Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Peregrines, Pirates and Paddlers: The Lure of the Chesapeake

Migrating Tundra Swans Photographic Poster Print by Charles McRae, 40x30
As I drove East across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at dusk, a Peregrine Falcon rose from the water over the railing and above the car into the trusses above, a fish gripped firmly in its claws.  The largest estuary in the United States, there is a whole lot more living on the Bay than the infamous retrievers. 

Once renowned for its oysters, the Chesapeake Bay is best known today for its crabs, Blue Crabs most specifically. It’s also regrettably home to one of the Country’s four Dead Zones, hypotic (oxygen depleted) waters unable to sustain life. Although in decline, the Bay still harvests the majority of crabs sold in the country.

The Dead Zone located along the Atlantic Flyway doesn't seem to deter millions of migrating birds from touching down or wintering in the subtropical marshlands.  Not yet at any rate. The abundance of wintering Canadian and Snow Geese and resident Tundra and Mute Swans contribute to the Bay’s acclaim for being one of the best waterfowl hunting grounds in the world.  Camouflaged sportsmen from around the world flock to the shores throughout the wildfowl season, contributing heftily to the State’s maritime tourism industry.

Waterfowl Festival

The Oyster WarsVoted the 8th best small town in American, Easton is a colonial town of less than 15,000 in Talbot County, Maryland. Located where the Miles, Tred Avon and Choptank Rivers spill into the Bay, it is host to the internationally acclaimed annual Waterfowl Festival every November.  Ten dollars grants visitors admittance to the weekend long art and sportsman expo. An additional fee is required to view the World Champion Goose and Duck Callers Contest.  Festivities include Chesapeake Bay Retriever dog shows as well as fly fishing demonstrations, an antique decoy auction, master sportsmen classes, wine tasting, live music as well as blocks of vendors and artisans. Funds from the festival contribute to ongoing habitat conservation efforts.

When you go, set aside an hour or two to stroll through the walkable colonial village with beautifully preserved historic homes. A few blocks back, grand Victorians provide evidence of the post Civil War railroad boom.  Eat dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants in town. Out of the Fire Restaurant and Wine Bar on Goldsborough Street not only operates on a socially responsive sustainability policy, (organic produce, environmentally conscious seafood choices as advised by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, free range antibiotic and growth-hormone free meats and an array of vegetarian and vegan menu selections) but grills up one of the best trout dishes I’ve ever tasted. Floating on a bed of greens, carrots and potatoes swimming in a light but flavorful green curry sauce, the boneless fillet yields a melt in your mouth, moan and groan dining experience. For dessert, try the Coconut Lime Ice Cream on Almond Macaroon Sandwich. A new menu item that's sure to become a sure-fire standard.

Chesapeake: Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John SmithPeek into the storefronts and meet the friendly locals, not all of whom are native to the watermen’s state. Easton’s Green Energy and Design, for instance, was founded by longtime SoCa residents. With a Bachelors of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from California Institute of the Arts and 30 years of designing energy efficient coastal palaces, Owner Ryk Lesser offers alternative energy system integrated design and installation services. His wife, Andrea Tassencourt, with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University across the Bay manages their retail shop, selling a colorful array of “green” home decor and fair-trade gifts, as well as fine jewelry.

Before returning home, treat yourself to Far Eastern Shore Winery's seasonally and seriously delicious Autumn Swan Blanc flavored with the juice of white cranberries. Select to see more of the state, perhaps by following one of the five State designated Wine Trails, or one of the many interesting heritage trails providing theme based travel focusing on topics ranging from legendary women to the underground railroad. If a boater, consider the John Smith Trail, the first historic water, or “blue”, trail to be included in the National Park Service's National Historic Trail System. Autumn on the four season Bay is generally sunny, dry and mild affording pleasant leaf peeping weather.  Plan to stay a while.


Pirates on the Chesapeake: Being a True History of Pirates, Picaroons, and Raiders on Chesapeake Bay, 1610-1807Maryland, first settled in 1634 on a land grant inherited by Caecilius Calvert, son of Lord Baltimore who had been stripped of all royal titles and consequently entitled provinces for having had the audacity to convert to Catholicism, is the wealthiest state in the nation. Four of its counties (Talbot being one of them) rank among the country’s most affluent. Proximity to the Capital, I’m sure contributes to this elite standing but the Bay itself creates, as well as harbors, wealth. Oysters were once referred to as “Chesapeake Gold” and so it it's not surprising that places with names like Pirate’s Cove hint at other means by which wealth was acquired.

Piracy, a job often held by secondary aristocratic sons, (meaning, not the first born in line to inherit titles and estates), was in fact BIG business. Still is, but that’s another story. The first pirates were hanged in 1638, some without trail.  That incident, like so many to follow, had more to do with the animosity between Maryland colonists and those from Virginia in large part because parts of Maryland’s Eastern Shore had been settled by William Claiborne and claimed –originally--for Virginia. Those settlements loyal to Claiborne (and thus to Virginia) just happened to fall within the providence subsequently entitled to Lord Baltimore. 

