Working the water. The rhythms of nature shape life for this Chesapeake Bay island family
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.
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.
``In spring I feel sort of like the old frontiersmen felt,'' he says. ``It's a challenge. You get up, go out in the morning, you've got to find that crab. He's out there somewhere. It would be very hard, if you weren't grown up on the water, to know.''
Men gather in the early evening in the back of Lee Roy Evans's store, swapping stories, trading ideas, passing time. Glenn sits quietly on a wooden bench, mostly just listening.
``There's a 25-year-old boy sitting next to a 70-year-old man,'' says Eddie. ``If he sits there long enough some of that wisdom will rub off on him. They're sitting there talking about their old experiences and how they did things and why; it's more or less like a school. Now don't that beat running around in the drug scene?''
ON Thursday evening in the white-spired Methodist church, the largest building in Ewell, Junior and Mary Ruth are at choir practice, their warm voices floating around bright polished wood, cushioned pews, and tall arching windows.
Jesus and the disciples were on the Sea of Galilee.
When a storm came and threatened their lives
He said, ``Peace, be still,'' and the lightning stopped flashing.
He said, ``Peace, be still,'' and the billows stopped crashing.
The 20-member choir sings with vigor and conviction. A board beside the altar indicates that one-third of the community was in church last Sunday.
Pointing out a piece of marsh that has grown up beside his dock, Eddie describes how barbs on the marsh grass filter slime and sediment from the bay as the tide rises and falls.
``I read an article in Life magazine, 15, 20 years ago that explained how the marshland is valuable to an estuary, and since then I've taken notice,'' he says. ``If man didn't mess it up, the bay could take care of itself.''
But man has been messing it up for more than 300 years. The Chesapeake Bay watershed drains 64,000 square miles of cities, factories, and farms from New York to Virginia into the slow, shallow waters of the bay. From the mines of West Virginia to the sewers of Baltimore, pollutants flow into the Chesapeake. So many toxins wash into the bay with each rainstorm that dieoffs of young fish correlate with the storms.
As fish and shellfish have gotten scarcer, watermen catch a higher proportion of what is left, leaving fewer to reproduce. Once plentiful striped bass (commonly called rockfish), shad, herring, and perch are threatened with extinction in the bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Plan, signed in 1985 by Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, aims to reverse the long degradation of the water. It includes funds and directives to stop runnoff of fertilizer from farms and sediment from developments, to improve sewage treatment plants, replant underwater grasses, and protect the shoreline. But in two years, scientists and watermen have seen little effect of the ambitious program.
Instead, they have seen oysters scarcer than ever. This season's catch was less than 1 million bushels, compared with 2 to 3 million bushels a year over the last two decades and 15 million bushels in 1884. With a record price of $24 a bushel, watermen this year caught every adult oyster they could find.
In their living room decorated with photographs of their 15 grandchildren, Elmer and Anna Rose recall the Chesapeake of their youth.
``I remember when our sons were small, they could throw a net off our dock and catch a rockfish,'' says Anna Rose. ``There's no fish there anymore.''
``They'll come back,'' maintains Elmer. ``They'll be back this spring. They run in cycles.'' It is not just a question of water, he explains; there are good years and bad years. Still, he admits, it's been 10 or 12 years since you could fish off his dock.
It's been nearly 20 years since there were any skipjacks, the commercial sailing boats traditional to the Chesapeake Bay, on Smith Island. Elmer sold the ``Somerset'' 19 years ago.
``I cried when we sold her,'' says Anna Rose. ``It had been my Dad's. I would go down in the fall and clean the cabin out, wax the floor, so it looked like home when they left. When we sold her it was like a part of me left, too.''
The men used to go out for a week at a time, she recounts, and on Friday evenings the women would all go down to the docks and watch the sailboats coming in. ``It was the prettiest thing,'' she says. ``I didn't realize how pretty they were until they were all gone.''
The difficulties of dredging off of sailing boats and getting a skilled crew have caused watermen to retire the skipjacks in most of the bay. Only 24 are still in existence.
Other changes have altered life on Smith Island. The population has dropped from about 750 in 1940 to less than 500 today. Young people, discouraged with the bleak future of the water business, are getting an education and staying on the mainland.
``We wanted Buddy to go to college,'' says Mary Ruth. ``He could have gone to college and in the spring worked on the water.''
``Then if anything happend to the water business he'd have something to fall back on,'' says Junior.
But Buddy, with an independence born and bred on the island, took out a $20,000 loan, bought the ``Sea Mystic,'' and went to work with his father. ``On the water you're your own boss,'' he says. ``No boss could drive you harder than you drive your own self.''
WORKING the water is the business of fathers and sons, and there are few jobs on the island for women. Eddie's daughter Susan, 21, explains that girls usually come back after high school, ``wait and let a year go by, rest up from school. Then they think about going to college.'' If they're not married by age 18, most girls leave. Susan married her childhood sweetheart, Lenny Evans, and is now the mother of three-year-old Rochalla. She also holds down a part-time job at the grill in Rukes Grocery and Seafood.
The make-up of the communities on Smith Island is changing too. The weekend visitors buying vacation homes in Ewell do not fit easily in the close-knit, homogenous watermen's society.
``There are a lot of fine people,'' Eddie says. ``But we have a different way of doing things than they're used to.''
One difference is the lack of any local government or taxes on Smith Island. The community put up and maintains streetlights, the doctor's house, and the cemetery by collecting money door to door. No one is assessed and no one is obligated to pay, but ``if you've had a good year it's kind of expected that you contribute something,'' Eddie says.
The church is the backbone of the community, and Junior, as lay leader of the church, often chairs community meetings. Local issues are settled by discussion and a vote. Controversial issues, such as a local restaurant's request for a liquor license, and a developer's plan to build a 35-acre townhouse development on the island, will be voted on only after the community has a meeting of minds.
``It sets around for a couple of years until enough people make up their minds,'' explains Eddie. ``Before a meeting it's already been talked out at the store and around. The meeting is just to make it official. The votes are maybe not binding anyway becaue there's no town charter, but everyone goes along.''
This government by consensus works in a community where families share the same values, traditions, means of livelihood, and patterns of life. Weekend residents from Washington and Baltimore threaten the cohesiveness of the community. But without a certain level of population on the island, the ferries, mail boat, and stores cannot operate.
``Things change, you can't do nothing about it,'' says Susan, wiping her hands on a towel and taking a break from her job at Rukes Grocery. ``I'm glad I was raised here.'' Unlike most island women, Susan can drive a power boat, and she and Lenny make decisions together about how they spend their money.
``You put yourself in the Lord's hands,'' she says. ``We're used to it here and we try to be happy either way.''
Her brother Glenn, sitting in the cabin of the ``Bay Lady,'' says, ``The condominiums, the liquor license, they're bound to come some day. Things are bound to change. There are not as many big families as it used to be. More and more people are getting off the water because it's so hard.''
He has always wanted to stay on the island. ``You get to the point that you've got to make a decision. I decided I want to work on the water the rest of my life. That's what I'm going to do. Unless something happens to the bay.''
He looks out at the tide lapping against the island, at the bit of marsh that has grown up beside the dock, built from sediment eroded from other shores.
``I can go out in the skiff, like yesterday, the water was slick calm, sunset real pink. It was pretty. I drove out kind of slow, just to think. You figure your father's been doing it and your grandfather's doing it and you can do it too. You got to take good with the bad.''