The last weekend in August, we visited the past. Not literally, of course—I save that for the characters in A Distant Magic—but we spent two nights on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
As the only inhabited island in Maryland, Smith Island is well known regionally, though probably not elsewhere. (Tangier Island, with a similar history, is not far away but in Virginia’s portion of the bay.)
The island’s roots run deep—it was discovered by Captain John Smith (but named after Henry Smith, an early landowner.) It was settled in the 1680s and many current residents (there are several hundred, but I can’t find a reliable figure) are descended from those early colonists. The place is packed with Evanses and Tylers and Marshalls Bradfords.
Most of the original settlers were of English and Welsh descent, and the population is overwhelmingly Methodist. As was generally true in the past, the church is the largest, most imposing building in the town, rising above the surrounding houses in each of the three Smith Island settlements.
Smith Islanders speak with a distinct, rather Elizabethan lilt, and use some non-standard language constructions. They are inheritors of a traditional way of life that is fast vanishing. Not that they’re off the grid—these days the island has electricity and telephone service and most of the businesses have websites (heres the island site: http://smithisland.org/ ) and the older kids are ferried to school on the mainland when they outgrow the elementary school.
But it’s a different way of life from what most of us know. I think it must be rather like the lives of the English historical characters I write about. You are part of a small community where everyone knows everyone else. This is probably sometimes suffocating, but people are well-behaved. (Here’s an amusing piece about police presence on the island: http://smithisland.org/police.html )
You can’t easily nip into town and do serious shopping. In bad weather, you’re isolated for days, weeks, or even months at a time so you had better be good at getting along with the others in your household and neighborhood. Having a well-furnished mind so you can keep yourself amused is also necessary. Not to mention a well-furnished pantry.
Smith Island can only be reached by ferry. (There was a helipad on the main road for emergency medical evacuation, but I use “main road” loosely.) The ferry ride is about 45 minutes from Crisfield, the nearest town. The Crisfield water tower has a crab on it, so it’s not surprising that it’s the crab-picking capital of Maryland. <G>
Our weekend visit to Smith Island was way cool, though not literally—we could have done without the heat wave that sent the heat index over 100. (Bleaaaghhh!) But the island is an interesting place. For starters, it’s dead flat and only a few feet above sea level. Over the years, hundreds of acres have been lost to erosion and rising water levels. (Global warming in action.) Someday the island will vanish altogether.
The original settlers were mostly farmers, but loss of arable land, plus the development of refrigeration, turned many of the residents into watermen, which is the local term for those who harvest the bay’s crabs, oysters, and fish. There is also some tourism, of the hit and run variety. Most visitors take a ferry over from Crisfield at 12:30 pm, have a bite of lunch, rent bicycles or a golf cart to explore, visit the very nice museum, then leave on the 4:00 pm ferry back to Crisfield. There were a couple of dozen people on the noon ferry, and we were the only ones who had luggage to spend a night.
There are three small B&Bs. The one we stayed at, Chesapeake Sunrise ( http://chesapeakesunrise.com/pages/1/index.htm ), was right by the ferry landing and couldn’t have been more convenient. Hospitable, too, and we were given the run of the kitchen and fridge. On the other hand, one doesn’t go to Smith Island for a Ritz experience. Our room was pleasant (and mercifully had a window a/c unit), but we shared a bathroom with the owners. <G> Not a problem, though.
Right next door was the Bayside restaurant. Most visitors lunch there, with fine crab cakes and Smith Island cake being the favorites. (The Bayside closes when the ferry leaves. On advice of our host, we bought carryout for our Friday night dinner.)
