Randy Lewis and his visitor were headed out to hunt ducks, but waves driven across the tide by a northwest wind were making it tough going even in the protected bay between Parramore Island and Wachapreague on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
The visitor had come 200 miles for sea ducks (scoters), which during the special season can only be hunted from 800 yards or more from the nearest land, including flooded marsh.In the Wachapreague area that means one must go offshore well beyond the mouth of the inlet between Parramore and Cedar islands. Lewis had used the lee of the marsh flats to work the small outboard close to the inlet, where he idled back and studied water and wind.
"Hell, Randy," the visitor said, "let's give it a try. We can't get much wetter than we are, and the waves don't look that bad."
"They aren't that bad. But come a little more wind while we're offshore and we'd likely wind up swimming."
"The weather report said the wind would fall off."
"Weather reports kill people," Lewis said. "This wind probably will keep on rising. Even if it does fall off, in an hour or so the tide will be running against us, and the chop will pile up in the inlet and across the bar." He shook his head and turned the boat toward home. "If you want to go duckin' today you'll have to find some other fool."
It was hardly a washout, since they already had taken limits of marsh hens (king and clapper rails), but the vistor still was disappointed. Lewis was born and raised in Wachapreague and moved back five years ago after 20 years in Baltimore; if the weather is bad he simply has to wait a day or two. The visitor had planned his trip far in advance, and probably would not have another chance until next year.
On the other hand he had no doubts about Lewis's judgment. Like his father and grand-fathers and a dozen generations of Lewises back to Colonial times, he respects the marsh as much as he loves it. A strapping big man in the prime of life, Lewis hunts as hard as anybody, often staying out for days at a time in midwinter, but he takes no macho risks. "I guess I know this marsh about as well as any man," he said. "The most important thing I know about it is when to stay home, when to head home and when to run for home."
The following morning both tide and wind were higher, so that it was all Lewis could do to keep the boat from spinning down the marsh as they collected another day's limit of rails. Lewis beached the boat on the island and waited to see if the weather would moderate, but the wind kept rising, so that he had to take a roundabout course even to get back to Wachapreague without swamping.
"Should have started in sooner," Lewis said, steering with one hand and bailing with the other. "This is coming on a hell of a storm, and we really don't have any business being out here."
Back at the marina Lewis's father frowned as he helped bring the bucking boat to dock. "If we hadn't come in when we did, he would have come after us," Lewis said later. "He would have had a thing or two to say."
Zadoc Randolph Lewis, known as "Cap'n Randy" out of respect for seniority and to distinguish him from son Randy and grown grandson Little Randy, has lost more than one friend and neighbor to the marsh. When any member of the family goes out he knows where they are going, and why, and when they expect to be back. When they come in he asks about tides and winds and what and whom they have seen. It all seems casual, but it is unfailing. Other watermen do the same, and very little escapes their network.
That evening Randy and the visitor sat long over supper at the Lewises' Island House restaurant while 50-knot gusts shook the windows through which they watched charter-boat crewmen doubling up their lines in the wave-battered marina. The visitor, who had arranged to stay over a third day, grew glum as it became apparent the storm still was building.
"Just be glad you're warm and dry," said Nancy Lewis as she steered the conversation to the trouble "tourists" get themselves into. During a single week of the past winter her husband had used his knowledge of the marsh to lead Coast Guard search parties to five mainlanders who were stranded and near death from exposure.
Three of them, Philadelphians, had gone out in a yacht they had been warned was unsound and had no working radio. When the boat sprang a leak they managed to beach it, but in an area far off the line of their expected course. Three days later, when they were reported missing, Lewis thought back through the winds and tides and made a guess about where they were. They were.
A couple of days after that two Washington men went out hunting from Wachapreague without saying anything to anybody. Their outboard motor failed in a storm that any local resident would have warned them about, and they abandoned the swamped boat to try to walk to safety, swimming across the creeks and guts in near-freezing water. They carried a shotgun with them to signal with, but the barrel got plugged with mud and exploded. When Lewis found them one of the men was no more than an hour from death by hypothermia.
The visitor got the point and stopped fretting about lost hunting days. That night the wind gusted to hurricane force and by morning the town was half-flooded.
"You've got to take what the marsh gives you," Lewis said over breakfast. "If you want to have some fun this morning, go out and wade the beach. You'll get plenty wet, but the water's still pretty warm. With the tide so far inland you'll see all sorts of things."
The visitor did. Wading waist- to chin-deep, he was startled by marsh hens roosting in trees and treated to leisurely, close views of half-drowned mice and muskrats and turtles rafting on debris or clinging to the tops of shrubs that normally stand on dry land.
He went home soaked, safe and satisfied.