Volume XI, Issue 21 ~ May 22-28, 2003

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Dock of the Bay

Joe Stewart Just Keeps on Swimming
200+ miles in a ‘cold washing machine’

Just how far would you go to help the Bay? Recycle some cans and bottles? Bring your cigarette butts back ashore after a day’s boating?

How about swimming the mouth of the Potomac — all six nautical miles of it? (That’s more than seven miles to you and me).

Update: That’s what J. Alex Knoll wrote back on June 6, 1993, when Joe Stewart was organizing his first solo swim to “help draw attention to the plight of rivers and money for grassroots groups.” In the decade since that swim across the mouth of the Potomac, the 56-year-old Anne Arundelian alone has swum across 15 Bay waters — including the Bay itself plus the Chester, Choptank, Gunpowder, Patapsco, Patuxent, Potomac, Tred Avon, Sassafras and South rivers. Alone or in company, he has crawled over 180 miles of water — not counting training — collecting some $150,000 for HIV and environmental groups.

Just last week, Stewart spent three hours, he says “getting myself across the Patapsco River from Northpoint State Point, in Baltimore County to Venice on the Bay in Pasadena to raise more than $2,000 for urban watershed organizations.

“It was chilly, cloudy, rainy and rough — the air at 54 degrees, three degrees colder than the water at 57 degrees. But I made it as a solo swimmer.”

Boston Whalers and a Coast Guard Auxiliary boat stayed nearby. Waiting on the home shore to welcome him in from the cold was a cadre of friends plus Stewart’s mother, Dot Eckert, and miniature dachshund Odaat, which is short for One Day at a Time, the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Odaat’s name gives a clue to the forces that have propelled Stewart for so many miles.

In his 30s, Stewart realized that if he wanted to live to 40, his lifestyle would need to change. Swimming became his answer to getting healthy and in shape. Swimming also served as a way for Stewart to reduce anxiety in the early days of a deadly new disease, AIDS.

“I, like everyone else I knew, assumed I was going to get AIDS and die, and swimming became a way to deal with stress,” Stewart says of this change.

Stewart, who swam in the Severn River as a child, grows thoughtful as he tries to put his motivation into words. “I’ve always felt,” he says “the need to find and nurture special projects, and to have life-affirming goals ahead of me to keep me going. Some people call these vision quests, and I operate best in the world when I have something I can visualize that is productive and creative to concentrate on.” His something continues to be his efforts in the Bay’s waters.

Stewart’s 1993 Potomac River Swim for the Environment was not his first long-distance swim. He’d already joined in the Bay Swim and the Swim for Life on the Gunpowder River to raise money for AIDS. From that solo swim, he went on to swim and organize swims up and down the Bay.

Update: from Volume 9 Number 50

Joe Stewart has promoted the Potomac Swim for the Environment to call attention to the need for a “swimmable, fishable Potomac” and to raise funds for five regional environmental groups. In June, 14 swimmers crossed the 7.5-mile mouth of the river from Hull Neck, Virginia, to Point Lookout, Maryland, and raised more than $7,000 to help the river, Frank Fox wrote in Bay Weekly in December, 2001.

The Potomac River swim had so grown that in 2001, Stewart gave up his brainchild for adoption. “I felt I was giving my child away,” he said when Cheryl Wagner took over as organizer.

In 2003, despite the expected cold water temperatures, the Potomac River swim has already registered 35 swimmers, including Joe Stewart. Wagner is hoping for a turnout like last year, when $8,000 in profits was divided among the Potomac River Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Point Lookout State Park, the Southern Maryland Sierra Club and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

Taking a step back doesn’t mean, however, that Stewart is giving up. In addition to his recent swims, Stewart keeps his feet wet with a photo essay (displayed at the Baltimore Public Works Museum, now until August 17) titled “It’s the Patapsco, Hon!” commending the enduring beauty of the river so overloaded with pollution that it’s ranked the 26th most toxic in the nation. As an athlete, artist and avenger, Joe Stewart mastered his support of our waters; he continues his own fight “for the river’s sake.”

