Yet as the stripers indicate, Chesapeake Bay is far from dead. During my kayak journeys I could still feed from it—belly and soul—as I paddled through remote marshes, passing close to ospreys, herons, pelicans, and bald eagles on their nests. The bay scene is changing, though, and there's an air of finality to it now. Crisfield, Maryland, which once proclaimed itself Seafood Capital of the World, is knocking down the old oyster houses for condos. Commercial clam growers in Cape Charles, Virginia, are struggling against pollution from upscale clusters of several thousand homes. And Solomons, Maryland, a thriving fishing village not long ago, is trying hard to become a sailing center like Annapolis, the capital of Maryland.
Another sign of the times: "Chesapeake style" crab dishes are still on local menus, but many are full of imported Asian crabmeat. Plump fried oysters, lightly breaded and crisped a golden brown, are widely available too—but they're trucked in from Louisiana and Texas for the most part. That a local seafood culture can prosper without being supplied locally worries me. It implies less urgency to make the bay healthy.
From Crisfield it's a three-hour kayak crossing to Tangier Island, a windswept marsh encompassing three slender ridges of barely dry land. It lies at the bay's center, just south of the Maryland-Virginia line. The persistence here, after more than two centuries, of what can still be described as a thriving waterman culture defies logic. But then no place I know works—or prays—harder than Tangier. In 1989 townspeople quadrupled property taxes to help finance a seawall to stave off erosion. In 1998, swayed by an environmentalist who shared their evangelical beliefs, around half the island's watermen stood in church to make a "covenant with God." They pledged to observe fishing and pollution rules, "to protect our heritage and ensure a future for the next generation."
A new school serving the island's 99 kids boasts one of the lowest dropout rates in Virginia. On the wall of his office, Tangier native and principal Denny Crockett has one clock showing 10 a.m., another establishing that it's two hours to high tide. "Tides sometimes cover the whole island," Denny said, "so I need to know when to let kids out early so they won't be wadin'."