The Smith Island cake is well worth describing, since it’s a layer cake with 8 or 10 layers. Each layer is maybe 3/16th inch thick. With so many layers, there are lots of opportunities for frosting, which explains the cake’s popularity. <g> White cake with chocolate icing seemed to be the favorite, and a worthy choice it was. Another local specialty was applesauce pie, which was a kind of custard and also quite nice. It’s a dry island, though—my companion was Not Pleased to find he couldn’t order a beer to go with the crab cake. <g>
In case you’re wondering, the Smith Island cake isn’t made from several standard layers that are sliced into narrower pieces. Each thin layer is baked individually. You use as many 9” tins as your oven can hold, then bake for 6 or 8 minutes. Obviously the potential for burning is high. The pans have to be pulled out at exactly the right time, then cleaned and used again. Labor intensive but worth it, at least for the lucky eaters. (Here’s a recipe for a version with chocolate and peanut butter: http://tinyurl.com/yrtnge )
The high point of our weekend was a boat ride out to the Martin National Wildlife Refuge that makes up most of Smith Island. The refuge is actually a separate area across a channel. Once it was also farmland, but now it’s pretty much gone to marsh.
Luckily, our landlady knew exactly who to call. Captain Waverly Evans was available, the tide was right, and he picked us up half an hour later in a no-nonsense working boat. 80 years old and well-weathered by a lifetime on the bay, the Captain is a multi-tasker who is a waterman, I’m sure, plus he takes out tourists like us and makes folk art from wood that he sells in his own shop.
Multi-tasking is common is such small communities—everyone we met seemed to wear several hats. Our B&B hostess is an excellent painter http://paulistudio.com/ and her husband runs the small but spiffy Smith Island Marina in front of the house http://www.smithisland.us/marina.htm , plus he has a job in Crisfield. (Neither of them are island natives.)
The wildlife tour was wonderful. We glided around marshes covered with sea grass and admired the egrets and herons, not to mention the fattest white gulls I’ve ever seen. The wildlife service builds stands to attract ospreys—sea eagles. The stands look like an inverted pyramid on top of a pole, and the ospreys cheerfully built their messy nests inside. (The nest at right was built in a dead tree, the traditional mode.) Most nests seemed to have a mated pair and one or two nearly grown offspring. When they flew off at the boat’s approach, often one had a fish firmly clenched in its claws.
There was also a peregrine’s nest, the result of a documentary project film project, and a bald eagle nest. We saw one of the eagles at a distance, but it just sat in a tree and looked bored.
Best of all were the pelicans. There must have been a hundred or more cruising lazily in a shallow bay. They swooped up into the air when we approached—those suckers are BIG—then sailed down and settled on the water again. Magnificent. I understand that in the autumn, during the sea bird migration season, the island is amazing. That’s when the serious birdwatchers show up. We are mere dilettantes.
This island has cats as well as birds. Here’s a fun site with pictures of local kitties: http://smithisland.org/gallerycats.html
Because of the boat ride, we only had time to hire a golf cart to explore the inhabited part of the island for half an hour. It was enough. <G> There are two settlements on the main island, Ewell, where we stayed, and Rhodes Point. The later was once called Rogues Point because it was a pirate hangout, but the U. S. Post Office refused to allow an office in a community called Rogues Point, so the name was tamed. <G> The third settlement, on another piece of land, is called Tylerton and has a B&B with the wonderful name The Inn of Silent Music.
A little general store sort of place called Ruke’s (all of a block away) was open for dinner on Saturdays—the only night of the week when you can eat dinner out. It was—authentic in the extreme. But they served darned good crab cakes. <g>
We left Sunday morning on a 7:30 am ferry, a much smaller boat than the one we came over on. The weather was sunny, the sea flat calm, and the temperature very comfortable. Paradise on a boat. We were the only passengers—along with 11 cartons of soft-shelled crabs. We were told that when the soft shells reached New York City later in the day, they’d sell for $40/dozen. The crabs were a lot more valuable than we were. <g>
If you’re ever in the area, I certainly recommend a visit to Smith Island. It’s authentic, with a real and rooted community, and a traditional way of living that may not make it to another generation. It’s a special place.
With great crab cakes.
There are other places like Smith Island, that are uniquely themselves but also connected to the past. What ones have you visited? Or you’d like to visit? It’s always nice to add new locales to my travel wish list!