In high winds and high tides, kayakers get warm Smith Island welcome

Kayakers get warm Smith Island welcome amid high winds, tides

Rather than confront the whipping northeastern winds causing high tides throughout the Chesapeake Bay this weekend, a team of environmentalists on a 500-mile kayaking trip around the Delmarva Peninsula decided to take a break and dry out for a few days on Smith Island.

And it's been all warmth and good will since, said Alex Crooks, a member of the team, which is riding out the weather in the small watermen's town of Tylerton.

"I don't think we could be in a better community to have these days off, because the people we've been meeting have been so friendly and welcoming," she said Saturday, not long after borrowing a couple board games from Capt. Larry Laird, the Smith Islander who has run the ferry to Crisfield for the past 30 years.

"He invited me over to his house to get them," Crooks said with a laugh.

"We're dry, warm, very comfortable, with full bellies of Smith Island cake," said Stephen Eren, another kayaker.

The team from Upstream Alliance, a nonprofit that works to train the next generation of bay environmentalists, has been on the move since early last month, traveling in sea kayaks, mostly within 100 feet of the coast, on a trip mirroring another taken 10 years ago by Don Baugh, the group's founder, and Tom Horton, a professor at Salisbury University and a former writer for The Baltimore Sun.

Baugh said the purpose of the repeat trip is to see what's changed in the last decade — which, it turns out, includes "almost exponential changes to the coast, the shoreline erosion, as the result of sea level and as a result of storms."

The northeastern winds and weather pattern that made them take refuge on Smith Island for the weekend — which is distinct from Hurricane Joaquin, which is tracking out to sea — has slowed them down a bit. But Baugh said it has also provided "really great insight" into the sort of weather causing the changes.

"It gives us an opportunity to see the challenges that coastal communities are having and will probably continue to have if the projections that scientists are providing are correct," he said.

On Saturday, the kayakers were content to rest as they waited out the weather. Crooks, who has been studying biodiversity in coastal waters, experienced a first in her research: using a seine — or dragnet — to conduct a survey in the middle of a street in Tylerton, which the tides had overtaken.

"We've paddled through a lot of weather, which has given us a lot of amazing stories and pictures and a lot of views of the bay that a lot of people don't get to see," she said.

The team left its kayaks in Crisfield on Thursday, and now is awaiting word from Laird on when they can make the trip back.

Laird, whose ferry is the only public means of transport for the team to get back, said he hasn't been running it since Thursday as a precaution, and isn't quite sure when he will resume service.

"I ain't saying we couldn't, but we ain't done it on account of wind. You gotta use common sense when there's a lot of wind like that," he said. "It ain't safe to carry passengers."

Laird chuckled at Crooks' story of his giving her board games. It's just another rainy day on Smith Island, he said.

"It ain't got nothing to do with the hurricane. It's the nor'easter wind," he said. "We ain't got what you'd call hit hard. We've had some flooding but not that much. It ain't nothing that we ain't been used to."

Laird said he's tired of "watching TV and eating," and would "rather be going than doing nothing." But he's optimistic the weather will blow over soon.

Forecasters were calling for lighter weather by Monday, he said, but his decades on the water told him he might be back on the ferry as early as Sunday morning — with the team of kayakers on board.

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