A small country road, ambitiously designated a state highway, branches off U.S. Route 13 in the town of Princess Anne, MD, and meanders out into the marsh of the Eastern Shore. For 19 miles, the road travels through forests of loblolly pines before giving way to miles of marsh grass and patched water. Continue out into the marshes, past where you would expect to see humans and you end up in Deal Island, one of the last classic Chesapeake Bay watermen communities.

The size of the island is dependent on your level of optimism: the county website describes Deal as being 3 miles wide and 1 mile long. The resident-maintained island website describes Deal as 6 miles wide and 3 miles long. It depends on how you determine what is “land” and what is “water,” a line that becomes ever more difficult to draw as the years pass. Deal Island is, like most of the islands in the Tangier Sound, slowly being lost to the sea.Feral cats inhabit a marina on Deal Island in Somerset County, MD. Cats often eat scraps that watermen bring in with their catch. (Caitlyn Johnstone / Chesapeake Bay Program)

Before the sun is fully up on the last day in March, Butch Walters is at the local marina preparing to search for the last of the winter oysters. His morning greeting is immediately followed with suspicious questions about how we know the same people that he does, and how he came to have passengers. Working on the water is not a tourist opportunity, and Deal Island is so far out of the way that strangers rarely venture out. When we explain our contacts, Walters’ weathered face laughs. “I wondered how you were able to get down here and do that!”

Full disclosure, I grew up on Deal Island visiting my family. It is the kind of island where childhood memories are a Norman Rockwell painting, if he had experienced a bit more salt and some blue crabs. Summer evenings frequently included trips for ice cream in the open bed of a pickup truck, if you could find a place on the edge amongst the crab pots. A man with kind eyes that disappeared beneath deep black wrinkles would serve up bonbons – frozen custard layered with chocolate syrup-soaked ice in paper cups – in a tiny car-drawn trailer sitting among the weeds. Headed back with our treats in the bed of the pickup, our bare feet would dangle above the dirt road as we rattled off at speeds fast enough to easily dislodge a child or two.

The island and a closeup view of the working day of a waterman is not generally open to new people. On Deal Island, residents differentiate neighbors by being “born heres” and “come heres.” There is a sense of place to the island so deeply ingrained that very few would think of leaving, even if it became necessary. Butch Walters is a “born here” and one of the last in generations of watermen in his family.

A changing island

Under the Chesapeake Bay lay more than oyster beds. Straight out from Deal Island is a patch of marsh called Holland Island, home to birds and not visible at all during high tide, when it fully disappears beneath the waves. Under the surface are the remains of an entire community—homes, schools, churches, shops and a post office. In 1910, Holland Island was the most populated island in the Chesapeake. Ninety working vessels made port on the island, returning each night to beautiful Victorian homes. Just like Deal does today, Holland Island had a traveling baseball team. Such a lively community created the illusion of permanence.

By 1922, Holland Island was abandoned. With no bedrock to hold it in place, erosion quickly returned the island to the Bay. Some of the homes were dismantled and taken to Crisfield, MD, to be rebuilt. Others tried to remain behind on their island, only to have devastating storms pull the land out from under their feet.

On a visit to the island many years later, former waterman Stephen White came across the headstone of a little girl in one of the abandoned graveyards. Because of the inscription on this headstone, he poured blood, sweat and tears into trying to save what remained. One single house persisted above the waves in the decades to follow, beautiful and desolate. White and his wife placed sandbags, stones and wood and even sunk a barge as breakwaters. The sea proved a larger opponent, and White gave up the fight for Holland Island in 2010. The headstone of the small girl that had driven his 15-year crusade read, “Forget me not, is all I ask.”

The last house on Holland Island would be photographed many times in the years since its abandonment. A venture capitalist group bought the island in the fall of 2010, commissioning a surveyor to take aerial photos of the disappearing sand with its solitary home. The last house collapsed into the waves in October of 2010. Today, the remains of structures below the waves and the welcome respite of shallow sand out in the Bay make an excellent refuge for wildlife and a great place for watermen to go crabbing.

A tombstone dating to the early 1800s lies broken on Deal Island, MD. (Will Parson / Chesapeake Bay Program)The islands of the Chesapeake Bay are curious in their virtually rockless composition, making land highly susceptible to erosion from storms and everyday wear. The Chesapeake basin has long-term geology working against human habitation as well: Thanks to the compression by a heavy sheet of ice during the last ice age, the Chesapeake basin fluctuates from its release similar to the way Jell-O would wobble in and out after a pressing finger was lifted. Currently, the Chesapeake basin is sinking, bringing the land closer to the water at the same time that the water is rising up to meet it.

In this area, it is not a matter of what is causing the changes—whether you want to believe it is human-caused climate change, changes that are part of the natural cycle of the Earth, sea level rise, a sinking Chesapeake or a combination of factors—the reason is not important. Everyone on the island can see the changes. Current residents will likely live out their days on Deal Island, but the island and the way of life will not last forever. There is still a ways to go until then. The watermen of Deal Island are working to save their heritage, in pictures and memoirs if not in passing on the traditions.

