River's woes go upstream Pocomoke: The ugly reputation of a microbe that has closed the lower Pocomoke has hurt fishing and business in upstream waters, which have been ruled safe.

September 02, 1997|By D. Quentin Wilber | D. Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Burning away the early morning mist, the sun's orange reflection danced on the Pocomoke River's ripples.

No boats obstructed the view, no people spoke; only sea gulls squawked and insects buzzed in the green reeds lining the banks.

The lower Pocomoke's beauty and peace are striking. But below the surface, a microorganism -- Pfiesteria piscicida -- has been killing thousands of fish and sickening dozens of people.

And in the same way -- from the small, white farmhouses to sidewalks where neighbors chat -- life along the Pocomoke has been tainted by its ills. From its mouth to Powell Wharf Road -- seven miles -- the river has been closed by government order.

But even 20 miles upstream, near Snow Hill in Worcester County, people have stopped fishing. Businesses have lost money. In some places, the river is deserted. Yet officials say the water's safe here.

At the River House Inn in Snow Hill, owner Larry Knudsen has received letters from people canceling reservations because they heard the Pocomoke was sick. If you ask him about the river, he'll show you a folder of news clippings of the fish kills and letters of cancellations from people, and he'll tell you all the problems are far away.

On Sunday, Huey Brown, 73, took his 13-foot motorboat for a spin, from his Snow Hill home to his favorite cypress tree upstream.

Pointing to dead trees partly submerged in the murky water, their sun-bleached branches poking above the surface like grasping fingers, Brown talked about how little the river has changed since he was a boy.

Brown, pointing at a turtle sunning itself on a log, noted that "there are fewer canoeists out lately. Haven't seen many people this summer."

Anne Kinstler, 72, sitting at the front of the boat, nodded in agreement. She then spoke about something only natives would remember -- the canning factories that lined the Pocomoke's banks decades ago.

"The river's a lot cleaner now," she said. "When I used to go swimming, I'd have to push the tomato peels out of the way. It was that dirty."

About four miles south, at Pocomoke River State Park, at the Milburn Landing boat ramp, all was quiet. The parking lot, usually full of cars on Labor Day weekend, was empty.

On the river, only insects and small fish disturbed the placid surface. There were no jet skiers or fishermen. In the sky, a buzzard floated in circles before vanishing behind a stand of cypress and oak trees.

At the nearby campground, Jack Adams was lashing his inflatable boat to his truck. He has been coming here to camp for 30 years, and in recent memory, he had never seen the park so quiet.

"This is the prettiest river in Maryland," said Adams, 60, of Lanham, who went fishing the other day with his son, Kenneth. "But now it's like my private river, like it was a long time ago. I guess the bacteria has scared the jet skiers off."

But even as Adams has regained solitude, he has lost something else, he said.

"Fewer people is good to my way of looking," Adams said. "But it would really be a shame to see this pretty river go downhill," Adams said.

On Sunday, at Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker's Pocomoke City home, civic leaders and Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, ate seafood from the river to show that the problems are downstream and fish upriver are unaffected.

"I've been telling people forever that things upriver are fine," said Pocomoke City Mayor Curt Lippoldt, who attended.

"Most of the fish was from the river. We just wanted to show that the fish was safe."

Near the river's mouth at Shelltown, Jack Howard, 46, has worked 22 straight days, 14 hours a day, trolling for dead and sick fish.

Howard has been working for the Department of Natural Resources as its chief microbe hunter, the man who takes out the boat and brings back the fish.

Since he was 6, Howard has crabbed these waters, before Pfiesteria emerged from the muck and made him ill.

He lost weight and his memory, and got stomachaches, headaches and a lung infection. Last fall, he found fish with bloody sores and knew something was wrong, but not many people listened to his warnings.

He took his case to people, to the press, to neighbors, to recreational fishermen.

Finally, on Friday, he was vindicated when the governor announced the river's indefinite closure between its mouth and Powell's Wharf Road.

This week, after setting up experiments involving healthy fish and trolling the sick river again, Howard will try to see a doctor and get checked out.

"I'm doing this for the health of the people on the river," Howard said. "I can't take a day off. I just wake up and come here. It's habit now."

In nearby Marion, Eddie Johnson sat at his kitchen table and tried to remember his wife's age. It took time, but he finally did.

About six weeks ago, Johnson, who's been fishing the Pocomoke for 18 years, began getting headaches, stomachaches, and a small lesion grew on his arm. Then he began forgetting things.

Johnson's fingers fiddled with his leather wallet as he stared at papers littering his breakfast table. He was thinking about his favorite place -- the river, the same place that made him sick, the same place he'll fish the moment it opens again.

"The Pocomoke is the most beautiful place on earth," he said. "If I could live out there, I would."

Johnson said the mental ordeal, not the physical, is the worst. Only weeks ago, on his boat, he worried about his nephew getting splashed, about getting himself wet. He had his mind on Pfiesteria and couldn't concentrate on crabbing.

In the past few weeks, he said, he has found an inner peace with God, but he believes the microbe is a sign of the apocalypse.

The scientists "don't know what Pfiesteria is," he said. "I really think it's a sign the end of the world is coming. They're trying to pinpoint it in the Pocomoke, but it's in other creeks and rivers.

"I think everybody better start getting ready for the end."

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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