— Stephanie Chizik

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To Be or Not To Be, But for How Long?
Chesapeake Country’s mute swans get a reprieve

But for H It’s analogous to a death row inmate receiving a call from the governor at the last minute. Due to a lawsuit filed May 16 in Washington, D.C., the mute swan population in Chesapeake Country has been saved — at least for now.

One month into the Maryland Department of Natural Resources mute-swan population-control eradication initiative, all mandated killing of such swans has been halted by the litigation filed by the Fund for Animals with several Eastern Shore residents. After the suit was filed, the federal officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked the state department to discontinue the population control plan.

In that month an unlucky number of swans — fewer than 100, according to DNR — were slaughtered by state biologists. The reprieve will last until the lawsuit can be settled, which has been estimated to take up to a year.

“We hope the lawsuit doesn’t take up to a year to be resolved, because the loss of opportunity to control the mute swan population would be a problem. The swan population could exceed 20,000 in that span,” said Paul Peditto, director of Wildlife and Heritage Service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

At the action level, the lawsuit has forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to issue cease-and-desist orders to Maryland Department of Natural Resources by withdrawing its permit, which allowed the department to enact its “lethal strategy.”

“Without the permit, any lethal or non-lethal strategy is precluding [DNR] from doing anything to the mute swans or eggs,” said Peditto.

Peditto was referring to the department’s three-pronged approach to solving overpopulation among mute swans.The first was to eliminate 1,500 swans by shooting them. The second approach was to “addle” swan eggs. Addling refers to the practice of shaking and coating eggs with corn oil to prevent their hatching. The last piece was hazing the mute swans. Using dogs, state biologists would chase the swans from one location to another.

As controversial as the swans themselves has been the effort to eradicate them. Both sides are armed with statistics and interpretations refuted by the other. The side you come down on is a matter of values more than facts. If you believe beauty is an end in itself, you’re likely on the side of the swans, which have long inspired art and song. These are the birds behind “Swan Lake” we’re talking about. If, on the other hand, you take a pragmatic approach to managing scarce resources, then these big, invasive aliens are a plague on Chesapeake Country’s ecosystem.

Until the U.S. District Court weighs the facts, the guns have been stilled at Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Until then, Chesapeake’s mutes won’t be singing their swan song.

— James Clemenko

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Earth Journal ~ Hooded Warbler
Story and illustration by Gary Pendleton

It’s a spring ritual, like going to find where the blood root blooms in April. In May, many bird species arrive in migration. Some appear in the backyard, and many can be heard around the neighborhood. Others are seen along roadsides and parking lots. Some, such as the hooded warbler, must be sought, because their habitat is very specific.

The hooded warbler has large eyes, the better for seeing in the dim light of the woods. It makes its home in shady forests where the understory is dense. The bird ranges throughout the east as far north as Canada, but it is closely associated with shrubs and vines that grow in southeastern woodlands. The bright, diminutive warbler is most abundant within plant communities found in the healthy forests of Maryland southward.

It is pleasant to report that in such places it is abundant. In spite of the problems that threaten many interior-forest birds, the hooded warbler population is healthy and growing at a modest pace.

These warblers build their nests in the secondary layer of shrubs and small trees such as dogwood and spicebush that grow beneath the canopy of oaks and tulip poplar that dominate the forests of the mid-Atlantic. Their call is fairly strong with an emphatic quality, the better to be heard through the dense shrub layer. Birds that nest higher in the trees have more high-pitched songs; ground nesters are the loudest.

As is typical, the males are the singers. It is now believed that there is enough individuality in the songs of the hooded warblers for neighboring males to recognize the singer. The neighbors can recognize each other whether on breeding grounds or wintering in Central America.

It is the song that I listen for when I go to the green woods. A friend taught me to remember this phrase — Betcha-betcha can’t see me! — as a way to differentiate the hooded’s voice from other bird sounds. The mnemonic fairly describes the experience of those who seek a small bird obscured by dense foliage. When, after putting in the requisite effort to find it, the seeker may be rewarded because the hooded warbler’s emphatic song, its black and yellow plumage are bold and vivid expressions of life.

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Millie Moore of Billy Jac’s ~ 1924-2003

Mildred Muriel Moore’s ashes would be already mingling with the Bay had not Friday, May 16, been so hard a day. Amid wind, rain and whipping seas, Millie’s last voyage was postponed.

