It's a moonless February evening, heavy sleet and snow on the way, winds 15 knots and gusting, building a sharp chop on Chesapeake Bay. "Looks good to go," says my friend Don Baugh, meaning it's time to pull on fleece insulation and dry suits, and kayak for an hour to our roost for this long winter's night. We're headed for an uninhabited dab of marsh and dune, miles from the nearest mainland, with just enough lee from the oncoming blow to shelter a campfire. Waves slap a glaze of ice on our foredecks as we paddle through the splash and black.
Soon, under a tarp staked in the wind shadow of a dune, we've got chunks of glowing oak, stashed in balmier times, throwing off luxurious heat, popping open fat, locally tonged oysters on a grate. The evening's musical entertainment features a nearby band of wintering tundra swans, flown in from Alaska's North Slope. Sleet rattles the tarp as the storm blots the lights of fishing villages that sparkle from the mainland.
There are comfier ways to experience Chesapeake Bay, but no truer ones for us. In the nighttime, in wintertime, we find refuge and renewal in these shrinking vestiges of the wilder Chesapeake we knew many years ago. It was much easier then to lose oneself in the countless creeks and rivers that vein the tidal bay's more than 11,600 miles of coastline, to jump black ducks from the marshes, pluck soft crabs and oysters from the clear, grassy shallows, and float on waters not constantly churned by the wake of high-speed sport boats. So much has changed—oysters nearly gone, crabs near historic lows, waterman towns dying out, buildings and roads fracturing the countryside. Population in the estuary's watershed, which includes parts of six states and the District of Columbia, has doubled in our lifetime, from 8 million to 16 million, compromising solitude as well as water quality.