As the Chesapeake was dredged dry of oysters at the turn of the last century, the old animosity between the two states surfaced and the infamous Chesapeake Skipjack fleet was built for better maneuverability. When the states were reunited at the close of the Civil War, the Bay supplied half the world’s oyster market.  Fishermen from New York and New England invaded the Bay when their beds had been exhausted and violence erupted. To make matters worse, when the Bay’s oyster beds were beginning to disappear, Maryland banned dredging while Virginia didn’t. Thus, the Oyster Wars ensued and a new form of pirate appeared on the waters. Oyster pirates in their skipjacks defied the newly formed Natural Resource Police in wild attempt to continue eking out a living on the water.

The Skipjack was a working vessel made by and for watermen. It’s a small, affordable boat designed for the shallow Bay and to minimize the need for large crews. It has a notably long boom and broad sails enabling it great maneuverability in soft winds and enough power to haul dredges. The fleet of more than 2,000 has dwindled since the years of plenty. Gone are the days when a waterman could dredge 300 bushels in an hour. 

Although only a few of the sail powered fishing vessels still operate for that purpose, several of the 30 remaining antique crafts are available for charter.  Relive history and cruise the Bay with authentic watermen; Dredge for oysters, help host sails or simply sit back and enjoy a sunset sail. Attend the annual Labor Day Skipjack Festival on Deal Island and catch the races.

Top of the Bay port town Havre de Grace holds a Pirate’s Fest every year in July to commemorate this interesting legacy and the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor just opened a new interactive exhibit called the Odyssey’s Shipwreck: Pirates and Treasure.

Paddling the Bay

Chesapeake Bay Log Canoes and BugeyesToday, the Chesapeake Bay’s nautical attractions exceed that of the traditional waterman or legendary wayward smuggler. For instance, alongside the sleek skimming skipjack once sailed the high performance Chesapeake log canoe with 15-foot wooden springboards projecting from the sides. With crews seated on the planks, feet dangling over the waves, these outstretched boards are meant to counterbalance the overcanvased (and oversized) masts that lend them speed. No longer used for fishing, the vintage boats are now reserved for recreational club racing.  

St. Michael’s is a sleepy little town west of Easton along the Miles River famed for having been the first colonial town to “Fool the British”. Fore warned of a British attack, Militia Brigadier General Perry Benson evacuated the town and had lanterns placed in the treetops throughout the surrounding countryside.  With the hearth fires extinguished in the town proper, the British attacked the trees instead. The town, having gained more recent acclaim for being the location of numerous movies including The Wedding Crashers, hosts the Bay’s log canoe races from June through September.

The Bay is also home to the Kent Island Outrigger’s Canoe Club.  Outrigger canoes are sea faring vessels, traditionally made from the Koa tree now from fiberglass. As are sea kayaks, these canoes are longer and narrower than their river/lake counterparts. In addition, they are equipped with a lateral float or “ama” that offers stability among waves. Although it technically can be used with a sail, as a sport, it’s paddled by a team of six. 

This is by no means the soft sightseeing canoeing I grew up. This is a ferocious dig in and pull back adventure, if not downright extreme, sport ideal for serious competitive paddlers. Here’s why.

Traditional to native Hawaiians, outrigging is an official interscholastic high school sport in Hawaii as surfing is in California. Began as an effort to revitalize the native Hawaiian cultural heritage, the Molokaʻi Hoe is now an international race (for men) from the island of Molokaʻi to Oʻahu, crossing the sometimes treacherous and often shark infested 43 mi/69 km Kaiwi Channel. (Female athletes compete in the Na Wahine O Ke Kai, which is the same distance on the same track.) When I say treacherous I mean it: unlike the shallow Bay, the channel can spew up to thirty foot waves.
Moloka'i-O'ahu Through the Years: A History of the Moloka'i Outrigger Canoe Race
Let me explain how the race works lest you not comprehend the courage these athletes display beyond physical strength, endurance and skill.  It’s an all day trip. So, crews switch out, right there in the ocean, while the canoe is moving. Three exhausted paddlers leap off at intervals on one side while the three replacement paddlers who were dropped in the water ahead of the canoe must maneuver themselves to come along side the speeding canoe, thrashing through ocean waves, and pull themselves up into the canoe without being knocked unconscious by the oncoming canoe or the overhead ama. It is amazing given the inherent hazards of the sport that there has only been one fatality in the 59 years this race has been held.

Kent Island’s outriggers club has participated in the Moloka’i Hoe as well as the Catalina Channel Crossing U.S. Championship, a 37 mile open ocean race between the island and the mainland where they competed with thousands of outriggers from around the world. They sponsor the annual 35 mile ‘round island race attracting competitors from around the country and Canada.

The Thunder on the Narrows speed boat race consists of 50 boats tearing across the water at over 100 miles an hour. I imagine the resident wildlife takes off for the day for more subdued marshes. Never-the-less, the annual weekend festival complete with a crab bake and live music attracts hoards of speed racing enthusiasts. If not for the race to be held this year in June, then stop in the dockside Big Owl Tiki Bar on the Narrows appropriately adorned with palm trees (but lacking a hammock) before departing Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  Family establishments serving local watermen as well as tourists, many of these waterfront restaurants are open for breakfast although drinks at sunset would be my suggestion. If you're lucky, you may even get a glimpse of the outriggers slicing through the waves during their evening practice runs.

1 comment:

  1. I love this piece! Have lived in Maryland for over 20 years and did not know half the stuff mentioned here. The Waterfowl Festival sounds really neat and I will have to add it to my list of things to check out locally.

    Thank you Ruth!