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Taking a break from saving the bay to simply enjoy it

Canoeing and KayakingCancer

"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy," wrote essayist E.B. White; "and if it were merely challenging that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.

"This makes it hard to plan the day."

We know what White meant. But sometimes nature allows no waffling; like the weekend when she suffused the Chesapeake Bay with such glory there was nothing for it but to stop saving the world and simply revel in it.

We launched on a golden, placid morning from Bishops Head, a peninsula dangling from the marshy underbelly of Dorchester County. We were headed three days south, riding ebb tides down to Tangier Island, Va., camping on islands in between.

Our sea kayaks were superbly fit for the task. No craft better lets you simultaneously experience the vastness of Chesapeake main and the meandering intimacies of its edges. And 4 miles an hour, about the speed we've moved through most of human history, is good for noticing things.

The trembly calls of loons echoed across Tangier Sound. Almost unnoticed, loons by the thousands move on fall's leading edge from northern lakes through the bay to float all winter off the Carolina coasts.

Blue crabs were skittering south through the translucent olive shallows, and rockfish and speckled trout were turning to other "food" like the bucktails we trolled. The fishing wasn't great, but good enough to feed the 10 of us both nights.

Egrets, ospreys, herons, ibis, skimmers — all of the birds of summer were moving south or thinking about it. Unseen, eels were adding fat, turning silver, readying to seek the Sargasso Sea to spawn, some turning into silver for watermen who trap them for high-value European markets.

We passed crab pots marked by green corks that I recognized as belonging to the mayor of Tangier Island, "Ooker" Eskridge. The Virginian was making a small statement, having a little fun — his pots set about 1 micron shy of crossing the Maryland line across the bay.

I once wrote that such watermen were the bay's top predators; but they are so much more than that. Ooker takes time to help ospreys rebuild their nests when storms blow them down; and has learned how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to diamondback terrapins caught underwater in his crab pots ("they come around, you'd be surprised").

The second evening, paddling down a long line of little sand islands in Virginia, there appeared what one of our group called "an infinity sunset." That is when perfect calm prevails and the colors of sky and water merge seamlessly to every horizon, and your kayak seems suspended in liquid light.

As dusk advanced, a luminous pink line formed along the eastern horizon as elegant brown pelicans by the hundreds overflew us, cool evening air sighing through their wings.

Judging from the number of young ones, they had a very good year. The remote beaches here are free of predators like raccoons, foxes, dogs and cats. Acre for acre, they are maybe the most productive nesting habitat in the Chesapeake.

There are so many ways to savor the world while on holiday from saving it; but "most of all I shall remember the Monarchs."

I echo Rachel Carson, the author of "Silent Spring." She wrote that on an autumn day nearly 50 years ago as she sat, dying of cancer, wondering at the glorious, annual migration of the butterflies from the deck of her Maine cabin.

We had paddled with an intermittent stream of the brilliant orange and black voyagers flowing, flitting over and around us, following the marsh edge, sipping nectar from seaside goldenrod and pale asters, fueling them from across eastern North America to the mountain highlands of Mexico. They will reproduce but never return.

Before we paddled, I visited a dying friend, loathe to say what a fine weekend I was anticipating. I took comfort from the butterflies and from what Carson saw in their glad, autumnal passage: "a happy spectacle (and) we felt no sadness that there would be no return … it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end. That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. Thank you for this morning."

This winter I'll paddle this way again. The ice-rimmed coves will hold flocks of wild swans, winging now toward the Chesapeake from Alaska and the Yukon.

When they lift off of a morning to feed in fields, their massive wings will churn the water with a sound like thunderous applause, as if to say: Thank you for this morning, this Chesapeake.

Tom Horton, a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of six books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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