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Working the water. The rhythms of nature shape life for this Chesapeake Bay island family

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 1987

Smith Island, Md.

SUNRISE is coloring the white clapboard houses of Ewell when a few oyster boats purr out of the creeks and into the Chesapeake Bay. Men start out late in winter, waiting for the dawn. Days like this one, when ice lines the creeks and ditches and a sharp wind blows, only men like Elmer Evans, who has 50 years of experience and gets more stubborn every day, set out on the cold, murky water to search for the dwindling oyster beds. A back door slams as Elmer's son Junior, 47, and Junior's son Buddy, 20, go out to Junior's workshop, flip on the heater and TV, and begin twisting reinforced wire around new crab pots. A block of 300 new pots is stacked in the yard, between the one-room workshop and the purple martin birdhouse. This month Junior and Buddy will put out 700 pots together. Elmer's oldest son, Eddie, and Eddie's son Glenn will put out 800 or more.

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The watering business is a way of life for the Evans family, as it is for most of the 10,000 full-time watermen who work the Chesapeake Bay. There are no big companies in these waters, no fishing fleets. Each waterman and his sons own their own boats and sell independently to packing houses, most of which are family run also. Skills and equipment have been passed from father to son for some 300 years.

``You try to pay attention and learn,'' says Glenn, who with his father's help made a down payment on his $78,000 Chesapeake Bay work boat, ``Bay Lady,'' two years ago. ``I don't know half as much as I'd like to know. Some of these older people, they got this little touch that no one else knows. You try to find that touch.''

Elmer Evans has it, grandsons agree. ``He can catch oysters a lot better than I can,'' says Buddy. ``I went tonging one day all day and caught five bushels and thought I'd done pretty good. He was only out half a day and he caught six bushels.''

``He'll go out when no one else will,'' says Glenn. ``It's like instinct - knowing where to look.''

On the archipelago of Smith Island, nine miles by four miles interlaced with hundreds of creeks and swashes, working the water comes as naturally to a man as swimming. Families in the island's three communities may or may not own a car, but all have two or three boats. Chartered by Captain John Smith in 1608, Smith Island has been settled by the same families for so long that 160 of the 275 people in Ewell have the name Evans. Nineteen of them are the children and grandchildren of Elmer and Anna Rose.

The rhythms of nature set the rhythms of their lives. In summer, the Evanses, like most families on the island, work 18 hours a day harvesting crabs. The men and boys catch the crabs and bring them in to pounds by the shore, where they shed their hard shells. The women and girls scoop the crabs from pounds and dress them. When oyster season starts in November, men are on the water from dawn until after dusk, gathering oysters with patent tongs, operated by hydraulic lifts, or hand tongs. Christmas to April is the quiet time, for making crab pots, taking a few oysters, and visiting with cousins and friends.

The water shapes even the ordinary routines of the day. Eddie's daughters Leigh Ann, 17, and Janet, 14, leave home at dawn in the winter, walking down the one-lane main street of Ewell to catch the school bus to Rhodes Point. From there the students take the school boat 11 miles across the bay to Crisfield High.

Junior's wife, Mary Ruth, cleans house with one ear tuned to the marine radio, which she keeps on channel 78, the Smith Island band. Even when none of her men are out, the crackle of watermen's voices is as familiar a part of her day as the view through her windows of the marsh and sparkling bay.

Mary Ruth also works on the crab pots, although most of the islanders consider this man's work. ``It's hard on the water,'' she explains. ``This is our livelihood; I want to put in.''

Making the 2-foot-by-3-foot wire pots is hard too. ``After the first 10 you wouldn't believe how your hands ache,'' says Junior, demonstrating how the chicken wire must be bent and cut, the frame stapled to it, and the bait traps and funnels fitted. ``After the first 100 you get used to it.''

Outside his workshop, Eddie takes a break from shoveling oyster shells into potholes, letting Glenn finish up the job. Mallard ducks honk loudly in the creek behind the shop as Eddie steps down on the dock.