BY KAYAK, on a calm summer day, it's less than a half-hour's paddle to what my guide calls the "most un-Chesapeake" of all the bay's islands - also the one whose future direction most hangs in the balance just now.
The bay has about 50 of the world's estimated half-million islands, and they cover an intriguing range of uses: from watermen's communities such as Smith, Tangier, Tilghman and Deal; to a combination bombing range and wildlife refuge on Bloodsworth.
Others range from Hart-Miller, a tightly diked containment island for Baltimore harbor's nastiest dredge spoil, to Gibson Island off Magothy River, a preserve for the well-to-do.
But none is remotely like Garrett Island, a milelong chunk of forest-clad granite in the Susquehanna River, above where it broadens into the Chesapeake.
For starters, its rock-girt shoreline, more Maine than Maryland, is not eroding like most of its low, marshy cousins'. Surveys have it gaining land, from 167 acres to 189 most recently. On the upstream end it soars abruptly to 114 feet above the tidal waters of the river, a granite plug that thrust up millions of years ago inside a volcano.
Combining this small mountain with river depths that plunge to 80 feet or more alongside part of the island, Garrett easily represents the greatest vertical relief anywhere along the Chesapeake's famously shallow edges. The place was originally called Palmer's Island, after a British owner who envisioned building a great university on it. He died in 1634 without seeing his purchase.
For more than a century, until 1997, Garrett was the property of the railroad (CSX Corp. in its latest incarnation).
Then, with no advertisement, the Cecil County island was sold to a developer for $250,000. The state was aware of the island's availability, but decided not to preserve the island with Open Space funds, based on an appraisal that said it was worth $140,000. The island's future seemed headed the way of a hotel and conference center until a local conservation group, Cecil Land Trust, put together a deal with several private investors to buy the island. The price by now was $700,000. The deal gives the land trust two years to raise the purchase price to preserve the island forever from development. If it can't manage that, Garrett could go back on the market.
That can't be allowed to happen. Maryland badly needs more public access to the bay, and islands are the neatest places - I say that having run environmental education programs on three bay islands during the 1980s.
"A living classroom" is one of the Cecil Land Trust's visions for the island, says Bill Kilby, a Cecil County dairy farmer who is on its board. The island, he points out, is perfectly juxtaposed to help students appreciate the vital connection between the health of Chesapeake waters and the runoff from the lands of its 64,000 square mile drainage basin, or watershed.
Look south from Garrett, out to the Susquehanna Flats and you are looking at the classic Chesapeake - broad, reflective, horizontal. Look north, upriver toward 110 foot high Conowingo Dam and you see Pennsylvania's river, narrowing away through the green-walled hills. Garrett is at the junction of the bay and the river that makes the bay and determines its health to a great extent. The Susquehanna drains 27,000 square miles, close to half the bay's watershed. It is nearly 90 percent of the freshwater in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake.
The island also lies in what was, historically, one of the greatest fish highways of the East Coast, where millions of herring and shad and striped bass migrated upriver to spawn as far north as Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y. Today, restoration efforts, removing or bypassing dam blockages, are returning the river to its former role.
The island is gorgeously walkable, with a surprisingly open understory and grassy paths along the rocky shores beneath impressive oaks, tulip poplars, sycamores, beeches and other hardwoods. It would be superbly accessible to Maryland and Pennsylvania school kids, with Interstate 95 running north of the island, and an Amtrak station not far away.
It is scarcely pristine, having been used for nearly four centuries for everything from military training to fish factories and farming. It is crossed today by bridges carrying CSX's rail traffic, also by U.S. 40. On the mainland, one can see condo developments, a huge commercial quarry, and hundreds of pleasure boats moored at marinas.
Perhaps because of this, Garrett Island has another quality, one I experienced years ago exploring a broad, forested median strip, where Interstate 70 had effectively preserved the trees from development and timbering.
Peering from that median strip wilderness, and from the island, has that delicious feeling of hiding out, of possessing a lovely, secret refuge, unsuspected by the thousands of hurriers-by in the fast lanes overhead. Maryland has an increasing number of programs to protect open space - for greenways, paddling trails, water quality, natural and historic heritage, Chesapeake gateways.
I can't think of many places where these overlap more than Garrett Island.