Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Smith Island - Back in Time

If you happen to live on the East Coast somewhere close by the Chesapeake Bay, you should take a trip to visit Smith Island either for a few hours or for a weekend.













You can pick up a ferry boat out of Crisfield ( we used Captain Jason) for around $20 one way per person and enjoy a nice ride across the waves, but be warned, don't be late as they don't wait for anyone. We happened to go on a day when the weather was a little rough and the waves tossed the boat a bit, enough to make me hold on tight to my seat. The captain was a hardy soul and didn't seem to mind that water was dripping from the ceiling in many points and sloshing around the deck as we plowed through the seas. It was exciting and scary for a landlubber like myself.

Once the island comes into the view of the ferry, you can see immediately that it is a waterman's island. Crab traps, boats, piers and pilings decorate the water's edge for most of the coast. Shantys dot the landscape where crab processing still goes on. Most of the wood structures have a gray weathered look and nothing seems to stand quite straight due to the storms that roll over the island every year.

We stepped off the ferry and walked to our bed and breakfast, the Smith Island Inn, one of only a few in Ewell that we knew about. Little streets lined with tall trees and old houses on either sides formed communities, although we were surprised at just how quiet everything was. Very few people were visible and since the island was tiny, there were almost no cars. Once in a while a person would pass by on a bicycle and smile and wave, but to us, the island seemed deserted,

Upon arriving at our lodgings, we were happy to see our host and a few other guests. He was quite willing to talk and fill us in on everything about the island. He mentioned that they had a few bikes for our use to tour the island a little faster than walking as well as a couple of kayaks for navigating the waterways - both of which we did. Our bedroom on the first floor was comfortable with a spacious bathroom, I loved the beautiful old wood floors covered here and there tastefully with woven rugs. Although no televisions were available, plenty of books and games were ours for the stay. Besides, we spent most of our time outside exploring.

The bikes were great for allowing us to explore the other side of the island, only about a mile away but very different and even quieter than Ewell. Everyone pays attention to the tide as roads flood over everyday during high tide and without a boat, you just have to wait for the water to subside before you can get to the other parts of the island. All the school aged children took a ferry boat to the mainland so we only saw a few in the late afternoon. Some old houses stood empty, in fact many beautiful old structures were empty, some partially rebuilt, pointing to a more prosperous time when the schools and churches were filled with a vibrant community of people.

Kayaking was pleasant on the southern side of the island where grasses stood tall and channels zigzagged through them. We saw eagles and osprey, white cranes and plenty of other birds. I imagine the bug population provided a feast for all the birds, which reminds me to recommend the strongest bug repellant you can get. Flies and mosquitoes seemed to enjoy our Deet and kept us either moving or inside. I could understand why some of the locals chose to stay inside and away from being live bait for the creatures.




Little islands were everywhere along with signs of previous inhabitants who had since long gone, leaving their homes to slowly sink into the ground, but generations of goats and turkeys still dominate the land, living wild. We found it fascinating to see herds of goats with one prominent male standing high on a leaning tree limb or rock while the rest of the flock grazed below.






Our first night was interesting as we didn't realize that the only restaurant open on the island at that time, Ruke's Seafood Deck closed at five, before we thought to plan ahead, since dinner for us was closer to seven or eight. Thankfully, we did have some sandwiches that we brought from home to tide us over. Early in the morning, before we were even thinking of waking up, we could hear men's voices calling out to each other in a brogue too hard to understand and then boat motors starting up. It seemed like almost a hundred of the watermen headed out at once, but later we found out that there were really more like twenty or thirty of them. Around three o'clock in the afternoon, they all flooded back into town and then disappeared into their homes, except for a few who came out to greet the kids that came home on the boat from school shortly thereafter.

Our innkeeper arranged for a local islander to make us a wonderful breakfast of french toast, fig jam made from local trees (which incidentally grow into massive trees with huge trunks there) delicious Smith Island Coffee and sausages, We paid attention to time and did get into the restaurant twice, once for lunch and then for dinner. For lunch we sat inside and were amazed at the antiques all around the room. The restaurant served as the antique shop for the town and everything had a little paper price tag tied to it. The servers were so friendly and the portions were huge. Of course, we tried the crabcakes and the local specialties. Our dinner was outside on a back screened in area overlooking the water where all the crabbers worked. A young boy was practicing using a hammer, securing any nails that the weather had popped out, and that was the extent of the people in our room. We sat at picnic tables and put our feet up on the benches as we waited for our dinner. Service was friendly but on island time so we just relaxed and enjoyed the quaintness of the place.

Time seemed to be at a standstill here with most of the focus on times past when there was a thriving community and before the Bay had reclaimed so much of the soil. Organizations are hard at work to keep the island from disappearing totally under water, but I recommend taking at least a day to come here and see this community before it sinks, so close to the major cities of the world but in a land far away from all the hubbub of our life as we know it. Here is a link to an article done by Boston.com, The Big Picture, with amazing photography.