April 19 & 20, 2017
We awoke on Wednesday, April 19, to 48 degree weather, with a serious overcast. The weather apps, however, said that there was no chance of rain.
Jack had investigated the options for a ferry ride to Smith Island, just off the tip of Crisfield, along the Chesapeake Bay a ways. We’d heard that there were no cars and only golf carts on the island, and folks reported that it was a good place for cycling.
Evidently, one family owns most of the concessions involving Smith Island, and Jack happened to talk to Captain Terry when he called. Bikes are allowed, and it’s $25 apiece round-trip, and he left the Crisfield harbor at 12:30 sharp. Jack asked if there was anything open on the island where we might be able to grab a bite, and he said sure (turns out it also is a family business).
Anyway, we rode to Crisfield, bundled up with our rain jackets and with our long pants stuffed into our socks to keep them out of the chain, and when we arrived about 3 miles later, we were confused because there were 3 boats that had “Captain Jason” in their names, and we were unsure which one we might board.
All 3 Jasons were headed to Smith Island, and one larger boat, that took aboard lots and lots of freight and mail and FedEx/UPS packages while we watched, was headed to Tangier Island.
The front-most Jason was being loaded with construction materials by a man and a woman, and we finally spoke to them and discovered their boat was going to the part of the island (actually, there are several) that had a town called Tylerton, where they lived (and obviously were building). They said we wanted either of the brothers, captain Larry or Terry, depending whether we were headed to Rhodes Point or Ewell. Clueless, we wandered through some of the options with her, and she decided we wanted Ewell, where there is a restaurant and a museum, and therefore we wanted Captn’ Terry. She pointed him out sitting in a pickup and he waved at us. And she said we were wanting the red Jason.
Shortly, a gaggle of women approached and spoke with Captn’ Larry for a while, and then the first mate showed up for the red Jason, and we later learned his name was Hoss, and he’s a fine artist working in acrylics, does water analysis for NOAA, and digs graves on Smith Island when he’s not helping brother Terry out on the ferry line. Hoss could fast a boat quicker than I’d ever seen before.
The ladies were part of a book club, and they all lived in DC, on capital hill, specifically. Their group had read a series of essays on the Eastern Shore, and Smith Island figured prominently in those writings, so the four of them decided to take a day trip to experience it for themselves.
Hoss was a fine gentleman who knew quite a lot about the life and times of Smith Island, being as he lives there. The gaggle of book clubbers (who were all intending to participate in the March for Science on Saturday, April 22; and who had all been at the Women’s March on January 21) asked Hoss a lot of questions and we all received the benefit of his lore.
12:30 sharp we set out for the island, passing a few (but not many) points of interest. It also appeared to me that the three Jasons plus the boat going to Tangier were all racing to see which might arrive first, with the construction materials boat leaving the dock considerably after the rest of us. The Tangier boat peeled off pretty quickly, but Captains Larry and Terry vied for the channel to their respective parts of Smith Island for a while, with Larry usurping our lead.
In the photo above, White Jason is far left with the Tangier boat and Larry’s Jason to the right as we left Crisfield.
There are various small islands out in the bay, including a sand bar with a lone chimney on it that Hoss said had been a seafood processing plant back in its day, but the water came along and cut it off from the mainland of Crisfield, so it was abandoned and all blown out into the bay, with only the chimney remaining.
Next we saw a tumble-down wreck of a structure that Hoss said had been a gun emplacement during WWII, when folks thought the Bay needed protecting from invasion.
As we approached the Ewell dock, our pace slowed and Hoss pointed out a flock of wild goats that occupy one finger (or one separate island?) of the Smith Island complex. He explained that they went feral many years ago, and the human population just lets them be.
We docked and disembarked to a place that looked like it was in dire need of a little TLC.
Here’s what the historic marker about Smith Island said:
Maryland’s only remaining inhabited offshore island group, named for early land owner Henry Smith. Charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 as “The Russell Isles,” English farmers John Evans and John Tyler came via Accomack County Virginia to become the first permanent settlers in 1686. During the Revolutionary War, the British used the island as a base of operations. Once the home of Joshua Thomas, famed Methodist evangelist who held the first camp meeting on the island.
The “museum” was closed and an obvious restaurant right on the “harbor” was closed, but Captn’ Terry pointed out a place along the waterway with a brown roof where we could get a bite.
After finding the place (we rode around a while and ran into a mallard duck family along a ditch as we sought the building with the brown roof), which was called the Harborside Restaurant (no harbor per se, and not much of a restaurant, but more of a convenience store with very few items on the shelves in any case) we enjoyed a totally “meh” seafood sandwich apiece, tastes but greasy onion rings, and signed up for their famous Smith Island Cake, at $4.50 each (small) slice. Not sure why they’re so famous, but they claim that theirs is the “national cake of Maryland.” It has many, many very thin yellow cake layers, with also very thin separations among the layers of chocolate icing. The pieces we had were good, but I found the icing to be sugar-grainy and just so-so overall. Definitely not a great buy at $4.50 a slice (and $40 a cake, as we noted because our book clubbers were each taking a couple whole cakes home with them). Most troublesome of all is that, like the ferry tickets themselves, this was a cash-only establishment. Our cash was running low after giving Captn’ Terry $60 ($5 extra for each bike).
