Going, Going . . . Still Here
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
On Smith Island, water menaces even the dead. Departed islanders have to be buried in specially sealed vaults, protection from the corrupting influence of a high water table.
It seems that Smith Island -- actually a cluster of islands separated by shallow waterways called guts -- is fighting a lot of battles against time and tide. Year after year, the surrounding waters nibble away at its shoreline. An estimated 1,200 acres have been lost to erosion in the past 100 years. And much of the remaining 8,000 acres is hardly land at all -- it's marsh, muddy expanses of green and golden brown grass that remind you of a Nebraska prairie, except for the squawking of seabirds.
Smith Island is a fishing community in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's only inhabited offshore bay island. But even as the land slips away, so do the island's young people. One islander recalls that there were 18 Smith Island students in her high school class of 1982. This year Smith Island graduated only one senior. Indeed, there isn't even a high school on the island. Its one school ends at seventh grade, and older students commute to Crisfield, Md., by school boat.
But these gloomy figures, however true, are misleading. Visiting here is not like seeing a dying patient in the hospital. Life on Smith Island, with all its idiosyncrasies, is still very much intact. And tourists are still very much welcome.
The sun as it first rises over Smith Island looks like a cherry. A great blue heron soars above Ewell, the largest of three villages on the island. The bird passes over two fishermen, or watermen as they're called on the Chesapeake. The watermen load their skiffs with crab traps and putter down an inland creek. They're heading for the open bay, where Smith Island watermen have been working since Welsh and English settlers arrived here in the 17th century.
Smith Islander Steve Eades stands on the dock behind his creek-side house in Ewell. He wears a baseball cap pulled tightly over his white hair. His skin is sun-soaked brown. Eades is one of the few men on the island who is not a waterman. Instead, he operates one of the island's two bed-and-breakfasts, the Ewell Tide Inn, whose rooms are comfortable, not fancy. Eades also owns the Driftwood General Store and is a fishing guide. He leads fishing trips to catch rockfish, croaker, sometimes bluefish and mackerel. But this morning, as occasionally happens, Eades is an ambulance driver. One of his guests has fallen ill. There is no hospital on Smith Island, not even a doctor. So Eades helps the sick guest down into the Sunrise, the powerboat Eades normally uses to ferry supplies from the mainland. He unmoors the boat and races toward the nearest hospital in Crisfield, 12 miles across the Tangier Sound.
A hospital and high school are not the only institutions Smith Islanders live without. There are no theaters. No police force. The closest thing to a government is a committee that meets at one of the three Methodist churches.
But Smith Island does have an air force, of sorts, and by 9 a.m. it is out in strength. Mosquitoes are your inescapable companions here. And if you time your visit right, greenheads, too, will bombard you. Greenhead is the local name for a rapacious fly that spawns for a few weeks each summer. The greenhead is indifferent to insect repellent, and its bite is painful. But the little beast is easy to kill. The fly is so eager to bite that, sitting on your arm, it won't even flinch before you swat it dead.
Betty Jo Tyler swats one dead, almost unconsciously, and continues to sweep sawdust from the boardwalk outside the Bayside Inn, her family's restaurant in Ewell. A hunk of wood, swollen from the wettest spring in recent memory, has just been cut from the walkway. She says that a month of bad weather has fouled business. Tyler, her father and her brother are the tycoons of tourism on Smith Island. Besides owning one of the island's two restaurants, the Tylers own two of the three gift shops, both of the cruise boats that run visitors from the mainland, and the fleet of golf carts and bicycles that visitors use to tour the island.
Tyler says everyone knows everyone on the island, of course. There are only about 300 residents. Even when the island's population peaked at just over 800 in the early 20th century, it would have been easy to remember names here -- three families have predominated for generations: Evans, Bradshaw and Tyler.
Tyler explains with a laugh that her maiden name and married name are the same. She quickly adds that her husband is from an unrelated line of Tylers. It's not at all strange, then, that her son's name, first and last, is Tyler.
Tyler hops in her pickup truck to take a visitor on an island tour. She turns south onto Smith Island Road. The roughly two-mile road links Ewell and Rhodes Point across a vast salt marsh. The island's remote village, Tylerton, can be seen in the distance across the marsh but is accessible only by boat.