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Way of Life Slipping Away Along Chesapeake's Edge

Watermen along the Chesapeake Bay face difficult times -- as dwindling crab and oyster populations leave many without enough to make a decent living, and forcing changes within the communities that reside along the bay.

Geographically, Tilghman Island is at the end of something: a lobster-shaped spit at the tip of a curved peninsula, roughly across the Chesapeake from Calvert County. Culturally, though, it's a place in the middle.

The island is just 15 miles from St. Michaels, and its affluent culture is spreading this way: The Tilghman Island Inn offers tennis courts and sweetbreads in puff pastry and water-view rooms for $300 a night.

On the other hand, there are these guys: some halfway retired and most all-the-way morbid about the bay's future.

"The onliest way they'll ever save the bay now is to give everybody a mallet and a cork," said William Roe, 74, who has lived on Tilghman long enough to live on Willy Roe Road. "And you know where that cork goes?"

It was a suggestion, let us say, for stopping sewage pollution at its original source.

"All in favor, say aye!" one of the other men in the tackle shop said.

But that sort of cynicism only goes so far here. It goes about five blocks, actually, to a skipjack docked at Tilghman's Dogwood Harbor.

Skipjacks are floating loopholes, built when Maryland law allowed only sail-powered boats to pull metal "dredges" across the bottom and scrape up oysters. Then, in the 1960s, as the oyster harvest fell, skipjacks were allowed to attach a motorized "push boat" two days a week. The number of skipjacks has fallen from more than 300 a century ago to fewer than 10 today.

But Lawrence Murphy, 54, was taking one out oystering.

"She's big. She's heavy," said Murphy, a beefy man with a cigarette who speaks the crayubs-and-orstirs dialect of the bay in a deep, scratchy voice. "She lays there good." Meaning she doesn't sway too much in heavy weather.

This is a living that doesn't make sense, but Murphy doesn't do it for sensible reasons. He does it because he likes to get away: He used to have a bait-grinding business here but left it after his 14-year-old son was killed by one of the machines.

He does it because he doesn't mind the cold and knows where the oysters are, or at least where they were. And he does it because his father and grandfather worked a skipjack.

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