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A paddle through shipwrecks

I published a story in today's paper about the state's $130 million cleanup of a contaminated maritime junkyard in the Brooklyn section of far south Baltimore.  This is the notorious "shipbreaking" site that inspired The Sun's Will Englund and Gary Cohn to write their Pulitzer Prize winning investigative series "The Shipbreakers" in 1997.

The articles exposed how the U.S. Navy was trying to make a fast buck by selling proud old ships to irresponsible businessmen who then ripped them apart and tried to profit by hawking their parts.  In the wretched scrapyards, workers died and pollution oozed into waterways.

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About three years ago, I decided to explore this industrial wasteland by kayak. It was an amazing tour of Baltimore's urban wetlands -- all the more shocking because the shipwrecks were brimming with life.

Amid half-sunken tugboats, and the rusty hulks of abandoned barges in Curtis Bay, a squadron of cow-nosed rays skimmed just below my boat. They were as big as tables but graceful, the tips of their wings knifing above the waves. It was magical and spooky -- to me, as unexpected as seeing killer whales in the Detroit River.

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Also astounding to me was the fact that so many huge ships could be sitting abandoned in a public waterway.  Apparently, over centuries, people learned that if they wanted to ditch old ships  of any kind, they could just let them drift into the marshlands of south Baltimore -- and nobody would know or care.

In the rotting shells of World War I era cargo ships, trees grew and herons nested.  Thousands of  shrimp swarmed under the Interstate 895 bridge, near the smokestacks of a pesticide factory.

At the "shipbreaking" junkyard, a 150-foot-long passenger ferry -- three stories tall, with a pair of stout stacks -- was home to a family of swallows that had nested behind the bar. They whizzed through the cockeyed wreck, free to come and go because all the windows were shattered.

Amid the floating mats of garbage under Interstate 95, a carp as fat a log scared a shout from my lungs by slapping its tail next to my hand.  There were dozens of these monsters. They were somehow thriving in the super-polluted Middle Branch area of the Patapsco River, near the notorious Allied DDT pesticide factory that caused lung cancer in South Baltimore decades ago by spewing arsenic dust.  The water was about a foot deep, dotted with shopping carts, old bicycles, floating bottles and cans and speed boats that people had ditched in the weeds.  It boggles the mind that anything could live down there.  Yet, under the bobbing debris, schools of tiny fish flashed.  Perhaps fifty Canada geese waddled amid detergent bottles in the shadow of Ravens Stadium.

How is it possible to have so much life amid so much pollution?

I asked veteran fly fishing guide Phillip Krista, who knows these rivers as well as just about every other waterway in the Chesapeake Bay.  He said that Masonville Cove, the debris-littered wetlands area just west of the shipbreaking yard, attracts scores of striped bass, because it's shallow and warm and its crescent shape traps lots of edible critters.  "It's phenomenal striper fishing down there -- people don't know that," Krista said.

Because of the mercury and other toxins in the water, he doesn't recommend that people eat the fish -- just catch and release.  He hopes that the new public park being planned as part of the state's cleanup project will allow an area set aside for fly fishing.

Who would have thought?  A fly fishing haven beside the scene of one of worst environmental crimes in state history.


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