A way of life that generations of watermen have followed still exists on Tangier Island, 12 miles off Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore. Some 420 people cluster on the 1.2-square-mile island’s three ridges, clinging to that self-sufficient way of life and battling erosion; rising waters; Chesapeake Bay pollution; depletion of oysters, crabs and waterfowl; stricter fisheries regulations; and the resultant emigration of their young people.
Only 9 miles separate Tangier from Smith Island, Md., easily visited on one cruise. The intermarried islanders share the same basic lifestyle and brogue of their ancestors from western England. Both groups of marshy islands are beautiful, tranquil and unique. Unlike Smith Islanders, Tangier folk — many carrying the Crockett, Parks, Pruitt and other surnames of 17th-century settlers — have shared their life with outsiders since 1812, when the British navy based here for attacks on Baltimore and Washington, D.C. A few of the 15,000 annual tourists fly to the dawn-to-dusk airport. Many take the summer passenger ferries from Crisfield, Md., Reedville and Onancock, Va., or the year-round mail boat from Crisfield.
Capt. Milton Parks operates Tangier’s only marina, with slips along busy Main Gut, the watery highway through the harbor. “Milton knows the currents, depths and problems, so pay attention to him as to how to bring in your boat,” says Debra Howard, who sailed in three years ago to be artist-in-residence, then served almost two years as director of the Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center. “He keeps a nice marina and gives a nice golf cart tour of the island.”
In addition to tours by golf cart, locals offer round-the-island boat tours, crabbing tours, soft-shell crab operation tours, crab shanty tours, eco tours and sunset tours. Here in the “Soft Shell Crab Capital of America,” Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House has served local seafood since 1939. You’ll also find local seafood, snacks and burgers elsewhere, plus a handful of lodgings and gift shops, but no tiki bars, malls or ATMs. Tangier is dry. BYOB discreetly and not in public.
Roads (two golf carts wide) and wooden bridges connect the inhabited ridges, which are separated by winding guts, creeks and tidal marshes. Many locals prefer golf carts to bicycles or walking and no longer use flat-bottomed “shove boats” to deliver supplies to back doors. Homes were passed down from generation to generation, and until residents ran out of space, they often buried their dead in above-ground tombs in back yards.
The history museum welcomes cruisers with a comprehensive overview of Tangier, a library and a fascinating movie that includes two old-timers conversing in dialect. Staunch Methodists, the islanders rejected slavery and refused to secede with the rest of Virginia during the Civil War. The walking tour’s 60 historical markers explain much more.
By dinghy or kayak (loaners and maps from the museum), you can bird-watch through the marshes, explore a flooded abandoned settlement or visit pristine beaches, where you can walk for hours without seeing another soul. A warning: Don’t walk in the marsh — it acts like quicksand.
Crab shanties perch on stilts along the harbor’s far shore. Watermen work from Chesapeake Bay deadrises and load their carefully tended and packed soft-shell crabs onto the Crisfield mail boat each morning. An oyster buyboat may be in the harbor.
Only 30 or 40 locals are still watermen, and few young men are following their fathers. Tangier’s wildlife, creeks and pristine marshes will continue to attract cruisers and kayakers, but visit soon if you want to see a unique working waterfront community. www.tangierisland-va.com
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July 2013 issue