Poplar Island MD marsh

Poplar Island’s restored salt marshes, including this low marsh, are starting to attract wildlife. (Leo Miranda / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The essential landform around the Chesapeake Bay is peninsular, from Virginia’s Northern Neck between the Potomac and Rappahannock to virtually all of Calvert County, MD, and the Broadneck and Mayo peninsulae of Anne Arundel County, MD. And there’s the mother of them all, Delmarva.

And yet the “insulae” — the Bay islands — are what intrigue us most, even if they are insignificant acreages compared to the “pen” (from Latin for “almost”) islands. Perhaps it’s their historic isolation/insulation from the wider world that ensorcels us. Something interesting, different, mysterious must be going on out there.

So it is that my colleagues at Salisbury University and I choose every year to cap our monthlong summer kayak class by paddling and camping with students through Bay islands from Poplar, in sight of the Bay Bridge, to Tangier, across the Virginia line.

Being islands, they all have their unique stories. Lessons attached to an island are more memorable. Just getting to islands is an attainment.

Monday was Poplar, a pleasant 3-mile paddle from the Talbot county main. By the 1990s, Poplar had eroded to 5 acres — from nearly 2,000 in the early 1600s. Reclaiming it was unthinkable, some said, and would have cost a billion bucks.

And then, Maryland banned the dumping of the silt removed constantly from shipping channels to the Port of Baltimore back into the Bay. What to do with mountains of dredged spoil? Poplar beckoned — a massive spoil containment dike and a federal-state project to restore it for wildlife has resulted.

Construction began 17 years ago and won’t stop until the island reaches about 3 square miles, close to what John Smith sailed by in 1608. We paddled in through a curious landscape: lush wetlands, barren uplands where a forest will eventually grow, giant cranes adding massive boulders to the dikes, construction equipment rumbling past ecologists measuring the success of this summer’s nesting of diamondback terrapins (hugely successful).

Poplar’s past is interesting enough, a thriving community, even a retreat for U.S. presidents. Around 1847, it was the site of a black cat farm destined to supply the Chinese fur demand. That didn’t work out. The Bay froze and the cats, cut off from their supply of fish from the mainland, scampered off across the ice.

But it is the island’s future that is truly remarkable: I call it “creation” biology, as opposed to more conventional restoration or conservation biology. We’re starting with a clean slate, choosing what landscapes to make and which creatures to favor. Playing God just a bit. And that can be complicated. Great horned owls, consummate predators, have had to be “controlled” from flying over from the mainland and snacking on other bird species that managers are trying to jump-start on Poplar.

All of this hasn’t cost a billion bucks — yet. But it’ll end up close. And given Baltimore’s never-ending dredging needs, there are plans to “Poplarize” more eroding Bay islands, starting with James, at the mouth of the Little Choptank; and after that, Barren, off Upper Hoopers Island.

Tuesday, we launched from lower Dorchester County and made about 12 miles before thunderstorms forced us to hunker down for the night on the last remnant of Holland Island. Holland’s last people left about a century ago. The last old remaining house went under the waves just a few years back. Saltwater intrusion assured us plenty of dead trees for our campfire.

We slogged through the salt marsh to pay our respects at the only cemetery that hasn’t gone in the Bay yet. Marble and granite stones spoke of a prosperous community, but it would have taken a Poplar-scale effort to hold back the Bay that was their livelihood and their ending.

Wednesday, we reached Smith Island, where a freshly baked eight-layer chocolate cake and luscious third-of-a-pound crab cakes awaited us at the Drum Point Market in Tylerton, the southernmost town in this cluster of islands. I always joke to the owner that he runs the world’s best store in a town of 42 people.

And that, as much as erosion and sea level rise, is Smith’s problem. Its people are dying, leaving — and it’s not so simple as clean up the Bay and they’ll stay, though fishing’s their livelihood. A lot of what’s reduced the islandwide population to less than 200 is simply people seeking a broader margin for their lives.

Federal and state government, ironically, have just put tens of millions of bucks into holding off erosion here for a while longer — a good thing, but meanwhile you can count on your fingers the little kids growing up here.

By Friday, we were headed into Tangier Island, the last stop of our little paddling semester. Trump flags were flapping in the breeze beneath Old Glory on several homes and crab shanties. A year ago, the president famously called Tangier’s mayor and assured him the island’s future was secure.

But assurances haven’t turned into money for rock, which Tangier’s 400–500 people need desperately to stave off erosion that could end them within another couple of decades. Still, their community is holding together better than those of Smith Island, and it’s clear that a lot of the younger crowd will try to remain islanders.

Some of them have heard of Poplar Island: “It’s a good thing to do for wildlife … but $700 million there and nothing for us?”

Faith in Trump, for whom most of Tangier voted, remains strong. But a woman who has worked long and hard for a Tangier seawall confessed she’d begun thinking something truly unthinkable: “I wish I was a Marylander … at least they are willing to spend to keep their islands there.”

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


Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.

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