Ah, January On The Water

ON THE BAY

January 09, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Sure as death and taxes, the Chesapeake Bay will get more crowded every year for the foreseeable future.

The population within a day's drive will rise by several million in the next few decades. Recreational boats registered in Maryland and Virginia are increasing rapidly, having tripled already from 124,000 in 1967.

But those who prefer their bay on the quiet and empty side should not despair -- rather adapt. Many wild creatures, far less facile than we, already have managed remarkable behavioral change in the face of a changing bay.

Deer and black ducks have switched to nocturnal behavior in response to hunting pressure; and swans, geese and canvasback ducks made large and rapid shifts in diet, responding to declines in the bay grasses they preferred toeat. For bay boaters, the under-exploited niche I am thinking about is wintertime.

Some of the most knowledgeable bay prowlers I know consider Christmas the start of the best season for getting out on the Chesapeake.

It's "an acquired taste," writes John Page Williams, whose book, "Exploring the Chesapeake in Small Boats," is an excellent guide for all seasons.

Winter, he continues, is a contemplative time, a time for unambitious traveling, punctuated by frequent stops to share hot beverages and cookies, and to savor the sun's warmth that is all the more delicious for being so sparse.

And while much of the Chesapeake's life has fled south, or buried itself in the bottom muds, there are ever so many compensations in the cold.

Winter strips things down to the essentials. It pares the marsh growth to reveal beds of succulent mussels, and the bleached shells and skeletons of birds and animals and fishes.

One of the prettiest Christmas trees I ever saw was hung with nothing but the bone-white shells of crabs gathered from the late-winter marsh.

Old graveyards of bygone waterfront towns, obscured all summer beneath a melee of chlorophyll, stand out like beacons in the wintertime.

Cooling water temperatures clear the bay shallows magically, as algal production slows, revealing oysters for the plucking and, for really expert readers, the signs of hibernating terrapins.

Winter literally dries out hundreds of square miles of bay bottom -- it's a good time to hunt arrowheads. The lowest tides of the year occur then, a product of northwest winds that shove water out of the bay, and the fact that water is densest at 39 degrees F., measurably shrinking the volume of water in the bay.

Of all the nation's coasts, the differences between summer tides and winter tides are greatest around Baltimore, almost 10 inches lower there, on average, in winter.

Up the bay's tributaries, winter is the best time to see river otters at play. The season reveals the huge old nests of eagles and herons and ospreys, high in the leafless forests at the water's edge.

Razor keen air extends visibility for miles, bringing dawn's colors up like thunder. Most of us will never paint anything lovelier than the wake we essay upon the smooth slate of water, ripples catching the tints of a winter sunrise.

Midafternoon's sharply angled light puts a golden shimmer on the marsh like no other time of year; and when sunset's afterglow kindles the delicate brush strokes of high winter cirrus above a smooth, silvered bay, the beauty can reach a pitch that is almost painful.

Winter music on the bay is a haunting mix; the quaver of loons, the lonesome baying of swans and geese and, for comic relief, the wheezy gabbling of flocks of Old Squaw, a ubiquitous sea duck.

The greatest pleasure of winter, however, is none of the above, according to my friend Don Baugh, who is still kayaking to work in Annapolis several days a week from his home up the Severn.

"All summer on the Severn there are so many boats, so much noise," he says. "I feel driven off. In the winter it's my river again."

If winter boating is a treat, it can also kill you quickly if you are unprepared. About an hour is all you will last if you fall in.

Mr. Baugh, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's outdoor-education programs, is a recognized expert on boating safety, and I talked with him recently about how to approach winter outings.

The ultimate safety lies in simply taking one or more backup canoes or boats that have room to carry everyone back.

And groups should stay in much closer contact than in warmer weather.

At the other extreme, going out in a single boat, alone, is most dangerous.

As for safety equipment, take a VHF -- a marine radio. You can contact the Coast Guard immediately on one from anywhere in (( the bay. They come in relatively cheap (about $125) handheld versions that slip into your pocket.

Mr. Baugh says if there are watermen working an area where he's boating, he tries to find out what local channel on the VHF they listen to. "Chances are they will get to you quicker than the Coast Guard," he says.

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