10 miles west of Crisfield Maryland lies Smith Island, where life comes and goes with the rising tides of the Chesapeake. The archipelago is accessible only by boat, helping to preserve the slow-paced and simple way of life. Escape to Smith Island to experience the serenity of bird watching and the relaxation of kayaking through quiet estuaries. Walk among locals and learn what it means to work and live on an island.
We spent three days on Smith Island, kayaking between the three towns of Ewell, Rhode’s Point, and Tylerton. During our time there we had the opportunity to speak with watermen, innkeepers, and island women who would bake Smith Island cakes, the official dessert of Maryland. Our conversations with residents who were born and raised on the island provided some insight into a day in the life of a Smith Islander. There is one underlying theme which seems to tie everything together, water.
Water dictates daily schedules.
Modes of transportation are rather limited on the island. Most transportation is conducted by boat second to walking, followed by golf cart, and then bicycle. There are a few unregistered vehicles on the island, however, they are few and far between. Whether traveling by water or land, rising and lowering tides dictate daily schedules. By water, lowering tides will impede your ability to make it back safely to dock. We learned this the hard way when we tried to go out for a sunset kayak ride. We paddled 2 miles down to Tylerton just fine, however as we paddled back with the sunset we found it harder and harder to paddle. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the bottom of our kayak was now scraping against the bottom of the inlet. Luckily, the center of the inlet provided enough depth for us to make it back to Ewell, however, we might not have been so lucky had we left an hour later.
By land, rising tides will impede your ability to travel between towns. There is one road on the island which connects Ewell at the northern end with Rhode’s Point at the southern end. In the morning, you can traverse this 2-mile stretch without any problem. A few hours into the afternoon however, the tides begin to rise. The Chesapeake bay extends its fingertips into the interior of the island covering the land and roads with water, crabs, and fish. You can attempt to take your bicycle across the flooded road to reach the other side of the island, but we were warned that crabs are likely to nip at your tires as you pass through.
Islanders have learned to adapt to their environment and schedule their days around these natural challenges.
Water provides employment.
The primary occupation is crabbing and oystering. Watermen will leave as early as 4:00 in the morning to set their crab traps and reel in those which are full. After spending hours on the open water, they return to their crab shanties to unload their catch. Those which are intended to be sold as soft-shell crab must be kept in a saltwater receptacle and monitored throughout the day. As soon as the molting crab has dropped its shell, the waterman pulls the crab from the saltwater to prevent its new exoskeleton from hardening. The remaining crabs are transported to the southern town of Tylerton where they are processed by the women’s co-op. Women are seated at their table cleaning the crabs, extracting the meat from their shell, and packaging it into their final containers to be shipped and sold on the mainland. Around October, crabbing season ends and the oystering season begins.
Water provides sustenance.
Similar to most island communities, seafood plays a large role in the Smith Island diet…well that and Smith Island Cake. Just take a glance of the menu at any of the 3 restaurants on the island and you will notice the prominence of crab and fish-based dishes. One woman explained,
“Our foods comes from the water. We never plant, only harvest, and yet God continues to provide. It is for this reason we know that we are blessed.”
Islanders now have a new natural challenge that threatens their homes and livelihoods.
A small community has populated this island for over 350 years. They have defied nature’s odds against them and have been able to maintain their peaceful and happy way of life. Islanders now have a new natural challenge that threatens their homes and livelihoods and that is erosion. The water which has blessed Smith Island with a rich bounty of food for centuries is also responsible for increasing amounts of land loss. Over the last 150 years, Smith Island has lost over 3,300 acres of land because of erosion and post-glacial subsidence into the Chesapeake Bay.
After the devastation of Hurrican Sandy, the state proposed to buy out 10 homeowners in 2013. Seeing this as the first step toward abandonment, they declined the offer and held their ground. Their stalwart determination paid off as now there is a 9 million restoration plan to restore 1,900 acres of shoreline.
Although the population of Smith Island has dwindled throughout the years, the 200 or so remaining islanders have proven their resilience. They will continue crabbing and oystering and living by the tides to preserve their freedom to live simply and fully.
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