Ask Gene Wood what the winter was like in this charming hamlet on Chesapeake Bay and he'll laugh. In 73 years, most of them there, he has seen good times and bad, and he was learned to laugh at misfortune.
"It's been rough as hell, that's all," he explained, leaning over the brown oil-burning stove in his marina supply shop. "The oystermen have worked a week regular now. Before that, for eight weeks you just couldn't move, friend, the ice had you."
But today Shady Side, a traditional Maryland fishing port and vacation spot 10 miles south of Annapolis, is stirring again. It is unlimbering from its long, terrible winter and preparing for another spring and another influx of summer people.
The ice is gone now, but while it was here - up to 24 inches thick - it locked in the west. River that Shady Side faces, crippling the 25-boat oyster fleet here.
Last week, a University of Maryland study group reported Chesapeake Bay oysters were dying from the cold, along with clams and crabs in unprecedented numbers. Watermen here confirmed that the oyster catch has been very disappointing during the past few days, driving prices as high as $11 a bushel at dockside.
There have been other horrors of the tough winter. Ice has pulled the caulking out of boats or clung heavily to them, holding them to the bottom as tidal waters rushed in to sink them. Other ice, floating on the rising tides, has wrenched tens of thousands of dollars worth of pier pilings from the riverbottoms hereabouts.
For the fancy sailboat marina here that caters to Washington's tired businessmen and bureaucrats - Backyard Boats - the winter broght other difficulties.
"It was so cold and so nasty and so freezing for so long that the guys couldn't do any rigging or boat commissioning as we normally do all winter," said Ginger Griffith, Backyard's assistant manager.
Instead, she said, that work began just about a week ago and the phone has been ringing off the hook with people demanding that their boats be ready by the beginning of April for pleasure sailing.
Across the West River at Shady Side Marina, owner Bernice Filleman and manager Doug Ashley conceded that, while they had had their problems maintaining their boats through the winter, they stood to make a good profit this spring repairing winter-damaged boats.
"We spend eight hours a day just chopping ice around the pier pilings to keep them from going up with the ice," said Filleman. "It was hard, cold work."
Ashley stood by a wooden cabin cruiser that had been hauled into his big repair barn. He showed how water had entered the seams of the hull and then, freezing and expanding, had cracked the hull, allowing water to enter the boat and almost sink it.
Down at the Snug Harbor Inn on the main road into town, real estate man Mike Shaffer leaned over his drink at the bar and told how his 25-foot, fiberglass-hulled cruiser had sunk right at the dock.
"The back got caught down there in the ice," he said. "When the tide came in, it wouldn't pop up. My neighbor said he had $7,500 worth of damage to would have been fully insured.
Filleman, at her marina, said she is sure that most people who left their boats in the water this winter will have them hauled out next winter instead. It's safer, she said.
James A. (Jerry) Joyce, 70, has lived in this area all his life like his father before him, an oysterman who was born in the heyday of Chesapeake Bay oystering.
Joyce has tried everything from boat repair to clamming, and in recent years he has been a buyer - a middlemen who purchases seafood from the watermen and sells it elsewhere.
But in the past few days, he's stopped buying oysters. They are too scarce, too expensive, he explained. It's been one of the worst winters he can rememeber.
But Joyce has become somewhat philosphical like many other oldtimers around here.
"I'll tell you the younger generation coming up, they think, 'My God, how bad things are.' But we've lived through plenty of this. You have hard times everywhere . . . You pick up a newspaper or watch TV, and sometimes I think we're better off than in most places."
Another buyer, Mary K. Hallock, said there are virtually no oysters for her to buy this year. In a normal year when the oystermen are out much of the winter, she will buy all winter.
Hallock, like the others, wasn't exactly sure why the oyster crop was bad this year - it may be the cold, it may be pollution, but she is sure also that these things go in cycles controlled by "mother nature," regardless of what the cold and the pollution do.
There were bad oyster years 30 years ago when there was no pollution, her father-in-law once told her. And 1968, which she said was the best-all-round fishing year that people can remember, was a terribly harsh winter comparable to the winter just past.
Hallock said the rough winter was preceded by a bad fall - few oysters, and the bluefish contaminated with the pesticide Kepone that had entered bay waters from the James River in Virginia.
Hallock found herself trying last fall to sell 8 1/2 tons of bluefish, which normally would go at 10 cents a pound - but there were no buyers.
"I called everybody on the East Coast and tried to sell them," she said. No luck. She couldn't even sell them to dog and cat food manufacturers, and ended up selling the fish for fertilizer at 1 1/2 cents a pound.
Gene Wood, leaning over the stove in his marine supply shop, said he can recall years ago when there were 35 or maybe even 40 oyster boats operating out of Shady Side.
"Each year it gets less and less," he said. "The oysters are scarce and the freeze don't help. We just don't have the oysters we had years ago."
Because of the rough winter, Wood said, "I think lots of the boys will need help because the boats are damaged - and another thing. When you go two months without an income, I don't know if you've tried it, but you try it and you sure will notice the difference."