The Two Chesapeakes
Two lanes of traffic bake in the summer sun, immobile. Engines idle while passengers sit inside their cars, sweating in the tepid air of an overtaxed air conditioner. They are headed to the beach, suspended 186 feet over the Chesapeake Bay on the William Preston Lane Bridge, part of the vast exodus to Ocean City.
The thick, fleshy pads of water lilies bob as kids wade in with a seine net along the shoreline, looking for silversides and translucent grass shrimp. They’ve been at it all afternoon, and their fingers are puckered. Just up the bank, a few others dangle their fishing lines into the water in what they hope is an irresistible fashion—they have the serious job of catching fish for dinner.
These are today’s two versions of the Chesapeake. One is known by the water-dwellers, chaperoned in their adventures by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Echo Hill Outdoor School, Sultana Education Foundation and other like-minded organizations. Representing the other is the great, ocean-oriented car caravan that mobilizes from Fridays through Sundays. Cars creep forward in Bay Bridge traffic, the passengers inside unaware that the same salty, sun-glazed magic they’re struggling toward is on offer, right under their tires.
A few generations ago, when the sun balefully scorched the summer, the Bay’s shorelines would teem with people seeking relief. Only a few decades later, those same beaches are empty as people drive for hours to claim their gull-buzzed, crowded square foot of sugar-fine sand. We’ve read the headlines and heard the reports: “Dead Zones,” “Pollution,” “Not Safe to Swim.” This, we believe, is our current Chesapeake: past all hope. Pretty sunsets, though.
But every summer day, Chesapeake environmental organizations are disproving these misconceptions. They show our children the experiences that earlier generations enjoyed as their Bay birthrights: trot-lining for crabs, swimming for hours where fish wink like coins in a wishing well and falling to sleep lulled by the broken bass groans of bullfrogs. These halcyon days along the Chesapeake aren’t gone. They are happening even as we flee our suburbs and cities for the ocean, dismissing the Bay that still has so much summer’s essence to be savored.
Admittedly, the Chesapeake is no longer the clear water refuge of the past. As our population grows along its shores, the Bay’s quality attenuates accordingly. But to hold the Chesapeake Bay to a past standard is an effort in futility. That old Bay, the one my grandfather progged for softshells in 6-foot visibility, probably isn’t coming back.
Our nostalgia for the past, though, shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating the Bay we have before us, even if our grand cleanup efforts have not yet yielded the pristine results we are striving for.
There are problems with this modern Chesapeake Bay—places where we can’t swim or fish. In the thick fug of the summer, it has algae blooms. But these issues are not universal. A short drive can lead to a shady swimming hole, an osprey-circled fishing spot or a quiet stretch of sand, loblollies and dunes.
Within Maryland parks alone, there are 16 public swimming beaches, 27 spots with canoe and kayaking facilities and 48 anglers’ paradises and watershed wide there are hundreds.
But too often, our kids grow up spending summers at the ocean because we are so poisoned by the bad news we read and hear that we’ve dismissed the Bay, whole cloth. If we no longer introduce our children to the Bay, there will be a generation that is oblivious to the Chesapeake’s many charms, and doesn’t care what it becomes. For them, it will be just another landmark to tick off on their way to the ocean, which seems safe, for now.
For the Chesapeake Bay to have a fighting chance, we watershed residents have to care about it. And that can only come from positive experiences. Those can be fostered in a camp kayak, but better yet, on family trips where old and young wade in and squish the mud between their toes, hear cicadas singing in a cypress grove, and swim with breath held and eyes open, watching minnows part fore and aft to make way.
So, pack some sandwiches and sunscreen, and head toward your local swimming hole, whether it’s Flag Ponds Nature Park, Betterton Beach or Sandy Point. You’ll cut the ocean driving time, and best of all, you’ll get to see firsthand the pure undiluted joy our Chesapeake can still create.