Bay Journal

Sound of silence practically unheard of in the modern Chesapeake

  • By Kent Mountford on October 01, 2008
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St. Leonard Creek, with its high banks, can act as a sound channel. Before today's extraneous background noise, raised voices could be heard a mile and a half in exceptionally calm winter weather.  (Kent Mountford) A page from Kent Mountford's June 1974 logbook muses on noise impacts on fish. Steamers on the Bay 30-40 years ago depended more on visual cues for piloting than today's ships equipped with GPS/radar/sonar and radio communications. When visibility was bad, the ability to hear the ship's whistles and shore-based foghorns was much more critical than it is today. (Kent Mountford)

One winter more than three decades ago I took a walk, just at dark, to our cliff overlooking St. Leonard Creek. No lights marred miles of shoreline then, and it was my habit to walk out here, or down to the cove, to imprint indelibly the sight and quiet of the place: dead silence with neither wind nor birds calling in the forested points and coves receding toward the Patuxent River.

I could hear voices in the forest almost two miles distant by the mouth of Mackall Cove. There was the baying of hounds that changed suddenly to excited yips as some unfortunate raccoon was treed.

In winter, we always heard hunters' gunfire. In the night, or on calm days, gunshots were defined reports, between a thump and a crack that echoed the length of our creek's five-mile mainstem. This reverberation, I believe suggests that they might be heard, against the usual silence, as far as 10 miles.

In the War of 1812, the creek was the site of Maryland's greatest sea battle, fought over two summer days in 1814. British ships had bottled up Commodore Joshua Barney and his fleet of gunboats in St. Leonard Creek. The battle included British advances, Barney's attempts to break out and the artillery of the Maryland militia. Imagine how far those guns might have been heard, chilling the hearts of U.S. plantation, ship and business owners in this part of the Chesapeake. Barney eventually engineered an escape out the creek's mouth. Historian Ralph Eshelman has pointed out that during the conflict, a logbook entry from HMS Dragon-moored off Drum Point about 7.25 miles overland-noted that the watch reported hearing the "great guns" of this action, "to the Northwest," although neither they, nor helpless citizens along the Patuxent knew which way the battle was going. (The sound of cannon fire can carry many miles. Samuel Pepys, in the mid-1600s, claimed that the distant thunder of battle between the British and Dutch ships of the line in the English Channel and was heard in London, more than 100 miles from the action.)

Miles up the Patuxent River, is the village of Benedict, where the British expeditionary forces landed to march on Washington, D.C. and across the river from Benedict is Hallowing Point, site of a ferry in early days. One would simply holler as loud as possible to summon transportation-should it be on the far bank. A toll bridge later obviated the ferry, but the name stuck.

When steam packets began servicing landings throughout the Chesapeake's tributaries, they would sound their steam whistles well in advance of arrival, and the sound, carrying miles over the water, would allow local residents plenty of time to come down and see what was arriving.

The late Pepper Langley of Solomons Island, MD, was a waterman in the early 20th century. He said that during winter, when watermen were fogged in while fishing on the Bay, they would lie silent on the water and listen for the bark of a dog ashore. In those days, people knew the voices of neighbor dogs as well as those of their owners. Once the bark was localized, the watermen could run toward it to find a bit of familiar shoreline.

In the mid-1970s, the Chesapeake was peaceful. Our house was a full mile from the nearest paved road. The "highway" offered only two lanes for north-south access to the southern part of Calvert County, then a backwater.

During that time, foggy winter nights made the transmission of sounds even more apparent. Although the Cove Point Lighthouse was 7.5 miles away, we could hear its plaintive, slightly high whistle through the night. This was followed by the deep, throaty rumble of ships' foghorns on the Bay. Listening carefully, one could hear the progression of individual ships up the Bay, as the origin of the sound moved from right to left, from Cove Point, past Flag Ponds, past Plum Point toward Baltimore.

Bob Ryan, the weatherman at NBC-TV once explained this extraordinary effect of fog in tunneling or channeling sound. Maritime fogs are usually accompanied by a temperature inversion, colder air making a "lid" atop warmer air next to the water. Sound bounces off this layer above and is reflected and amplified along much as sounds are in a great hall. This was discovered by Prof. Joseph Henry, head of the Smithsonian Institution who studied lighthouse fog horns for the United States Lighthouse Board. During summer, he traveled the Eastern seaboard, sending ships out to anchor at various distances from foghorns, to listen. He eventually figured out what was happening and his paper was read in 1877 before the National Academy of Sciences.

On winter nights, when we experienced real silence, it was easy to think about Native Americans and colonists communicating by simply calling out over great distances.

I could imagine the excitement of some unusual, unexpected noise, like long ceremonial dances of the Algonquian Tribes, which early colonists described either as cacophony or fearsomely chilling. Or, after the Europeans arrived, the alarm of a gunshot signaling a kill-or emergency-in the forest or on the Bay.

Sometimes our silence was broken by the crack of tidal forces lifting ice in the creek. As winters have increasingly gotten warmer over the decades, this serious ice cover and related sounds are things of the past.

