Volume XVII, Issue 19 # MAY 7 - May 13, 2009

Smith Island isn’t for everyone, but for those who love the natural world, it’s a feast for the senses.

by Sea
and Land

Take your soul for a vacation at Smith Island

by AL McKegg

A soul vacation? I’d contrast it with a body vacation.

Rocketing down a giant waterslide is a body vacation, so physically exciting it puts the soul in suspension.

The Magic Kingdom is a body vacation, at least for an adult, unless your soul gets high cruising an ersatz tropical river of chlorinated water with fiberglass animal models wiggling their ears at you. Or your taste buds find magic in the Snack Encounter fries.

Smith Island is a soul vacation. It is, as Tom Horton’s recent book (1997; out in paperback this month) says, an island out of time; what it offers is timeless. It’s a place where you can leave the past behind and put the future on hold, where the task at hand, be it pulling on a paddle or waiting for a tug on your fishing line, consumes you. It’s a place where a cormorant atop a piling dries his feathers, wings spread, not flinching when a workboat rumbles past just 20 feet from him. A place where you, too, can absorb the wind and the sun, feel it evaporate the sludge that collects in the soul.

Restored by it, you become peacefully balanced on the cutting edge of the blade called NOW.

Water defines Smith Island in every way and is the way to tour the island. Twice now I’ve traveled there, spending nights at the Inn of Silent Music, a Tylerton bed and breakfast run by Linda and Rob Kellogg. My days were spent largely on the water, paddling the Kellogg’s kayak through the dozens of miles of cricks and guts and channels that perfuse the island.

The Smith Island community (and if you read An Island Out of Time you’ll see it is a community in the most intense way) has charted eight paddling trails from the maze of waterways. With the assistance of several trusts and tourism groups, they’ve published an excellent Paddler’s Guide. The trails are well marked and suitable for kayak or canoe, though the kayak is a better choice on the less sheltered trails if the wind is kicking up.

Smith Island isn’t for everyone, but for those who love the natural world, it’s a feast for the senses. The island floats on saltwater below, salt-scented air above. A gentle breeze, be it through a screened window or across a canoe’s bow, brings the earthy life-drenched scent of the marsh.

The horizon unfolds in every direction under an enormous blue sky, the stillness barely disturbed by the movement of a small white boat, a line of green marsh, the upswell of a clump of trees in the distance.

In daytime, clouds scroll wispy abstracts across the sky. A pair of pelicans patrol, gliding almost effortlessly. With their prehistoric faces, they conjure images of pterodactyls. They sight quarry below, fold wings and collapse seaward, crashing into the water in a plume of spray.

Thirty feet in front of my kayak, a seagull manipulates a small crab in its bill, looking for a chink in the crab’s armor. It tosses its head back, releasing and grabbing the crab anew, searching for a purchase that will break through the shell. Three times it does this, turning the crab in its bill. The fourth time the crab slips away; either the crab won or the gull gave up.

The gull screams its displeasure.

At the end of the day, pleasantly tired from three hours of paddling, it’s back to the Inn of Silent Music for a shower and one of Linda’s marvelous gourmet suppers accompanied by a few glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Although Smith Island is dry, residents have no objections to guests bringing their own alcoholic beverages. Discretion, my hosts tell me, is appreciated. Walking along the roads with an open beer would be a big-time faux pas.

At sunset, passionate colors silhouette marsh grass. At night, stars splash from horizon to horizon, and the moon paints a lane of light across still water. The gabble of clapper rails floats on salt air through open bedroom windows. A prescription for a good night’s sleep.

Where to stay

Inn of Silent Music, Tylerton: 410-425-3541; www.innofsilentmusic.com

Chesapeake Fishing Adventures, Tylerton: 410-968-0175; www.cfadventures.com

Chesapeake Sunrise B & B, Ewell: 410-425-4220; www.smithisland.us

How to get there

The ferries Captain Jason I and Captain Jason II depart the Crisfield City Dock daily at 12:30pm. They carry pedestrians and baggage only; no cars. rsvp (and confirm departure time): 410-425-4471 or 410-425-5931. Learn more at www.smithisland.org.