I've lived on the Chesapeake Bay for longer than I have lived anywhere else in my life, but I am not a sailor, nor a fisherman nor a waterman, so I have not made more use of its astonishing natural beauty than the occasional boat ride with friends or trips to the shore.
It is a deficiency that deserves correcting in any case, but especially as we watch a kindred body of water down south destroyed by the worst oil drilling disaster of all time.
So, when my friend Betsy invited a handful of women friends to meet the fisherman who has been her husband's best friend and fishing pal since elementary school and to see the Eastern Shore of Virginia through his eyes, and on his boat, it was easy to say yes.
We traveled to Cape Charles in Northampton County, on the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, and unloaded our shorts, T-shirts, cameras, shell-collecting bags and wine at Sterling House, a bed & breakfast graciously restored by Steve Hairfield in a town full of such houses.
But many of those grand Victorians are empty now as the town battles the loss of the oyster business and rollbacks at the concrete business and as it endures the migration of its young people. It is a town that is a too-well-kept secret as an affordable, uncrowded beach vacation spot for young families and retirees.
Jim Clark is a retired Bethlehem Steel electrician, and his wife, JoAnn, is a retired Baltimore County school teacher, and, after living part-time in Oyster, Va., for a lot of years of fishing, they moved to Cape Charles permanently 15 years ago.
Over time, Captain Jim, as his ball cap identifies him, has built a word-of-mouth reputation as a captain who knows where the fish are, where the clams are and where the birds are.
He's a certified ecotour guide, and through his Seaside Tours, he's hired by everybody from university researchers to, well, carfuls of friends who want to see Virginia's barrier islands as only he can show them off, threading his Carolina skiff through the shallow waters, the endless marshes and the shifting sand bars.
Our trip to the Hog Island and its neighboring barrier islands off the Virginia coast that bright, sunny Saturday morning and afternoon would have been delightful in any case, but against the backdrop of what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico, it could bring you to tears.
We saw more than fish during our visit. We saw fishermen and their families — all of whom know Captain Jim by the cut of his boat. We met the staff that runs the best local restaurant around, Sting-Ray's. We saw all kinds of shore birds, and we hauled up close to Captain Clark's friends, who were slapping caught flounder in a cooler as fast as they could open and shut the lid.
We walked the beaches of the barrier islands, collected conch shells and sand dollars and drift wood. We tried to collect litter, too, but Captain Clark told us to save our strength.
""You will never get it all and it will just break your heart to try,"" he said.
But a few milk jugs and snack bags and the other odd junk that is abandoned or that washes up on the beaches there is nothing compared to what is happening on the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico. And the newspaper and television photos of the destruction in the Gulf were in all our minds as we zigzagged through the marshes, with their blue, blue water and their green, green grasses, with Captain Jim at the wheel.
There are better writers than me who attempt to describe the beauty and the tradition of life on the water. Poets, too. It is a worthy pursuit, but an impossible one. There is such bounty, such peace, such honest work, such history and so much interdependence between man and nature at the water's edge that the black-and-white of words on a page fail to capture it.
""They used to talk about drilling off the shore of Virginia, in the ocean,"" said JoAnn, Jim's wife. She's the member of this team who is plugged into the people on land in Cape Charles, while her husband works among the people on the water.
""It looked like we had the politicians who would try to get it done,"" she said. ""But since the spill, you don't hear much about it anymore.""
Late Saturday, we took our shells and our sand dollars and our sunburns and our leave. Jim and JoAnn Clark hooked their arms around each other's waists and waved good-bye.
To us, thank God. Just to us. Not to a way of life.