space is precious on Tangier Island, even for the departed.
Water has been winning out on Tangier, though.  As we pulled into the Island's harbor, the Captain explained over the PA system that the height of the island is four feet, and its western and eastern edges have experienced massive erosion.  We learned later that residents of the island want the federal government to build a seawall to help protect the side of the island that is eroding the fastest, though one was already installed in the 1980s on the other side.  The water in the Bay is rising, the land is sinking, and the island is shrinking.  I'm not sure exactly where I stand on the issue.  On one hand it seems like a losing battle to spend millions of tax dollars on a seawall that delays the inevitable; on the other hand it seems the community and culture of Tangier wouldn't be the same if it had to relocate to the mainland. 

Walking down Main Ridge Rd.
I don't know, it looked flat as a pancake to me.
Either way, at this point in history, Tangier, VA is still very much alive and fascinating.  The harbor is still lined with crab boats and soft shell crab "farms" - shallow open tanks with lights overhead for seeing when the blue crabs in the tanks molt and become "soft."  In the three hours we had on the island, we just had time to walk down a couple of its narrow streets, reading historical signs and trying to keep out of the way of golf carts zipping by.  It seems that every other building on Main Ridge Road has a historical marker.  Oh, and of course we also made time for a crab cake and to briefly visit the museum.  For a town of only about 500, the museum is extensive and really well done.  It is understandable though, because so much is unique to Tangier - such as the old Cockney-like accent unlike any I've heard, and sayings unlike any I could decipher.  High schoolers don their duds and ride over to the mainland for their prom party. Certainly not what I remember growing up in my part of Virginia!

Our second, much smaller, ferry arrived at the dock to take twelve of us to Onancock on the Eastern Shore.  This time the waves were much more apparent and the drone of the engine drowned out much conversation.  Ryan and I just sat mesmerized by the salt water dumping onto the stern of the boat as Tangier Island became smaller and smaller in the distance.
Bridges tie the island together.

Not much use for a car on Tangier.

Kids hitching a ride.

Man, what a fun place to grow up.

Crab pots in front yard.

Tangier Talk

1 comment:

  1. Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore are both amazing places to visit in Virginia. If you're near Delmarva you have to take the chance to see the Eastern Shore Wildlife Refuge, a fantastic overlook that really explores the wildlife that you are so generously helping to protect. You can take a tour of the Easter Shore Refuge at