In winter, bay's gift is solitude


IT'S A moonless, February evening, sleet and snow on the way, winds 15 knots and gusting, building a sharp chop in Tangier Sound.

"Looks good to go," says Don Baugh, meaning it's time to pull on fleece insulation and dry suits, then kayak north through the splash and the blackness to our roost for this long winter night.

We're headed for an archipelago of marsh dabs strung between Smith and Tangier islands - Queen Ridge, Fishbone, Goose, Upper Tump, Shankses, Cheeseman's. Most have eroded in modern times to mere slivers of sand and spartina grass.

But on the north end of one, an hour's paddle from Tangier, a single low dune survives. It will provide just enough lee from the oncoming storm to shelter a campfire and a tarp to keep the snow off our heads.

Baugh directs environmental education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which maintains a residential facility at Tangier, with many warm and comfortable places to sleep.

But most winter nights when the business that brings him here from the foundation's Annapolis headquarters is done, he heads for the island, adding a wet and frosty two-hour daily commute to his busy schedule.

We've talked before about the reasons, over winter campfires in other remote spots. Around the Chesapeake watershed, where population has increased from 8 million to 16 million in our lifetimes, solitude has decreased by an even greater proportion. Fast boats, Jet Skis, interstates, ATVs, booming tourism - all erode the bay's remoteness faster than waves gnaw away its shores.

We've noticed wild creatures responding to the press of civilization by turning more nocturnal, and so it is that he and I increasingly find refuge in nighttime, in wintertime. And what a fine time it is - no skeeters, no ticks, no chiggers; clear, clean air and dazzling diamond skies. This night's entertainment is music from a nearby band of tundra swans, flown in from Alaska's North Slope.

In the wind shadow of the dune, we have chunks of seasoned, glowing oak - stashed there in balmier times - that throw off luxurious heat. Oysters tonged from Holland Straits up the bay, so fat that they are the color of cream, are beginning to pop open on a grate over the coals.

The lights of the little fishing communities of lower Tangier Sound glow like rare jewels on the vast, velvet roundness of the Chesapeake horizon. Crisfield is to the east, Smith Island to the north, and Tangier to the south.

One by one they are blotted from existence, as the wind clocks around from south to north and the storm sets in. The universe is reduced to the fire flickering on the dune, as the snow encrusts the hulls of the kayaks just outside our little circle of light and warmth.

Washington lies 85 miles to our west, Baltimore is 100 miles north, and the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Hampton Roads megalopolis is 60 miles to the south.

And it seems at least conceivable, as the wind sings overhead through the dune grass and the icy snow pelts down, that ours may be the only such outpost in all that region tonight - and we the only ones outside amid the millions who call the bay region home. "Kings of the island," we agree. And, at least for a night, there's no one to contest it.

Indeed, no one seems to know or care who really owns these tide-washed islands. In warmer times, Tangier Islanders come here for prime "airheadin'" (translation: hunting Indian arrowheads).

The bay has zoned the island's shallows and beach and marsh to its own ends - places for shedding soft crabs and nesting terrapins and horseshoe crabs in the summer; for migrating shorebirds to rest and feed in the spring and autumn; a stronghold of loafing geese and swans throughout the winter - all kings of the island, in their own manner and season.

I don't expect paddling to such places in the dark of winter to gain wide popularity, but I am struck by how much of the bay is missed by those who put the skiff away after Labor Day and store the canoes by Thanksgiving.

The bug-free bay, with its inspiriting winter skies and sunsets, the wild music of its loons and swans and night-hunting owls, its beaches baring the bleached bones and shells of last summer's life, its shallow bottoms revealed by the clear winter water, is a world too-little appreciated.

Give me January and February on the bay anytime over July and August.

A caution: The winter bay in boats, especially small ones, is not for the unequipped. We don't go casually into that dark night, not without suitable gear for keeping dry and warm and afloat in the event of a capsize.

Compass or GPS, flares, marine radios and cell phones in waterproof bags are standard gear. And someone back home always knows where we've gone.

Back on the island, the snow has turned to a serious ice storm. The swans have piped down, tucking heads under wing. It's a night for burrowing deep into down bags, waking occasionally to thump the tent and break up the ice that threatens to collapse it.

By first light the storm is tapering off. From a sugar-frosted marsh scape we launch for Tangier. The wind is our friend now, blowing us quickly back. The wild swans, big feet and wings clapping the water as they take off into the dawn, make a sound like applause.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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