A Visit to a Deserted (by Humans) Island in the Bay

PETER A. JAY

April 19, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Watts Island, Va. -- You might say there's not much of value left on Watts Island, an eroding speck in the lower Chesapeake about five miles east of the somewhat larger speck which is Tangier.

The human residents are long gone. There was a graveyard, but the sea has taken it. The headstones were saved and preserved on Tangier. Tales of the last resident, a cultivated man who owned the island and lived a hermit-like life there for many years, are folklore now. There were goats for a time, but no more. Less than 200 sea-shaken acres remain.

A quarter-century ago, G. R. Klinefelter, an insurance man from Ephrata, Pa., who has spent a lot of time on Tangier, heard that Watts was to be sold at auction. He went, and nobody seemed to want it. So Mr. Klinefelter bought the island for $7,000. He

owns it still.

It isn't an easy place to get to in the best of times, and on an April day with a brisk southeasterly blowing, a visit requires some tricky boat-handling and a willingness to get wet. But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff, which uses Watts for its education programs, can readily provide the former if its passengers supply the latter.

A handful of visitors to Watts last week found the island throbbing with bird life. The woods were full, tier above tier, of nesting herons, egrets and ospreys. American oystercatchers rose from the grass near the beach. Glossy ibis, unusual this far north, nest here too.

With all the springtime avian tumult, it would be inaccurate to call Watts exactly peaceful, but there is a great sense of space. Tangier is a gray lump on the horizon. The Virginia shore to the east is indistinct. We walked the sand and found no footprints, but there were reminders that others have been here before us. Inland, gone-wild asparagus still grows, and on the beaches it's common to find arrowheads.

Late in the afternoon, we scrambled back into the boat as it pounded crazily on the island's western shore. One of the last, and nimblest, to hop in was Randy Klinefelter, the proprietor. It was the day before his 80th birthday.

Most of those lucky enough to visit Watts Island, or a few other lovely spots in the Chesapeake estuary that seem particularly pristine, hope it can be preserved just as it is. They see it as a symbol of something they would hate to see changed. But like it or not, Watts is a symbol too of steady and inexorable change. It is undeniably beautiful, but it is not what it was, and not what it will become.

Five thousand years ago, when the world had more ice and less water, this piece of land was on the top of a ridge on the east side of the valley of the Nanticoke River. One could walk here, and hunters surely did, from what is now Crisfield. But the sea rose, and Watts became an island. The sea rose further, and Watts became smaller.

If the globe warms much more, more ice will melt and Watts will be gone. On the other hand, when -- not if -- the present warm inter-glacial period ends and the world again cools, land now below the surface of the Chesapeake will emerge again into the sunlight. Over the longer run, little Watts in its present state is as ephemeral as a monarch butterfly touching down on a milkweed stem.

But what about next year, and the year after that? Conservationists, and conservation organizations, like to think they're planning for eternity, but in fact they can only look ahead a generation or so. There's no point worrying about Watts Island a thousand years from now, but every reason to worry about the next 20.

In 1966, around the time that Randy Klinefelter was buying Watts Island at auction, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was founded by Arthur Sherwood. Since then it's been an extraordinary success in almost every way, mixing environmental advocacy with a feet-in-the-marsh education program that has given many thousands of Maryland and Virginia public school students an eye-popping introduction to what the Chesapeake is all about.

Watts Island has been part of that program, to the direct benefit of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and its students, and to the indirect benefit of the entire Bay community. With luck, and a little help at the right time, that relationship could continue -- but that isn't guaranteed. Mr. Klinefelter, rather quietly, recently placed his island on the market.

He's taken care of it, mostly by leaving it alone, for a generation. Now it's time for someone else to do that. It will be interesting to see who steps forward first.

Some people no doubt believe that an eroding little Chesapeake Bay island has no significant value, except of course for the birds. Others, especially those who have taken the trouble to go there, will disagree. They are the ones who will probably have to step in to protect it, for another generation if not necessarily for eternity.

Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.

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