I Met the Bay Up Close and Personal
By Albert Abby Ybarra
Photo by pro David Harp, courtesy of CBF
Never having done a bit of kayaking, my inclination was to say maybe. Oh sure, Ive had experience with canoes on placid lakes, but open seas in a banana boat, never.
Still, sea-kayaking Chesapeake Bay was the best way to get to know it, I was told by Don Baugh, vice president of education for the Save the Bay group at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Now, hed made me an invitation I was finding hard to refuse, to join the annual spring trip of Save the Bay staff and friends.
Among our group of 18 kayakers would be masters: As well as the paddle-savvy Baugh, thered be Carol Browner, the past head of U.S. EPA, and Bay chronicler Tom Horton of The Baltimore Sun, whos paddled much of the Eastern Shore for his pleasure, column and books.
And thered be me.
My single kayak was fully loaded with camping gear for the three-day trip. From the Chesapeake Bay Foundations Eastern Shore education center at Bishops Head/Crocheron, we would cross the open channel of Hooper Strait.
Not more than an hour in, the choppy sea was just too much for a first-time kayaker like me. I had not mentally prepared for the rough stuff, and before I knew it, I found myself down under and into the Bay.
It felt like dreaming - until I felt the rush of cold water cover me. Luckily, experienced kayakers were close by. Calmly, they gave me step-by-step instructions. Still, getting back into the small craft was a test of manual dexterity powered by sheer will to get out of the cold water.
Home of the MarylandYaqui Tribe
Once in the kayak and back to paddling, I found myself steady and the trip pleasant. We took a not-often-traveled shortcut through the Navys Bloodsworth Island Bombing Range [editors note: about the same latitude as St. Marys City]. To gain passage, we environmentalists pledged to count the number of pelicans nesting in the area.
I wanted to further protect the many rare and endangered birds, so I claimed the land for my people in Arizona. Now when you enter the Bloodsdworths Island area, you are visiting the home of the Maryland-Yaqui tribe. Say a prayer for good fishing, the return of abundant sea life -- and leave the birds alone. Only then can you visit.
Lunch found us some miles down the Bay on the last remaining section of a once-vibrant community known as Holland Island. Once a hamlet of hundreds, it is now a ghost town of only a lonely graveyard and one standing home with the Bay banging on the back door. [Editors note: Holland Island, the subject of a recent NPR report, has been purchased to be restored by retired minister Stephen White. Learn more at www.intercom.net/local/holland.]
From there, one group explored an old gravesite on the island, and another visited a large pelican nesting site near the South Marsh Island, near the nights camp. I headed off to the pelicans.
Invited in Again
But as soon as we entered the channel, heavy winds ran down from the north, chopping up two- to three-foot swells that rolled madly across the water. These waves were large enough to cover our heads as they passed, making the paddling difficult. As the waves poured over the port bow, I found my strength and confidence waning.
The Bay won again, inviting me in for a second swim. I was like a fishing line bouncing around the water. As my kayak and I were thrown around like small pieces of floating debris, Bay-saver Tom Horton came to my rescue. Playing my EMT/life guard, Carol Browner assured me that I was fine, floating well with my life jacket.
Most of my strength was zapped as I treaded the rough water, and I probably drank more of the Bay than I should have. Along with my need to get out of the now-colder water, my knowledge that we had an hour or so to reach our destination helped me dig into my reserve strength.
Once I was back in the kayak, we weaved our way around the rough seas with quite a bit of zigzag rowing into the oncoming waves for stability.
Alone on Our Island
Finally, we found a small beach to rest. The rough sea had also swallowed our radio communications; that equipment now sleeps with the fishes. We scanned the horizon with binoculars for the rest of our group. Had they already passed by us on the way to our first rendezvous and evening camping spot?
As the sun started down, we set up camp for a party of five. Like the Scouts, we were prepared to stay: We had two tents and sleeping gear, nine pounds of tuna steaks and a few matches and foil from some friendly fishermen. The stove and the rest of the food and beverages were with the larger group. That first night we cooked on the coals of a huge fire set up to guide our friends to us. Then we savored tuna steaks and waited.
That evening, I contemplated my two swims in the Bay and thought about the next huge crossing that I had to make to arrive at the Smith Island. This channel was much larger with high winds likely, for they continued to howl all night. If it had not been for the Clapper rails singing, I might not have had a good nights sleep.
We awoke to a cool breezy morning and a sunrise unlike the sunrise of my homes in Arizona and California. I prayed to my ancestors for a better day and shared a few granola bars with my fellow campers. As we prepared to shove off , the balance of our group arrived in a Bay Foundation boat, just like in the movies. For many, it may have been like the cavalry, but for me, it was like the great sprit heard my prayers and delivered a boat from the skies to take us across the channel.
Our day was quiet as we passed a number of islands not registered as the shifting tides and sand bars remake them over and over again. Safely landed at Smith Island, we enjoyed one of the best home-cooked meals I have ever had, a typical island feast.
In the channel between Smith and Tangier islands, the choppy seas came at us again. But restored with my good lunch, I was able to make the last leg of the journey in record time. It helped that I traded my kayak for a double, which offered me much more stability and assurance.
We ended our three-day trek at Port Isabel on the island of Tangier. As we touched dry land, we congratulated each other for a great trip and spoke about the events we had shared. The main question for me was, now that I have met the Bay, would I do it again?
Of course I would, though after wearing wet clothes for two days, I was happy to be on dry land.
I found the connection to the Bay that I was seeking. I had met the Bay and those who save it, and from that day forward, I vowed to join their efforts and strive to protect this ancient waterway in the best ways I know how: action and admiration.
Environmental educator Ybarra currently lives in Chesapeake Beach.
Bill Burton is recuperating from surgery to repair tears in his rotator cuff. He will return when his writing arm is unstrapped.