A simple dock can take one to world far away

On The Bay

Waterfront: Even a short pier can provide a lengthy lesson on nature.

September 28, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE HOUSE was overpriced and unlivable, the location too distant, the neighborhood without charm. But for a while I was ready to buy it anyhow.

It was because of the dock, a shabby structure of springy planks and spindly poles, extending no more than 25 feet from the property into a forested, tidal creek.

But to walk out on it was to enter another world, to banish all landside inadequacies. In spring, the shadbush blossomed from the creek banks, frothy white against the dark columns of Atlantic white cedars. And silver herring, on their way upstream to spawn, schooled in the narrow channel that wound beneath the end of the little dock. You could have dipped a couple for breakfast, sauteing their fresh, fine-grained roe in butter.

In summer, from the dock you could see big, mud-caked snapping turtles haul themselves out to lay eggs. Early mornings, wood ducks with their young sallied forth, the dawn light tracing ripples of fire on the black surface where it struck the ducks' delicate wake.

On crisp autumn nights, the creek gleamed and twinkled in the moonlight, and the swamp resounded to the howls and hoots of barred owls, and to an otter family's splashing.

No one has ever toted up how many docks exist around the bay and its tributaries. "Hundreds of thousands would not be an inappropriate guess," says Tom Filip, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits to build them.

Maryland officials say they issue about a thousand dock permits a year. Very few people with waterfront don't, sooner or later, want one, Filip observes.

And why not. I bet you could compile a fair-sized book of people's experiences with docks, which transport us only a little ways from land, but far enough.

Docks make the world's best baby sitters. When my family lived for a few years on Smith Island, in the center of the Chesapeake, my wife and I celebrated the advent of crabbing off our dock. Nothing else could hold the interest of the kids for hours like tending lines baited with chicken parts, tied to every other pole.

Then I understood why, 30 years earlier, my mom and dad had always deposited us kids and our lines and dip nets on a similar dock on the Honga River near Hoopers Island.

Docks often take you offshore just enough to catch a breeze that holds the biting insects at bay. Docks are front-row seats for sunrises and sunsets; also prime perches for observing the awesome procession of summer thunderstorms and winter storm fronts - you wait until the last seconds, feeling the air temperature plummet just before they strike, then run for shore.

Docks are where I used to take my daughter when she was little and couldn't sleep. We'd gaze at the starry sky, and marvel at the bioluminescent glow of tiny organisms sliding on the tide beneath our feet.

On such nights you'd look up at the cosmos, and down at the minutiae of the bay, look back and forth from the heavens to the shallows, and have no doubt that some thread runs through it all, connecting us equally to stars and muck.

One thing that makes bay docks better than docks on lakes and ponds and rivers is the tide. Sit on a bay dock long enough and you will notice the flow of water slow, cease and reverse. The effect can be like witnessing the mammoth, slow respiration of some impossibly large creature, like lying on the breast of the world.

Which reminds me of an embrace - for docks will do in a pinch for romantic getaways. It began one night on the flood tide of an Eastern Shore river, and lasted well into the ebb.

Docks are of course beloved by photographers for the character and interest they lend to the water's edges. A college student once showed me a thesis she had done, using photos of docks to trace changes in our relationship with the bay.

She showed empty, deteriorating docks where bay ferries once berthed before bridges supplanted them; others where watermen used to tie up, and steamers once called. Docks today tend to be sturdier, prettier, bigger and neater - and usually built by people no longer dependent on the bay for their living, she concluded.

Even remote places like Smith Island are losing the unique system of docks with shanties at the end, where watermen tend their soft crabs. These used to line the channels through the towns, giving them a look described as a combination of Venice and Tobacco Road.

But some islanders keep to the old ways. I stood in the weathered shanty of one of them a few years ago, explaining to him how new, closed-cycle, recirculating saltwater systems developed by university researchers could let a person produce soft crabs better and more cheaply in a garage on the mainland.

As we talked, the late summer sun dipped low, stoking the marsh out his front door to a tawny incandescence, and the bay beyond rimmed the marsh edge with a thin line of molten gold. Blue herons and snowy egrets and glossy ibis headed to their roosts, and a tide flooding up the channel showed bottle green between the shanty's floor planks, cooling its interior.

The proprietor said it was "right pretty progress," researching how to trade this for working in a garage.

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