Same Dynamic

I’ve wanted to visit the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island ever since I read a travel article about it back in the 1990s. It was first charted by European explorer John Smith in 1608, and its history is completely outsized for a place that is less than 1/2 of a square mile in land mass. The human history stretches from Native Americans through the Revolutionary War and on through to the watermen of the 1800s and 1900s—and many of those same families continue to ply the bay for crabs and oysters to this day.

There has been an explosion of interest in Tangier in the past few years, primarily because it is eroding into the bay at an alarming pace. About two thirds of the island has disappeared since the 1850s, and the rate of loss is now accelerating. Whether the cause is climate change or a natural cycle is a subject of some debate–but one thing that most residents can agree on is their desire to preserve the island.

Our weekend overnight visit wasn’t motivated at all by erosion; quite to the contrary, we were drawn by the sameness of the place. Tangier is disconnected and isolated from the mainland by ten miles of open water, so “conventional” change has been slow to come. And that is definitely a strong part of its draw.

We headed to Tangier on the ferry out of Crisfield, Maryland, on a scorching hot Saturday with our good friends Lou and Kay. We shared our boat with a big group of day-trippers from nearby Dorchester County (maybe 100+ people, very friendly, from two local churches). 

Once at the dock in Tangier, we watched as folks streamed into the few restaurants and the nearby ice cream shop, overwhelming the town and swelling its population by 20% (from 400 to 500+) for a few very busy hours.

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Main street during a peak in visitors

While our fellow travelers enjoyed lunch and bought a souvenir or two, we headed to the south end of the island to spend some time on the beach. And when we got back to town, most had already left for Crisfield on the 4pm boat.

The islanders are friendly and patient, and they clearly benefit from tourism. But I caught myself thinking that it could get old to be looked on as a curiosity, especially when big groups of tourists overrun the place. So we tried to be mindful of that as we made our way through town. After all, we were tourists, too.

Anyway, once the big group was gone, it felt like we got a truer glimpse of Tangier. The restaurants weren’t packed, the streets were quiet, and the locals were still friendly and patient—but with a bit more time to share, and at a pace that one resident described as “island time.”

As for the town itself, there are a few places to eat, a handful of shops, bike and golf cart rentals, and a few B&Bs–including the Bay View Inn and its wonderful hosts, Maureen, Jim and David. The Bay View Inn’s owners treated us like family from the start, even though tourists on Tangier are often called “come-heres” in local parlance. Lou and I took their cue about family and began teasing each other like teenage brothers, which culminated in a breakfast haiku contest that probably isn’t fit for a family blog. But what’s a weekend without a little combat haiku?

As one would expect, things are simple on the island, and there aren’t a lot of amenities. There’s almost no cell reception, and you need to be willing to get a little wet and a little hot and maybe fight a few bugs to really explore the place. Tangier is a beautiful island in the middle of a bay–but it’s not Nantucket, and by all indications it doesn’t aspire to be.

In addition to the excellent sea kayaking (kayaks are available at no charge from the Bay View Inn), a highlight of our visit was a tour of a crab shanty in the main harbor. Ookire Eskridge, a life-long waterman and the town’s mayor, was our tour guide. He was very friendly and very patient (and funny) as he explained what has been his livelihood for decades. The amount of time and effort that it takes to harvest a soft-shell crab is astounding, and I’ll never eat another one again without thinking of Ookire and his shanty.

It’s impossible to understand any place, especially one as complex as Tangier, in a simple overnight trip–but we really enjoyed the opportunity to try. We found the islanders to be kind, independent, resourceful, and proud, and there is a very strong sense of community. A few quick examples: there is a list on the church bulletin board of residents that are “shut-ins” (to encourage regular visits), there was amazing teamwork moving supplies at the dock, and looking for Ookire to arrange our tour involved (unsolicited) help from at least five people.

This is also a community that cares a lot about their island. Many (most? all?) are eager for a sea wall that can help to keep the bay at bay (one resident jokingly asked me to bring two buckets of dirt the next time that I visited). A sea wall is a complicated question these days, but there’s no doubt that Tangier is a treasure.

