There are new owners here and even some new residents: a pair of bald eagles raising chicks. The west wind doesn't care. It will come hammering again in its time, uninvited and unwanted, tearing away at the shore until whole trees crash into the surf, hastening the imminent demise of this dwindling place.
In 10 or 15 years Poplar Island will be gone, leaving only whitecaps on the Chesapeake Bay eight miles east of Deale, Md.
The new owners say they don't care. A group of a dozen Washington-area lawyers and businessmen plunked down $5,000 each for a total of $60,000 for about 40 remaining acres of Poplar and neighboring Jefferson Island last month. Now they can say they own the vestiges of a place presidents and senators used to call Shangri-La.
If they can't say it for long, so what?
"These islands are just clay and they're washing away, but so are we, so what the hell," said Irving Abb, a silver-haired Rockville attorney who organized the purchase. He said his colleagues intend to hunt, fish and crab there.
"We have no great expectations," he said. "Our goal is just to leave it like it is."
Abb said his associates' principal interest is in duck hunting in the sloughs and marshes around Poplar.
"It's a wonderful place to gun in season," he said. "The north point is one of the best places on the bay for black ducks."
The mosquito- and tick-infested island rises out of a Chesapeake summer haze, a black lump in a simmering sea. The closer you get, the worse it looks.
Off the west shore lies a graveyard of scraggly trees. The carcasses of fallen pines poke eerily out of the water up to 100 yards from the bank.
"Those trees didn't float out here, they fell here," Abb said. "That's how fast the place is going."
Where once there were woods and farm fields, only a thin, occasionally broken strand of crescent-shaped land now stands. As long as the strand remains, it protects its two sister islands to the east, Jefferson and Coaches, from westerly winds. But when Poplar goes, the barrier goes. Then the whole place will quickly turn to sand bottom.
That's the scenario offered by Kevin Sullivan, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies, which sold the islands after using them for research. Sullivan watched the winds slash at Poplar for more than a decade. Now that it's someone else's problem, he said, "I have some nostalgia, but quite frankly it's a relief not to have to worry about it."
Just 50 years ago the Poplar Island group was the private recreational province of the Jefferson Island Club, a band of adventurous, outdoorsy Democrats who numbered in their company presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman, along with senators, congressmen and such industrial tycoons as August Busch Jr. and Bernard Baruch.
The islands were much bigger then, and a mansion of a clubhouse was built on Jefferson. Roosevelt held court under a mulberry tree that still stands; Truman hooked rockfish; ducks, geese, pheasant and rabbits were hunted; whiskey was hauled in in historic proportions; and crabs and oysters were consumed by the bushel. A 65-foot boat carried VIPs from Annapolis for weekends. The fun lasted 15 years.
Fire gutted the mansion in 1946, and the Democrats moved on. The islands changed hands often after that, but no one ever came close to matching the grandeur of the Jefferson Island Club.
Some interesting remnants of the good times remain. "Here are the generators," said Abb, opening the doors to a weathered shed in which stood two huge diesels that fired up with the pull of a switch.
The rickety pier still extends an impressive 612 feet into the protected harbor behind what's left of Poplar, just as it did in FDR's time. Even the ramp to the pier remains, used for the president's wheelchair.
A new lodge was built in the 1950s. It lacks grace but is more handsome than the average ranch house, with room for a dozen gunners to sleep comfortably.
"I don't think you could build a house like this for $60,000," Abb observed.
Abb said the new Poplar Island Club, the members of which want to remain anonymous, will repair the buildings to make them habitable and will install bulkheads along the shore wherever erosion threatens the buildings. But he said there will be no massive effort to save Poplar.
While his associates are "taken with the notion of owning an island," said Abb, they also are resigned to its fate.
"Over the years a lot of people have thought this place had some commercial value," Abb said. "I don't think it has any at all. In 15 or 20 years it will probably all be at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay."