My Year on Smith Island

Published on: 
5 Sep 2012
Hannah Debelius

Standing on the county dock in Crisfield, Maryland where route 413 dead ends at the Chesapeake Bay, I felt like a kindergartener waiting for the bus on the first day of school. Another outdoor educator at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had showed me how to find my ferry and then left me standing on the dock with a metaphorical pat on the head.

The boat that takes you 12 miles across the Tangier Sound to Smith Island, a secluded series of islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, isn’t what you think of with the word “ferry.” The Captain Jason II can’t fit a single car on it, and in rough weather the work boat sloshes around so the waves spray up on the windows of the enclosed cabin as you brace your feet and try to keep your groceries from rolling away. The first time I got on her I couldn’t yet distinguish my future home from other dark silhouettes on the horizon, but I sat quietly for the duration of the hour long ride, trying not to let the locals see me nervous. In a community of 56 people, I knew I would stand out as it was, and nautical integrity is a winning characteristic in a watermen’s town.

Although I had been assured I could not get lost, four people gave me directions to my home for the next year in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation education center, which looks like any other house on the island, despite the bright red picnic tables and massive pile of sneakers in the back. I was the “new ‘save the bay’-er” and had the task of dragging my belongings down the public dock, across the gravel path which serves as a “road,” and beginning my life as the newest member of the oldest community.

If you’ve managed to somehow hear about Smith Island, then whatever you’ve heard is certainly true. Yes, they do speak with an odd accent, rumored to be left over from colonization. Yes, you can only get there by boat. Yes, it is an ‘island out of time.’ And yes, the cake is absolutely amazing (the state dessert of Maryland). What I actually learned and experienced in my year on Tylerton, Smith Island, I could not have read in a Weird Maryland fact book as the culture and environment came to inspire me and seep into every part of my life and environmental mentality.

As watermen who make their living fishing the brackish waters of the Bay year round, the very existence of this community relies upon, and is severely threatened by, the health of the Chesapeake Bay. What was once a bountiful harvest of oysters is now only able to sustain a few lone watermen who brave the winter weather to barely make ends meet. Only decades ago the crabbing industry was booming and the women’s crab co-op was humming with women singing hymns while they sat and picked the bushels of crabs their husbands brought in that day. Every year fewer men are able to support their families in the business and choose to move off the island. My friend and mentor, the gruff and warm Captain Clyde Wesley Bradshaw used to point to his 27 year old nephew and say “See ‘im? He’s the last Smith Island watermen. There’s ain’t no one comin’ up behind him.” Now, with increased erosion and significant sea level rise, the very land this community sits on gets closer every year to being claimed by the salty waves.

As a very young, active “environmentalist,” with a newly acquired college degree, it was easy for me to form opinions about watermen over-fishing certain species and blame the very community for not respecting a sustainable yield, as I had diligently learned in an environmental economics class in college. The islanders have a word for people like me, a “come here,” because I was exactly that – someone who had grown up on the more industrial Western shore that looked to the Bay for pretty scenery and recreational boat rides while not having a clue what it was like to be so inextricable intertwined with my environment. In spending a year talking with the community, living by the weather and tides, and being welcomed into such a warm and rich culture, I have humbly changed my tune. As it turns out, there was a lot I had to learn, being nautically inexperienced and severely lacking general survival skills.

Although I continue to value the importance of fishing regulations, the threat to the Bay has finally hit home. The top three pollutants that harm the Chesapeake Bay are nitrogen, sediment and toxics. These come from a variety of sources such as agriculture, industry, chemicals and general run-off. These pollutants are my responsibility. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is 64,000 square miles, stretching into six states. The fertilizer on my lawn, the run-off from my roof, the sewage I flush and the food I eat directly affect the Bay and the future of Smith Island. Not only that, but the other 17 million people play a role too. Now, having moved back to the Washington, DC area, I think about the island every day as I make the small and large choices in my life. A buffer of trees on a stream bed means the dead zone in the bay is a fraction smaller so Danny can catch one more bushel of crabs. Passing a construction site that has successfully restrained sediment run off means the water is that much clearer for Deacon to catch “minners” on the end of the county dock. Taking the packed metro every day instead of driving in my spacious, air-conditioned car means that it will take just a little bit longer for sea level to rise and high tide to get into Ms. Priscilla’s house.

Although living on an island so secluded that I had to wait for low tide to use the landline which sometimes “gets water in it,” and once had to explain what a tortilla was, it is actually connected to my fast paced, melting pot life here in the power city. Smith Island gave me beautiful memories, a significantly expanded set of life skills, and a perspective in which to guide my career and environmental outlook. My time there seems like a storybook in my mind, where I stepped out of my actual life to go on a strange adventure, but I remind myself that it was real. It was the year which I will draw on for motivation, for inspiration, and to advocate for a sustainable future.