Sunday afternoon–and our ride home–came too quickly, despite the heat and a little bit of sunburn. These trivial things were just a hint of the challenges and the hard work that it takes to make a living on Tangier–and that doesn’t even take into account the many moods of the open water on the bay. 

When people can somehow stay the same in an ever-changing world, it sets them apart, and not always in a good way (I think of my cousin’s fanny pack, or Aunt Angela’s tube top). But in Tangier’s case, it’s a good thing, and Tangier is an extremely unique place.

My brother is a great writer and he tells me that there are not “degrees of uniqueness,” that something is either unique or it isn’t. But he’s never been to Tangier.

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A Multi-Layered Place

A formula for at least some of our trips goes like this: never been there before + don’t know anybody that’s been there = adventure. In the case of our recent trip to Smith Island, there was an added multiplier: we had never heard of it until a few days before.

We stumbled upon Smith Island as a potential destination while we were looking into a possible trip to Tangier Island, which is Smith’s neighbor to the south. Once we “discovered” Smith and researched a bit, it looked to be quaint, off the beaten path (in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay), and somewhat unknown to us—in other words, a perfect weekend adventure.

Smith Island is worth knowing about! The island is a collection of small watermen’s communities that aren’t really set up for tourists, but that’s part of what makes this place so charming. Services are limited, but there are a handful of B&Bs and there is regular ferry service from Crisfield, Maryland. And getting to Smith is part of the adventure. It was about four hours door-to-door from Northern Virginia (including the ferry ride).

We were joined on the ferry by Smith residents that were bringing in groceries, supplies, and building materials, as pretty much everything but seafood and cake generally comes from the mainland (more about cake later). We mirrored the locals and brought along picnic-style meals ourselves (although there is a restaurant in-season that is generally open for lunch).

The island was first charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 and later named after Henry Smith, an early landowner. It was settled in the late 1600s by English farmers John Evans and John Tyler, and the 250 or so current residents live across three communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Tradition runs deep here, as crabbing, fishing, and harvesting oysters have been a way of life for generations.

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A crabber keeps his live catch in a wooden crab float, 1945. Photo credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Families on Smith today still appear to share a lot of connections (the names Evans and Tyler remain heavily represented on the island). Smith Islanders also share a dialect, sometimes called a Tidewater or Elizabethan accent, which was different enough to make us listen closely at times.

During our visit, we rode bikes, checked out the marshes and bird life, visited the Bayside Inn restaurant (great seafood, no surprise), and stopped by the local art gallery in Ewell. We also had a lovely chat with the friendly caretaker at the Smith Island Cultural Center. A lot has happened—and is happening—at Smith, ranging from Revolutionary War history to the current threat posed by erosion (the island has lost 1200 acres over the past 100 years).

We closed out the day back at our lovely B&B, the Smith Island Inn, where we watched a sunset that seemed to take a full hour.

What struck me the most about our visit was the evening quiet. Maybe it’s because watermen’s communities are ‘early to bed’ kinds of places—or maybe I’m imagining that—but the stunning quiet was something I was glad I got to hear (can you hear quiet?).

There are clearly a lot of layers to Smith, with history and nature mixed in with a dash of tourism—all on a working watermen’s island. A friend from the Eastern Shore told us recently that Smith Islanders look forward to getting their first skiff at age 14 or so, much like city kids might look forward to cars and drivers licenses. That makes sense when you are in a place where a trip to school involves a boat ride. Life clearly revolves around the bay when you are living in the middle of the bay.

And speaking of layers, we also took the opportunity to enjoy Smith’s trademark dish, Smith Island Cake. It’s typically a yellow cake with eight or more thin layers of fudge frosting that is an island specialty. Smith Island Cake dates to at least the 1800s, when it was made to take along on the autumn oyster harvest.

When we got back home, we of course were inspired to make our own version of Smith Island Cake, complete with a taste test against the real thing (by our visiting niece, who was a good sport!). I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the eight cake pans that I bought just for this recipe, but souvenirs are a part of the travel experience, right?

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Our niece was a good sport and did a taste test…and the real Smith Island Cake won, of course!