When 95-year-old Bernie Fowler leads people into the Patuxent River on Sunday, the river in his heart will be one neither you nor I can imagine.
For the chain of followers linked arm in arm with the river champion in the annual test of water clarity, statistics tell the story of the river’s woes or redemption. Can the put-upon river with its D-grade report card achieve its Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan targets for 2025?
Fowler knows all about figures for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment reduction. They’re in his memory and at his fingertips. But what’s in his heart is a river unlike any you or I have ever seen.
He wades for the “dear, generous” river that fed his family — his whole county — during the Great Depression. When banks closed their doors, locking people’s money inside, the Patuxent “in its goodness and kindness,” gave them fish, crab and oysters, he says.
“You stood on the sand and could look in the river and see big jumbo crabs 20 feet away hidden in the grass or behind an old tin can,” he says. Crabs were the family’s food and income.
He remembers Dixie Buck, his neighbor and a champion crabber catching “24 dozen soft-shell crabs. She crabbed two tides to get them, morning and evening. She sold them for a penny apiece, 12 cents a dozen, to our father who huckstered them at Chesapeake Beach.”
And the oysters: “In winter, the river froze up in ice this thick,” he recalls, holding his age-speckled right hand a good 18 inches above his left. “I remember ice so thick in places that the men put their oyster tongers on sleighs and pulled them across the river. They cut holes in the ice to tong, and that’s how they survived. They had to do some chopping to get through that ice. My brother Howard, then 13 or 14, was one of those men and he brought home some crisp one-dollar bills.
“One of the men drove the truck from Denton’s Oyster House on Broomes Island — that used to be one of the biggest on the East Coast — out on that ice day after day to pick up those oysters harvested from Gatton’s bar on the St Mary’s side. It’s God’s truth.
“You’d almost have to have gone through it to know how valuable that river was,” Fowler says.
In 1946, Fowler returned from the war that took brother Howard’s life to find his “lady river” much the same.
“The river was still in good shape. It hadn’t been punished yet. The county was rural, and most of the roads were dirt roads.”
Fowler — his family’s first high school graduate — trained at the Navy Yard in Washington and returned to work after his service. He transferred to a munitions job at Solomons Island and went into business for himself on Broomes Island, where he’d grown up.
“I bought land where I put a snack bar and pier,” he says.
Bernie’s Boatyard, modeled on the place he’d worked as a kid, had 28 rowboats and eight outboard Johnson motors.
He and his mother cooked, selling for 35 cents a “crabcake with a nice big roll, all crabmeat my mother had picked, on a plate with a couple slices of pickle and a dip of chips.”
The Patuxent was where his wife Betty came to him.
“I keep thinking about how pretty she was when she got out of the car,” Fowler says of the day her family came to rent a boat.
The water was too rough for rowboats.
“You can’t fight that river, I know that river,” Fowler told Betty’s stepfather.
Instead, he took the family out on his father’s fishing party boat. Betty, only 16 to his 24, stayed in the engine house with him the whole time. Thus began, Fowler says, “a romance that never ended.”
Walking out into the river, Fowler the young man could still wade in up to his chest before he lost sight of his white sneakers. Visibility, the six-foot-tall Fowler figured, was a good 63 inches.
Before the Environmental Movement, There was Bernie Fowler
Between 1946 and 1966, the Patuxent River started to change.
“We’ve seen grass come and go, people said of the life-giving underwater grasses. It’ll come back. But we’d never seen it zero before, never seen water so cloudy and crabs so scarce.”
Fowler had grown up confident of his abilities, aware that “I had a little bit up here,” he says, tapping his temple. He’d become a successful diversified businessman with a family. Now, motivated by “the affection I had for the kindness the river showed,” he determined to become its champion.
By 1970, Fowler was campaigning for a seat on the Calvert County commission on a promise to clean up the Patuxent, which, he said, had become one of the most polluted rivers on the East Coast. Upriver sewage treatment plants, discharging what later came to be called “point-source pollution” were the heart of the problem.
Elected first as a county commissioner then to the Maryland State Senate, Fowler had his platform.
In 1977, advised “you’re not going to get anywhere until you sue the bastards,” Fowler joined Maryland’s southern counties in a suit to force counties upriver, the state of Maryland and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to live up to the new Clean Water Act standards. They won.
Three decades later, as new cleanup goals were about to pass unmet, Fowler joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in lighting a fire under the EPA. Fowler v. the EPA also got results: President Barack Obama issued an executive order setting cleanup standards.
Policy, regulation and litigation are powerful but not so memorable unless you’re on the receiving end. Rousing people to a passionate cause took other methods: drama, song and a picnic lunch.
In 1987, the late Chesapeake bard Tom Wisner suggested the strategy that became world famous:
You just wade out in the river,
give it all you got …
Next you take your peepers
And cast them slowly down
On the day we see our feet again
There’ll be celebration in this town.
The brilliance of the strategy generated a public relations bonanza not seen before in the campaign to clean up Chesapeake Bay.
Over the years, all have joined hands in Fowler’s procession into the river: governors, senators and politicians of every stripe; scientists, school children and Fowler’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all have been links in a human chain. They wade in until Fowler — dressed in bib overalls and white sneakers — can no longer see his feet. A yardstick is fetched, and Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer measures how many inches up Bernie’s pants legs the river rose before his sneakers disappeared. The result is graphed in highs and lows in the now famous Bernie Fowler Sneaker Index.
Getting Ready Again
Betty Fowler died last November at age 85, after 69 “glorious years of marriage.” The first wade-in where the love of his life won’t be present Fowler approaches with determined pessimism. At 95, he knows he won’t live to see his river’s recovery.
His rural county with dirt washboard roads has grown tenfold, from 9,528 in 1930 to 92,000 last year. Progress has been halting. When the river’s clarity improved, “they tripled the size of the wastewater treatment plant, and the amount of nutrients going in tripled,” Fowler says.
“We need to let people know one thing is going to save the Bay and the river, and that’s monitoring growth. When you bring a quarter-million new people into the watershed a year, it all drains down the Susquehanna basin to Chesapeake Bay.”
Against these forces, Bernie Fowler has become the archetype we’re used to meeting in literature, not life: the old hero who won’t give up his struggle against a seemingly undefeatable foe. He’s our Beowulf, time-traveled from the eighth century, our Don Quixote without the absurdity.
So he tells me once again the pledge he’ll make at this 32nd Wade-In. “Never, never, never. I’ll never, ever give up.”
Sunday, June 9, 1-4pm, Jefferson Patterson Park, St.Leonard: 410- 586-8501; www.jefpat.org