Profiles in cold courage on a frozen bay


April 30, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Tomorrow, thousands of Marylanders will foot it across the bay during the state's annual Chesapeake Bay Bridge walk. The 4.5-mile trek is a fine spring lark, but crossing the bay has not always been such a stroll.

The epic walk of my friend Edward Harrison, a Smith Islander, came during the cruel winter of 1936, one of three times in this century when the bay virtually froze solid. (The others: 1918 and 1977.)

Ed's hike was from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore to Smith Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake. But the adventure actually began across the bay in Solomons, on the Western Shore in Calvert County.

Boats from Smith were iced in at Solomons with a big catch of oysters, which had been selling all fall at the pitiful price of 20 cents to 25 cents a bushel.

The weather made it clear these were some of the last oysters coming out of the bay for a while, and buyers offered a dizzying 80 cents a bushel.

No way, the dredgers said. Ninety cents then. Not a chance. Well, a dollar -- take it or leave it.

And the buyers walked away. But they came back, offering $1.10. The dredgers made more off that one load than most of the rest of oyster season, Ed says.

Eager to get home -- he was "gallin' " (courting), Ed recalls -- the dredgers called Annapolis to tell the Crisfield-bound ferry they were coming -- crews from seven dredge boats. The ferry agreed to delay 1 1/2 hours to wait for them.

The ice was so thick that ferry crew members, as they went, put lanterns on the ice so they could follow their broken track back to the Western Shore in the dark.

They hit Crisfield that night, Ed says, about dusk, and as far as they could see, toward the island, there was nothing but hard ice.

The next morning, after an early breakfast, eight of them struck out on the 12-mile walk across Tangier Sound to Smith. The ice seemed thick, but with salt water, swirling currents and the heave of the tide, soft spots almost surely existed.

The water was up to 90 feet deep; although in the extreme cold, even a shallow dunking, miles from land, probably would mean death.

They worried most about the Puppy Hole, a deep drop-off where the tide runs hard. Even today, on modern ferries, the ride across is nearly always roughest when you come to the Puppy Hole.

Before they reached it, they stopped, a couple miles out of Crisfield at "Ole Island," now part of Janes Island State Park. There, they took in tow a couple of wooden gunning skiffs a man in Crisfield had said they could borrow.

At the Puppy Hole, nearly a third of the way across, stretched a streak of open water perhaps 50 yards wide. With one man to paddle each tiny and somewhat leaky skiff, they ferried, one passenger at a time, across the treacherous stretch and resumed walking.

They continued, dragging the skiffs, all the way to the eastern edge of Smith Island. As they entered the home stretch, the two or three miles of winding thoroughfares into Ewell, its main town, the skies began to snow and blow.

The dredgers were nearing exhaustion. Dredging oysters may develop upper body strength, but it does little for the legs or aerobic conditioning.

These sturdy men were not used to walking, and on the ice, their rubber boots seemed to slip backward half a foot for every foot they plodded forward.

By now they were only a mile or so from home. They just had to cross The Bottom, a huge cove of open water at the island's center. But the snow had become a whiteout.

To avoid getting hopelessly lost, they had to follow the shoreline, a much longer trip. It was nearly dark when they arrived at a dock in Ewell. "We were so tired we had a job to crawl up on it,"

Ed says.

An earlier hard winter

Perhaps even icier than the winter of '36 was the winter of 1918. I was talking to Dallas Bradshaw once about how much determination it took for Smith Island kids, before the modern school boat, to get to Crisfield to further their education.

"I'll tell you about determined," he said, and recited the tale of Clinton Corbin, a relative who came home on break from Goldey Beacom College in 1918 and got caught on the island in a terrible freeze-up.

"They all told Clinton there wasn't a thing to do but stay and enjoy it, but he said he had important examinations and work to study, and he got to where he was just a'sobbin' to get back to school.

"So his dad hired two young men, Sid and Curtis Smith -- they were strong boys -- to tow him to Crisfield. They showed up at 4 a.m., with a little gunning skiff, not more'n 12 to 14 feet, and they had nailed iron on her bottom like sled runners, and off they went.

"It was slow going. It took them hours just to get outside the island. On the way, a flock of geese flew by, and one dropped to the ice right by them with a broken wing. They run it down and put it in the skiff and kept on going.

"Hours more and they came to the Puppy Hole, and for a hundred feet there was open water, tide runnin' so hard it was just a'boilin'.

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