As a young man in the 1960s, Bernie Fowler recalls he could wade chest deep into the Patuxent River and still see his toes as he netted crabs. But the clarity of his beloved river plummeted over the years, along with the vitality of the rest of the Cheaspeake Bay.
In 1988, frustrated with what seemed to him then as the slow pace of efforts to restore the river, Fowler, a state senator representing Calvert County, staged a wade-in to demonstrate graphically just how fouled the water was. He lost sight of his feet just 10 inches deep that day.
Since then, Fowler has made an annual pilgrimage into the river, joined by family, friends and assorted politicians in an event that's almost baptismal in nature. His simple and single-minded focus on seeing how deep he can get before losing sight of his now-sneakered toes has helped crystallize for many the import of the complexities of the bay's problems - nutrient pollution, algae blooms and dead zones.
In the years since that first wade-in, the Patuxent's clarity has waxed and waned, suggesting a see-saw struggle for its water quality. It peaked in the late 1990s at 3 1/2 feet deep, but slid back below 30 inches in the past decade. The past two years have seen some improvement.
Bernies' 88 years old now, and still spry. On Sunday, he'll lead his 25th wade-in. Though long retired from politics, he's a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which advises lawmakers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia on measures to restore the ailing estuary. He refuses to give up, though frankly admits he's worried.
While federal and state governments are pressing harder than ever to restore the bay, many cleanup measures have yet to take full effect and results have yet to manifest themselves. The Patuxent got an 'F' on the latest annual bay health report card issued by the University of Maryland, which gives him a certain sense of urgency.
"We've got to get it right this time," he said at a recent bay commission meeting. "It's 42 years I've been in the trenches .. the Patuxent is in worse shape than it's ever been."
You can join Bernie for the wade-in at 1 p.m. Sunday at Jefferson-Patterson Park, 10515 Mackall Road, St. Leonard, MD 20685 Those who can't make the trek can participate virtually, by joining in a new tradition, guessing how deep Bernie and company get before losing sight of their feet. You can see how deep he got in previous years here and enter your guess here.