Out on fantasy island Destination: Hart-Miller Island, a thin stretch of trees and sand, is a powerful magnet for Maryland boaters throughout the summer.

September 06, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Rich and Jackie Miller float side by side on their inflatable lounge chairs, sun lotion in the cup holder, holding hands and doing little more than breathing and bobbing.

"This is all we do. This is it. Hang and float," Jackie says, her moving lips the only sign of life. "We tell everybody we're going to the islands. We don't tell them which island."

Like a scruffy Grand Bahama on the Chesapeake, Hart-Miller Island is the place to be if you're a Maryland boater.

The Millers, of Harford County, joined a few hundred others yesterday -- skiffs and personal watercraft, catamarans and Cigarette boats -- crowded around the western shore of Hart-Miller, tossing footballs and drinking beer and waiting for the pit beef delivery boy.

The Hart-Miller scene is a ritual that occurs each weekend during the summer, with as many as 800 boats bobbing side by side, kayaks and yachts alike.

With Labor Day weekend denoting the semiofficial end of the summer, yesterday was one of the last weekend days this year for the floating inflatable dinosaurs, the floating rock band, the floating pizza parlor and other quirky scenes of drunkenness, sentimentality and hilarity.

Lisa Brown, her husband, Tim, and another couple had borrowed Lisa's father's boat -- Real Nasty -- to spend the day moored offshore, sitting atop alligator-shaped plastic-foam floats, drinking beer and listening to Jimmy Buffett. They've been coming to Hart-Miller for years.

"It's hard to believe this is still Baltimore. You just feel like you're away when you're out here," Lisa Brown said. "We just turn some music on, drink and hang out."

Most landlubbers think of Hart-Miller Island as the repository of millions of cubic yards of silt dredged from Baltimore's shipping channels each year. Which, of course, it is. But that's on the eastern side of the 1,200-acre island.

Along the thin strand of trees and sandy beach on the other side of the island, that's where the party is.

"That's the big attraction. We're on the leeward side of the island, and you can sit on your boat and not get blown around," said Mark Wheeler, area manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

And that's why Bob Carlisle and his family drive from Harrisburg, Pa., each summer weekend to take his boat out from the Inner Harbor, where it's moored, to Hart-Miller. Sometimes they stay overnight, on the boat or at one of the island's few campsites. Yesterday, Carlisle was trying to teach his granddaughter, Brianna, to swim, but she wanted no part of it.

"The water's not too salty, there's no jellyfish, the bottom is nice and sandy and shallow," Carlisle said. "For swimming, this is one of the best spots in the bay, and I've been all over."

Party spot

Though Hart-Miller is as kid-friendly as a giant, sandy swiming pool, it's also got a reputation as a sometimes rowdy party spot, where a dozen boaters might lash their vessels together, crank the tunes and chug the brews.

"Think about it. You go out in a car and drink a few beers, you get in trouble," mused Sam Vonella of Frederick. "Here, you come out, have a couple beers and relax and it's no trouble."

Natural Resources police and the Coast Guard regularly hand out drunken boating summonses around Hart-Miller, and some revelers have bonked their heads when diving off their boats smack onto the shallow bottom. In recent days, DNR park ranger Susanne Bates has been on the lookout for a boat whose occupants had been mooning other boaters.

Beer still flows freely around Hart-Miller, but some of the rowdiness has dwindled.

"This place had more of a reputation as a party place a few years ago, but now it's more of a family spot," said the DNR's Wheeler.

Hart-Miller had been two separate islands, long ago owned by the Hart and Miller families. Bethlehem Steel later purchased the islands and much of the land that is now Gunpowder Falls State Park and North Point State Park east of Edgemere, in hopes of fending off a rival steel mill that was rumored to be interested in building a mill in Bethlehem's back yard.

Bethlehem Steel sold the land to Maryland in 1977 and 1978. The state designated the eastern side of the island as a silt repository, which grows higher and wider each year. But it saved the western shore as a state park, and word quickly spread among boaters.

More than 43,000 people visit Hart-Miller during the summer, according to DNR.

Many are lured by perks you can't find too many other places on the Chesapeake, such as Beef Wave, the floating pit beef restaurant that Joe Lacher and his family have run for 12 years. Yesterday, Joe's nephew, Paul, made deliveries to boaters on his inflatable motor boat. The Lachers compete for boaters' hunger with snowball and pizza boats.

Two years ago, Lacher started towing barges to Hart-Miller on Sundays for rock bands to perform free concerts.

"It's a party atmosphere. Everybody's just having a good time," he said, handing a piled-high beef sandwich to a customer, who waded off through a maze of boats, with the smokestacks of Sparrows Point and the hazy downtown skyline beyond him.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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