We rode our bikes out to Rhodes Point, passing an open dump that had been set alight, and more dilapidated houses and cars. And certainly, while there are folks on the island who get about in golf carts, there are also a significant number of cars per capita, and the roads can barely hold two vehicles passing one another.
Here’s what the informational marker for Rhodes Point says:
During the Revolutionary War, one of the three Smith Island villages was known as Rogues Point, because it was a hiding place for unscrupulous bandits known as “Picaroons.” The Picaroons used shallow drafted barge to roam the lower Chesapeake to raid many mainland settlements, and quickly return to their island marshland hideout at Rogues Point.
They sold their stolen loot to a Smith Island “fence, Marmaduke Mister, who resold his ill-gotten booty to anyone willing to buy it, including the British Navy who sometimes even bought stolen American sailing schooners, which they used to help patrol the lower Chesapeake Bay during the Revolutionary War.
After Lord Cornwallis surrendered to American General George Washington at Yorktown, VA, in October of 1783, new island settlers began to settle Rogues Point to farm and raise cattle. The name “Rogues Point” endured for another 102 years until 1885, when it received its first post office. It was decided by the people of Rogues Point to rid the island community of it embarrassing name. The new post office was named for a prominent English Missionary, Sir John Rhodes. Since the year of 1885, Smith Island’s smallest community has been known as Rhodes Point.
We tried to ride into a wildlife refuge, but there was no path; and after touring a couple of the neighborhoods (if you can call them that), we stopped at the church so Jack could do some “find a grave” discoveries and photos.
Hoss did not accompany us back to Crisfield, and the return trip was a bit rough with the wind behind the boat blowing the diesel fumes into the sitting area. I ended up standing the whole way, which wasn’t a big deal as the crossing took only about a half-hour each way. Still, it was cold and getting colder, and once we landed, we still had 3 miles to ride back to camp.
Which is also a rather amusing story. We clocked the 3 miles to Crisfield to catch the ferry, and both of us forgot to turn off our cycling distance tracking apps. So when we got to Smith Island, Lo and Behold! we had 14 miles on the odometers. So we knew that the crossing is about 11 miles. We got some “bonus” mileage on this particular trip, because the sum total of our riding on Smith Island was a whopping 7 miles.
Jack pretty much summed up my feelings, when one of the book groupers asked what we thought. He said, “It makes me sad, to think of all those lives and all that community just lost, atrophied.” Sad indeed. But my thought was that through this entire cash economy, the islanders themselves might not mind living more than a little under the radar.
After stopping by the grocery store about 5:30P on our way back to camp, we got a couple of burgers and a tomato and cooked the burgers on the grill and had some tater tots warmed up in the Omnia oven with the Asian Cucumber salad I’d prepped before we left, and Jack made up some of our fast-and-easy guacamole in the Moullineux chopper, that uses no electricity and makes exactly enough for two. Yum.
Not much to say about the break down of camp and the trip to Kiptopeke State Park, 2 hours south, right at the end of the peninsula. We were sad to leave Janes Island State Park because it’s been so lovely to be there. It is definitely a place to which we shall return in the very near future.
Kiptopeke is a nice State Park, with grassy, flat sites, but I can imagine that in the summer when scads of people are here, then the packing-in would be cheek-to-jowl. There are few trees where the RVs can go, and I would also think it would be hotter than a firecracker in high summer. But the sites all have electric, water AND sewer, and in late April, there still are many many open sites. We got site #22, in the C section, at the turn of the cul-de-sac.
The bathhouses are very large and clean and nice, and there’s a laundry. I understand there’s a beach but we will have to explore that later. Also, they have a robust WiFi system for devices but it’s a fee-paid service. Supposedly, you ask to join and the payment “screen” automatically comes up and you can get three levels of service at an hourly, daily, or longer rate. I was unable to log in my laptop, it not being a device and not automatically generating the payment screen I needed for full access. But no matter, we have cellular data we can use, and that’s pre-paid.
We have a large box-on-wheels trailer on one side of us, and a very unusual neighbor on the other: a pair of killdeer are nesting on the site-but-one along from us, and we’ve been keeping a close eye on their process and have been rather surprised at their acceptance of us so near. The Hosts said this pair has done this for the last several years, costing them a campsite, because they have roped it off and put cones and hazard tape all around so folks making their way to the bathhouse don’t inadvertently step on the eggs.
We headed into Cape Charles to a restaurant down by the harbor recommended by our camp hosts, and had an early dinner. The place was called The Shanty, and it was quite the happening place I had fish and chips and Jack ate an oyster basket. The food was quite good, and the fries had been seasoned with Old Bay, which was really tasty. But the fries didn’t have a long “shelf life” and got quite stiff and chewy once they were cold.
Oddly, they sell a lot on the ambience of sitting on the deck and watching the sunset, but the view actually sucks. Adjacent to the restaurant is a — well I honestly don’t know if it’s a construction site or a freight-loading area, but either way, it’s truly ugly. You have to sort of see past all that to get to the sunset and the bay at all. But the place was full of the quirky locals of Cape Charles and the visiting tourists who’d been on the beaches or along the shopping streets. Cape Charles is definitely an interesting place worthy of discovery.
Until then, good night.