Scenic Route

Is this the prettiest rest stop in America?

Just ask the anglers and bay watchers who pull off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for a bit.

September 03, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

CAPE CHARLES, Va. -- Robert Wooster Jr. hauls lumber from North Carolina to Salisbury, so he's driven the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel dozens of times. He's seen the sea gulls perched on the bridge lampposts, the ships heading to sea and the way the blue-green water shimmers in the late afternoon sun.

But he had never stopped, until one day last month. What took so long?

"We're 68 feet long, so there's nowhere for us to stop," says Wooster, 31.

His 7-year-old son Robbie helpfully adds, "That's with truck and trailer."

Robbie, his dad and his mother, Rachel Ridlehoover, have just come from Kings Dominion -- in their decidedly more compact family car -- where Robbie got to see SpongeBob SquarePants. Now they are on the wood-plank fishing pier that juts 625 feet into the bay off the bridge-tunnel.

It's hard to imagine a prettier rest stop. No truck exhaust or greasy fast food here. Just sea breezes, freshly caught fish at the restaurant off the pier and carefree fishing.

"I'm thinking I ain't got no bait on here because I don't got a nibble," Robbie says to his father, as he reels in an empty line. "How about taking that shrimp off and getting me a blue worm?"

His father does as told.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel begins in Cape Charles, Va., with a toll -- $12 one-way -- that seems high for a 17.6-mile road but, as Wooster and his family found out, is a bargain for an afternoon's entertainment.

For starters, they give you a coupon for a free drink (nonalcoholic) at Sea Gull Island, a man-made island that's a cross between a beach resort and a rest stop. And if you head out to the fishing pier, you're pretty much guaranteed to take home a bucket of flounder, bluefish and croaker.

The fish, which should know better, like to congregate around the pier's pilings, eating the algae that grow on the nearby rocks. The fishermen are fathers and sons, families and friends, who come for a week or just for a day. They sit in collapsible camp chairs, chat lazily and study the tips of their lines, waiting for the telltale bob.

"They're catching like crazy right here," a young boy says one recent afternoon, to anyone within earshot. "A school must've come by."

"You guys see a shark down that way?" a red-haired woman shouts to a man in a green camp chair. "Not yet," he responds.

At the end of the pier, a young man in bare feet was running down the day's haul on his cell phone: "Caught some croaker, some roundhead, some spots." He's the one who saw the shark. It was a 10- to 15-pound bull shark, he says into his phone, and it broke his line. "I hooked him, and I had him for 10 minutes," he says.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which connects Cape Charles to Virginia Beach where the bay meets the ocean, is actually two tunnels and three bridges spanning four islands. It can feel like one of those fancy roller coasters -- you rise high into the sky on the bridge and then shoot down below sea level into the tunnel, going so deep your ears pop. Then up and down and up once more before it's over. The distance shore-to-shore is 17.6 miles.

More than just a shortcut for travelers headed to Virginia's and Maryland's Eastern Shore, the facility is one Kodak Moment after another. Small pleasure boats with bronzed, shirtless skippers float aimlessly. Cargo ships, stacked high with containers, steam toward the ocean. In one direction, the open sea meets the open sky. In another, the Virginia Beach skyline dances in the haze.

Birds are everywhere. Sea gulls alight on the lampposts that line the bridge, two or three to a post, looking out to sea or down at the traffic below. On Fisherman Island, the gulls line up single file along the water's edge, like retirees in Miami Beach, waiting for mealtime.

Travelers can stop at Fisherman Island, on the north end of the bridge-tunnel, or at the fishing pier/rest stop, on the south end. Almost 4 million vehicles cross the bridge-tunnel every year, and countless boats traverse its channels, including destroyers and submarines from the Hampton Roads U.S. Navy Armada.

It's quite a show, but the anglers often can't be distracted from the task at hand. The fish are so plentiful that the difficulty comes not in catching them but in getting them off the line. Reeling in a croaker, Dedrea Walters, 34, let it slip through her fingers while taking the hook out. "Whoa! He's loose and he's got teeth," she said as the gray fish flopped onto the pier. "I'm not getting anywhere near him now."

The Reidsville, N.C., resident watched helplessly as the fish slithered between the planks on the pier and fell to the concrete 15 feet below. He was out of reach, but also out of the water. Now what?

"Do we have anything to persuade him off with?" Walters asked her friend, Donna Taylor, 53. They were on a weeklong fishing vacation and had caught at least 20 pounds of fish in their first two days on the pier. But they would not be adding this fellow to the total.

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