A trip through nature provides saving grace Salvation: Three days of kayaking on the Chesapeake serve as a reminder that all is not lost.

On The Bay

October 23, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

EVERY COLUMNIST freely dispenses advice. An environmental columnist assumes the added burden of regularly saving the world.

This last can get you down, the world being a large place, and not always embracing your notions of salvation.

(I tell those wanting to "save" the bay's watermen: Do all you can, but if you get between them and a crab, prepare to not be thanked.)

Long ago I learned that sanity lies in taking my best advice: The healthiest thing you can do for the environment is to get out in nature.

Wallow in it, revel in it, bask in it. The perspective is always different from that behind a desk.

So having written a fairly depressing account of the slow pace of Chesapeake restoration, I sought resurrection recently with a flotilla of kayakers.

We aimed to take advantage of ebb tides and northwest winds, paddling south through the remote marshes of Tangier Sound, beginning around Hooper Island in Dorchester County and ending at Tangier Island in Virginia.

Our band, 11 kayaks strong, was about equally male and female, ranging in age from 15 to 60, in stature from 5 feet to 6 feet 8 inches tall, and in experience from much to almost none.

I've done the bay in all manner of boats since the 1950s but during the last decade have fallen in love with kayaks. They are what a "personal watercraft" -- a term usually applied to Jet Skis -- should be.

Unobtrusively, with surprising swiftness, kayaks can poke into the bay's most intimate, shallow nooks and are able enough to cross open water when many a small-motor or sail craft might hesitate.

We were able to confidently plan a route that would cover close to 40 miles in three days, and involve two substantial open-water crossings (Hooperand Kedges straits) in winds of 15 to 20 knots.

A couple of us have done the whole route, under ideal conditions, in a single, eight-hour paddle. On another three-day trip, several of us managed a 10-mile leg going head-on into battering, 25 to 30 knot winds.

I don't recommend novices head into open bay waters alone under any conditions. But in the right kayak, with experienced companions, they will be surprised what they can handle after a little practice.

There is no way I know to get a more exhilarating feel for the water's motion than in a kayak -- even swimming doesn't do it -- and canoes seem like tippy dump trucks by comparison.

When traveling with a mix of stronger and weaker paddlers, I've found doubles -- two-seater kayaks -- afford useful options. We took along two for our contingent of teen-age girls.

Two weak paddlers in a double can keep up with stronger ones in singles. In rough water the beamier doubles are virtually unsinkable. Spring River Corp. in Annapolis and Baltimore rents them.

Kayaks made our trip possible, but the fish and the birds made it memorable. In truth, if you never saw a creature, a travel through these marsh islands is remarkable, and never the same.

You are continuously sandwiched and enveloped by vast, reflective sheets of water and sky and prairielike grasses that stretch like an artist's linen, anticipating color and texture.

To every nuance of the light and the season, every ripple of breeze and the glut and suck of tide, this watery tableau responds mercurially, gloriously to every horizon.

But a kayaker can't fuel himself on beauty alone, which is where the rockfish came in handy. With a speed that has taken even those of us who work with the bay by surprise, a true world-class fishery has arisen in the bay's autumn marshes in the past few years.

It is all part of the baywide resurgence of the striped bass, or rockfish. What it meant was that we literally were able to travel without much food, confident of catching enough fine, fat bass, trolling and casting as we went, to feed the whole party.

It recalled accounts I had read of travelers feeding on native trout JTC from unspoiled streams in the West Virginia wilderness more than a century ago. One morning, about 10: 30, a few of us lagged behind for maybe 15 minutes -- that is all it took to procure a fabulous lunch for the whole crew, fried on a beach and about as fresh and tasty as fish can get.

Equally satisfying was being able to show all this to my 17-year-old daughter. Most of her life has coincided with scarcely being able to catch a species that I had grown up thinking of almost as a birthright.

The rock is not just a sporty and toothsome fish. More than most species, it is caught amid extreme natural beauty, in settings like the marsh edge. As we made camp the first evening, the setting sun broke through what had been a uniformly cold, gray day.

It kindled a warmth like embers in a fire on the Smith Island marsh. There in the glow, lighted like a beacon, was my friend Scott, rod bowed with a 22-inch rock.

I would say it doesn't get any better than that, except for the passage our last day down a string of little white sand beaches that stretch between Smith and Tangier islands.

For perhaps half an hour we paddled beneath flight after flight of elegant brown pelicans -- more than a thousand, we estimated.

A decade ago, to see one of these was remarkable. Now, freed of pesticides in their eggs, they are extending their nesting range up the Chesapeake into areas where they have not existed in human memory.

At Tangier Island we loaded the kayaks on a boat that whisked us back up the Sound, covering our three-day route in an hour and a half. Total cost including food and boat rentals -- $35 apiece for three days.

The bay has lost so much since I began messing about Tangier Sound but what remains -- and what we self-appointed "world savers" have helped bring back -- is pretty wonderful, too.

Across that territory I have traveled for more than 40 years, amid so many well-documented declines, I may have just taken my best trip of all.

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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