A way to experience the bay like a native

ON THE BAY

Tourism: Chesapeake Fishing Adventures offers just about everything Smith Islanders enjoy.

October 25, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TYLERTON -- Want to experience the best of the bay like a native in one of its most special places? Read on.

When I wrote a book years ago about Smith Island, Maryland's only offshore community, some of the most poignant conversations were with young people conflicted about leaving.

For those who couldn't or wouldn't choose the life of a bay waterman -- virtually the only option in a place eight miles out in the Chesapeake Bay -- the alternatives were agonizing.

Missy Evans said it best. She was an island girl who could work the water as well as most men, but had ended up in a windowless building on the mainland as a phone operator:

"If I could only put into words how I feel about home; it's like a religion, I guess. Up where I work, where they say I have made something of my life, I feel so useless some days. Down here [on the island], I feel like I belong," she said.

"Sometimes, when I get back, I run the skiff out by Smith Gut Point and drift there in the sunset, waves slappin' at the sides, cool breeze comin' off the bay. I just want to give a big holler -- `People, can't you see what you got here?'"

Then there was Chris Marshall, whom I've known since he was a kid back in the 1970s, taking the school boat every day across the bay to Crisfield on the mainland -- and often driving it, I recall, under the tutelage of its captain.

No one could have loved this marshy little island any more than Chris, but he was more interested in music, art, decoy carving and exploring the marshes rather than in a life of crabbing and oystering.

As soon as he turned 18, he became the youngest person ever to qualify for a Coast Guard captain's license, and spent several years as a top captain for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's environmental education programs.

From there he went to piloting big cruise ships for a living, running out of New York, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities. You'd see him back on the island when he could snatch a day from work, just loafing along in his boat, Island Son.

Those trips back were the best part of his life, he'd tell you. He'd do all the things -- crabbing, fishing, beachcombing, arrowhead hunting, bird-watching, eating fresh seafood and just generally "progging" the marshes -- that make Smith Island the best single place to get a full experience of North America's greatest estuary.

The Sept. 11 tragedy not only affected airlines, but it also brought a subsequent downturn in the cruise business. Chris, who was one of his company's highest paid captains, was laid off.

It was, he says, "the kick in the butt I needed to make me do something I'd been dreaming about for years."

At age 41, he sold his mainland house and moved back to his native Tylerton, the smallest of Smith Island's three villages.

And now, this island son is offering a unique guide service to anyone who ever wished they and their family could experience the bay like a native.

His recently established Chesapeake Fishing Adventures on Smith Island is more than a charter-boat operation. Up to six people at a time can stay at Chris' house.

From there, they can crab off his dock and steam their catch, go soft-crabbing in the island's vast underwater grass meadows, comb for Native American artifacts, tour the island's endless marshes, eat the world's best crab cakes at the local store -- just about everything Smith Islanders enjoy.

He can pick you up by boat from Eastern or Western shores and can tailor your personal Smith Island adventure, Chris says.

With a 40-foot fishing cruiser, a 25-footer and a skiff for fishing the marshes (and soon a few canoes), he has the tools for everything from trolling for trophy rockfish to a sunset paddle.

People ask me every year where they can go for a great bay experience. Without access to a variety of boats, local knowledge of the water and watermen's communities, there are real limits.

I see services like Chris' as one of the directions eco-tourism ought to go -- bringing money and life into bay communities. Tylerton's population since Chris was a kid has fallen from more than 150 people to less than 75. Smith Island sorely needs to get some of its own back.

Recently a few other islanders have also found that you can go home again. One is Missy Evans. If you go out with Chris, you might see her in her skiff, enjoying the sunset.

To contact Chesapeake Fishing Adventures, call 443-783-2499 or 410-968-0175. Or check out its Web site at http://cfadventures.com.

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