There’s harsh justice in that fate, for hard is a word people use when they talk about the proprietress of Billy Jac’s tavern in Deale.

“She was a hard woman,” says her son, Jack Moore. “Hard and strong. Those were the times she came from.”

Born in North Carolina, she grew up in College Park and never expected life to do her a favor. A lean, handsome woman, she worked as a beautician, with a shop out of her house. And for a decade, she drove a cab in D.C.

‘It was her own cab, back when not even men owned the cab they drove. But she wasn’t proud of that,” said Moore. “She thought it was low work,” Her work sent him to military school.

“Mean as a snake,” was how we heard Millie described when pool tables drew us to her bar in the mid-1980s. “And that’s how quick she’ll be out from behind that bar and at you.”

There was respect — even affection — in that description, for the words were born in experience.

That reputation made trouble rare at Billy Jac’s, which was named for Moore’s grandson Billy Jack, who was a toddler when she bought the tavern and house behind it in 1973.

The small, dark back-road tavern looked like the place trouble was born. Two pool tables with hand-written rules and warnings filled one half of the low-ceilinged bar. The drink of the house was beer, and the jukebox wailed in country tones for lost opportunity.

What decoration hadn’t been supplied by beer manufacturers featured women: A painting of a naked woman dangling a small dog, a poster of a woman in a mini-skirt and cowboy boots standing in front of a urinal, another of a fat girl and babe side by side, in bikinis.

But Millie ran a tight ship.

In the words of J.R. Hvizda who, working the bar at Happy Harbor five days a week, sees life from much the same vantage point as did Millie Moore, “There was no misbehavin’.”

Booths spread out in the other half of Billy Jac’s, but they were usually empty. People preferred the bar, and the pool tables, where your quarters on the rail set you up for the next game against the winner of the last. For a time, the pool action on Millie’s well-kept tables was some of the best around, drawing shooters from as far as Washington to pit their strokes against hot locals for a few bucks a rack.

Millie herself was a player, says her son, “and her ladies’ league beat every team in Calvert County back when the north of the county was full of pool halls.”

There was another draw at Billy Jac’s. In a little kitchen behind the bar, Millie whipped up the finest crabcake sandwich you could want. If you asked and she had a minute, she’d tell you she bought her crabmeat from Mrs. Cotton in Galesville, who picked it fresh caught.

“She’d make up 60 crabcakes, and they’d be gone in a week,” Jack Moore said.

Nothing that came into Billy Jac’s ever left, or so it seemed. But about the time Millie celebrated 25 years at Billy Jac’s with an open house, she was ready to leave. She put the place on the market and dreamed, as she’d dreamed of Florida in earlier years, of a long road trip to Alaska.

By then, emphysema had a hold on her. In the last year before, she needed oxygen to tend her bar. But she kept working until Billy Jac’s sold. Months later, she was in a nursing home, where she died April 26.

“Millie was a hard cracker, but she had a good heart,” said Hvizda. “She was a super lady.”


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Way Downstream …

In Washington, the Clean Beaches Council released its Blue Wave Beaches list of the nation’s cleanest beaches, and Maryland didn’t make the cut. Certified Blue Wave beaches must turn up less than 100 pounds of litter per coastline. Three Delaware beaches were that clean: Bethany Beach; Fenwick Island Beach and Lewes Beach. Virginia Beach was Virginia’s sole winner …

In Virginia’s Westmoreland County, across the Potomac from Maryland’s St. Charles County, the drive by Baltimore developers to build 252 townhouses and condos on 50 acres of Monroe Bay thus far is stymied by the county’s insistence on a 100-acre waterfront buffer. Developers insist on building 50 feet from the water …

Our Creature Feature comes from the scientific journal Nature, where a new study suggests that if Ernest Hemingway wrote his famous book today, it might be called The Old Man and the Minnow.

The bad news for fishermen, the study found, is that the ocean has lost 90 percent of its biggest fish — such as tuna, swordfish and marlin — to industrial fishing fleets with 50-mile-long lines of baited hooks. “There is no blue frontier left,” said one of the authors, Canadian biologist Ransom Myers.

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Last updated May 22, 2003 @ 1:43am