Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Port Isobel service/adventure

Last week I joined with about thirty others to visit, learn, and work at Port Isobel, an educational facility of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). The 250 acres of island and marshes is located just east of Tangier Island and is shown on nautical charts as East Point Marsh. The educational facility consists of a dorm for up to 30 people and a conference center with kitchen. Living up to its commitment to environmental stewardship, the CBF facility has solar power, composting toilets, and water saving innovations.

Port Isobel as seen from the beach to the east.
We arrived in Crisville, Maryland about noon and loaded our gear aboard the Loni Carol II, a 40-foot Chesapeake Bay workboat for the journey to our island home for the next four days. Since few of us knew each other prior to that day, introductions were made as the Loni Carol II plowed through the Bay during our 45 minute voyage to Port Isobel. Arriving at the dock, teamwork quickly took over as we unloaded our personal gear and food/supplies for the four day stay. After a brief orientation we signed-up for our meal preparation/cleanup shifts and set out to explore the area. Many of us hiked the trail through a stand of bamboo and across the marsh to a small strip of beach... learning quickly that the flies were both numerous and ferocious. After dinner there are get acquainted activities and discussions about challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay.

Sunrise at Port Isobel
After breakfast on our first full day at Port Isobel we signed up for various repair and maintenance jobs in desperate need of attention. There were trails (laced with poison ivy) to clear and widen; painting of decks, rails, and door/window frames; gardens to weed and mulch; fire pits to build; and much more. Breaking into teams, everyone quickly found the necessary tools and supplies and got straight to work. 

Repairing and painting a deck and railing.
Working closely with others, conversations became lively as we got to know our news friends better. "Where do you live?" "What do you do for a living?" "Why did you pay to come to this CBF work and learn adventure?" This activity was apparently a first for the CBF and was modeled after "volunteer vacations" of the Sierra Club. For two days our mornings and about an hour after lunch would be dedicated to making Port Isobel a more attractive and safer place for students and teachers who visit to learn more about the environment, history, and culture of this national treasure.

Cleaning and mulching gardens.
The afternoons were for learning and adventure. There was canoeing and hiking for some. Others simply enjoyed the scenery and read on the dock. Loading crab pots on the Loni Carol II, we set 15 pots as the captain explained the challenges facing the watermen of Tangier and the environmental issues threatening the blue crab. We learned about the life-cycle of crabs, some history of bay crabbing, and the politics of regulation and crabbing along the Virginia/Maryland line.

After another great dinner (chicken stir fry) we met and had a conversation with Tom Horton, who for over 30 years, covered the environment and Chesapeake Bay for the Baltimore Sun and has authored numerous articles and books about life and culture in the region. Homespun and a great story teller, Horton brought us closer to life and loss in Tangier and Smith Island.

Friday we continued with our assigned jobs... and some new ones... anticipating our afternoon trip to Tangier. Walking the narrow streets, sampling the ice cream, visiting the museum, and chatting with locals gave us just a taste of the very different life of the people of Tangier. Leaving Tangier, we set a course for the crab pots we'd set 24 hours earlier. Our catch yielded about 100 keepers and CBF staff bought another half bushel plus some soft shell crabs and the evening's feast featuring a crab pickin' was on!! One thing was clear about this trip... we ate well... and so did the bugs!
The haul from our crab pots.
Saturday morning. You might think we'd be anxious to get home and away from all the sweat and bugs, but I think everyone was settling into the routine and would have gladly spent another day or two at work, just to stay on Port Isobel and take it all in. After breakfast we again boarded the Loni Carol II and headed for the grass beds for scraping, the process of harvesting soft shell crabs for sale (video). We caught crabs (didn't keep any) and we brought back other fish, shrimp, etc to put in Port Isobel's aquarium.

Sunset at Port Isobel
After a couple hours of cleaning the buildings and grounds, and taking the obligatory group picture, we loaded our gear, recycling, and trash on the Loni Carol II and headed for the marina at Crisfield. The waves and chop were a bit higher than on our trip out so the ride was a bit rougher, wetter, and longer. 
Like everyone, I was moved by what I'd experienced and learned at Port Isobel and intrigued by new friends whose daily lives are so different than my own. Many of the participants were from NOVA or the Baltimore and Annapolis areas... a couple even wondered if where I live is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (yes, most of the Shenandoah Valley drains into the bay). It was too bad, but perhaps understandable, that not a single participant was from Pennsylvania - the largest contributor of water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Rivers from 6 states and D.C. drain into a
tidal basin that averages just 21' in depth.
Perhaps the greatest lesson is that, in restoring and saving the Chesapeake Bay, as in climate change and all our environmental time bombs, we are all in the same boat. We inhabit the same earth, drink the same water, and breath the same air. Individually we can make a difference by being responsible children of Mother Earth and never, ever taking her for granted in our daily lives. Collectively... by working together and putting aside selfish motivations... we can solve all of these challenges and many more to come.

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