This is all happening on a slow geologic scale, but the combination of factors facing Deal Island is accelerating the timeline for its human residents. Holland Island still exists for the birds and crabs, but it has been many decades since its human community was lost to the dissipation of the land, and present-day watermen were shocked to dig into its past and find their ancestors lived there. By the time Walters’ great-grandchildren reach his age, they may be learning the same history about Walters and the other watermen of Deal.

The life of a waterman

“I’ve been oystering since I was 15 years old,” Walters said. “It gets in your blood, and you just don’t lose it. I mean you’re just stuck. You don’t want to do nothing else.” He speaks with a Deal Island accent, a warmly rolling mumbling of words with a simultaneous staccato cadence, unique to these small Chesapeake lands. “I could be doing something else and I hear somebody say ’oysters‘ or ’catching some crabs‘ and I’m ready to go.”

Though the pull on the heart that calls one to the water seems to be both environmental and genetic, Walters may be one of the last able to answer it. “Our generation, my generation, is the last big generation that’s still working the water… Kids are not wanting to work or they’re not used to this kind of work. Cause it is more work. Ain’t nothing easy about it.”

Walters’ grandfather and great grandfathers before him were all watermen. His father worked the water until he went into the service, then worked on boats and went into painting after his return. Walters’ son seems to have inherited a part of the waterman heart, but it isn’t enough.  “He reminds me a lot of my father cause he has the light for [being a waterman],” said Walters, speaking of the extra quality he feels one needs to be a waterman, “but he don’t have the light to do it for a living.” He looks out over the waters as he talks, steering with a practiced hand and keeping one eye on his screen readouts. Technology has revolutionized some aspects of working the water, like the introduction of the power dredge, but Walters still uses a few of the old watermen tricks. Flocks of ducks tend to swoop down and feed on oyster beds, leading the watermen to a likely spot. If you know what you’re looking for, the wildlife and the water can be just as effective as a depth finder.

But it takes more than having “the light” and the knowledge to be a waterman. Mary Frances Whitelock, a former math teacher and former shedder (someone working in the crab sheds preparing the soft shells), spoke about the economic strains on the watermen industry. “I know a lot of parents don’t want their people to go out on the water because they don’t think there’s a future in it anymore. Used to be, everybody down here worked for the water. They made their living on the water. They grew up that way. But a lot of young people are leaving the island because there aren’t many jobs. If you don’t have your license already, it’s a five–, six–, seven-year waiting list unless you got somebody in the family that’s leaving their license to you.”

The boat, rigging equipment, licensing fees and strain of diminished catch all make working the water a less profitable business these days. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen to the water businesses. Looks to me likes it’s gonna be starvation time…there’s not going to be any watermen. There’s nobody young who can afford to go into the water business.” That’s former waterman and boat builder Jack Willing, the man who presides over Scott’s Cove Marina and holds court for watermen on the faded couch next to the chip rack in the marina shop.

To Willing, much of the problem with oyster recovery is a lack of communication between the state and the watermen. “[The watermen] have been doing it since they were 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “The watermen could tell you what’s going on.”

Willing sees many problems with the current state of hatcheries, though he’s highly in favor of growing oysters. During high school in the late ‘50s, Willing was head of an aquaculture club that had great success in cultivating oyster patches and making a profit. “But the state!” he exclaims, “they can’t grow one, save their heart overboard, unless they plant shells for them to catch on.” “Saving a heart overboard” is a mixture of affection and disparagement akin to the Southern “bless your heart,” and not a phrase you’re likely to hear outside a waterman town.

He said that those with an interest in oyster survival need to be more connected with a broader view of the ecosystem involved in oyster survival. For one thing, keeping it local. “[Hatchery oysters] won’t grow like the natural oyster will. They grow real long and narrow and they’re not fit to eat. They’re getting shells from down in Florida; ancient shells is what they’re called. They won’t catch on them, either. That’s what they’re planting overboard on rocks — that are productive rocks! — and they ruined ‘em.”

Rather than merely brushing shoulders when they come into contact in a day’s work, Willing would like to see true collaboration between officials and watermen on the science of growing oysters and the direction of the seafood industries. “If you can’t catch no oysters, you lose all your market. If you don’t keep them cultivated, they die. It’s pretty simple. They can’t get up and move around like a crab can.”

Living on Deal Island

Like the crabs, the people of Deal Island have the option to move away, but most would rather stay through the changing conditions. Scenery is breathtaking, but it’s the neighbors that are the strongest factor.

There are four communities that make up the area: Dames Quarter, Chance, Deal Island and Wenona. “I like a community life,” Whitelock tells us from her sunny deck. Her home looks out over a large piece of property edged with marsh grasses, a shimmering strip of the open Bay and view of the work boats on the horizon. “It’s quiet, but yet everybody’s here. If you need somebody, you call. Country life.”

The typical age in the area has started to creep up. When someone passes away, extra food, flowers and people are coordinated through the churches, fire companies, legions and other civic-minded organizations strongly established on the island. “It’s a community thing, the whole thing, from Dames Quarter right on down,” Whitelock states with pride. “They’re different communities but we’re all the same. [We] look after each other.”

Working the water holds the same level of dedication for the remaining watermen. “It’s a way of life,” Walters suddenly stated from the helm of his work boat. Silence has stretched for some time when this statement is offered, and he spoke directly to the water as he said it. “It gets in your blood and lays claim; I don’t know what it is. It got in mine. I been here ever since.”

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.