In the late 1960s, Solomons was a watering hole for watermen. Skipjacks, moored several abreast, would send their crews ashore evenings for a meal on the island and a few pulls at the slot machines. The Eastern Shore accents of Tangier men and Smith Islanders were clearly heard at Evan's Pier Restaurant.

Outside the oystering season, though, Solomons harbor was a very quiet place in 1972. I would anchor there very early on Sunday mornings in the spring listening to the sounds of skirling osprey, circling in courtship above until church bells called the local faithful to worship.

The island today is thronged by tourist crowds; powerboats roar about at all hours; and outside bars blare music way into the night.

The loss of gambling in Southern Maryland shut down a lot of the visitor traffic, and many businesses suffered.

As a result, Louis Goldstein, Maryland's comptroller at the time, assured these constituents that the state would build a highway (today's Louis L. Goldstein Memorial Highway) down here, including a bridge to connect Solomons with St. Marys County and the Patuxent Naval Base.

The roadwork, which came increasingly closer- working down the county section by section-was the first overlay on natural sounds and the sometimes profound silence at Osborn Cove.

In addition, the construction of this divided highway and median was during a time before the Maryland Department of Transportation practiced very minimal erosion control. Hundreds of acres of forest were denuded during the wettest times of the year and tributaries delivered as much as a foot of sediments to St. Leonard Creek, and eventually, the Bay.

As traffic increased on the four-lane artery- around 2 miles from our cove-the rush of cars and the roar of downshifting or accelerating tractor-trailers could be heard.

The removal of the forest, which might have served as a buffer, no doubt increased the level of noise, which is even greater during winter, when the leaves of the remaining forest canopy have dropped.

The Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge Bridge-named for a 19th century governor born in Southern Maryland-has increased traffic many fold.

The rapid growth of the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis began to overwhelm National Airport-now Reagan National. As citizen complaints about stacked-up flights circling the rapidly developing Washington, D.C. area increased, more and more planes were shifted to circle or transit airspace above our once rural area. Contrails continually cross the sky and it is rare, and often impossible to go outside and not hear, near or far, the sound of some aircraft passing overhead.

This noisy traffic redoubled in the 1990s when the military's Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission policies closed bases elsewhere in the country and shifted thousands of people and projects to the nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station.

Jet noise-which a local bumper sticker proclaims is the "Sound of Freedom"-became nearly constant in daylight hours. In periods of impending conflict, such as the Gulf and Iraq wars, it was incessant.

Helicopters en route to a mock attack, fly right over Osborn Cove, causing us to suspend conversation, even indoors, because their passage is so loud and prolonged.

The Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant went into operation in 1975 just a couple of miles through forest from Osborn Cove. A second unit went into operation in 1977.

Periodically, the operators need to vent steam in the night, and the roar of these events is like prolonged thunder, rolling over us and out across the river. A third generating unit in the works is most unwelcome to those of us who live nearby.

All of these intrusions have made it nearly impossible to enjoy-or in my case tape- or video-record-bird sounds in the forest, or the lapping of waves on the shore without some mechanical noise intervening.

For those who have snorkeled, one of the amazing things is that in untraveled waters, all surface sounds-wind, waves and birds-disappear when ducking one's head beneath the surface.

But the sea is far from being without sounds. Herman Melville wrote about the cries of whales being heard through the hulls of 19th century sailing ships.

When our ketch Galadriel ran with a pod of dolphins near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, we could hear their excited squeaks as they rode our ship's pressure wave hardly a foot from the hull. Many times while at anchor during warm months at night, we have heard into the night the mating or territorial calls of Chesapeake's toadfish, first near, then more distant beneath us.

Any diver knows that the sound of boat propellers is instantly apparent; a persistent whine from small outboards, and louder noises from bigger boats. Sound travels much faster underwater than through air, so that our binaural direction sense cannot tell where a boat sound originates, or whether it's headed directly at you.

I've stood on the cliff at Osborn Cove and watched dozens of boats head in both directions at the same time. Water skiers circle again and again. Jet skis leap wakes and "do doughnuts" incessantly all afternoon.

Boom box radios aboard watercraft impose different musical tastes on everyone else within a quarter mile.

More than once I have lain in bed at night, trying to sleep as a "Cigarette" or "go-fast boat," with its 1,300-horsepower suite of engines, roars out from a late night bar upstream, thunders past in the dark at flank speed, and is heard for near a quarter hour, pounding down the Patuxent River, until it throttles down and comes to a halt in Solomons Harbor nearly 10 miles farther.

Visitors to the cove are less likely today to remark on the quiet which once characterized the bulk of our time here.

Imagine the complexity and confusion for the Bay's aquatic life when they are bombarded by scores of noise frequencies all around them. What feeding, mating, schooling or communication messages are lost or confounded amid all this assault?

The pressure that the millions of residents and their visitors bring to bear upon the Chesapeake is intolerable. The population in Calvert County has exploded from 21,000 in the 1970 census to nearly 100,000 today.

The auditory world in which we and the creatures around us live today, is a very different one from which we have evolved as a species.

We may think we have adapted to it, but we have not. Noise pollution stress is embedded in every day of our lives: We all create it, we all suffer with it.

It is not fair to continually burden the thousands of species in the Chesapeake ecosystem with this stress. Can we do something about it? Is anybody listening?

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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