Thursday, November 10, 2016

Cycling Hoopers island

I drove across Key Bridge into DC early on Saturday morning, the sunrise casting a yellow and peach splash across the horizon and cloaking the DC Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in a golden glow. I met with Margie, loaded up her car with our luggage and bicycles, then along with Richard and Emily, we all drove to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Our destination was Hooper's Island where we were hoping to find an old cemetery, called Anchor of Hope, that Margie had kayaked past last year and which was sinking into the sea, being eroded by the tides of the Chesapeake that were rising with global warming. Maryland are planning to prepare for a sea level rise of up to 2ft by 2050.  There's a great article here. Smith, Tangier, Hooper and Deal islands are likely to be gone by 2100, disappearing completely like 13 other once-charted islands before them.
We parked at the top of the islands, checking out the small boats and crab baskets stacked in the parking lot. It was pretty chilly as we started cycling but since we had to immediately pedal uphill and over the bridge we soon warmed up. I really enjoyed the openness and freedom of the roads, there wasn't a lot of traffic here, and the air smelled fresh and salty as it blew across the thin strip of land.There's only one road that travels down these islands, with just a few side turns that dead end at the water's edge. We cycled along them all.
The water was clear and blue, only a little choppy, with grasses blowing briskly on each side of the road. The flat grass was swampy in areas, marshland spreading towards us as the rising sea slowly claims a little more land as each year passes. There were a few houses, some empty vacation homes, many abandoned, and some with residents defiantly defying Mother Nature's force, as they built new houses on stilts or tall foundations, or simply rode it out as the marshy water crept closer to their front doors.
We stopped at a few of these houses over the weekend, having no idea what would be left behind inside, and invariably surprised to find many with so many possessions inside them that it seemed the family had simply packed a few bags and then left.
As we carried on pedaling afterwards we came across a couple of oyster or crab processing plants. We stopped at these to try and obtain directions to the cemetery we were searching for, but the staff spoke no English. I couldn't pedal fast enough out of them as they stank to high heaven of dead fish with a thick, humming carpet of black flies on the tarmac that rose up, buzzing about me, as I cycled through.
We did come across another plant at the end of the island which was the complete opposite of what we'd witnessed earlier. The staff had gone for the day but the concrete had been washed and a wonderful smell of fresh fish filled the air. And not a fly in sight, only a cluster of huge seagulls perched on wooden posts, hoping to get one more free meal before the day's end.
We finally found the cemetery  and pedaled as far as we could before having to abandon the bikes and walk through tall grass to the shoreline.
A small bay was below us, its sandy beach 'fenced' in by huge concrete blocks that had obviously been placed there to lessen the waves' erosive strength. The small cemetery was literally tumbling over the edge of a small grassy cliff onto the beach below, with broken, carved stone pillars, metal fencing and even a concrete casket slowly being wrenched into the water by the Chesapeake Bay tides. At least 150 local people were interred here and local man, Donald Willey, has been working to try and save the graves. But Maryland won't give him a permit to build a seawall to prevent further damage, so since 2003 he has been laying down rocks and concrete to try and stop further erosion.
We picked our way very carefully among the broken gravestones that were being buried in the sand or were leaning over precariously in the loose earth on the edge of the small cliff face. Looking underneath the overhanging vegetation we were horrified to discover that some of the graves were still in the process of being eroded.
In the loose earth wall, we could see the bottoms of the caskets still intact and even worse, bones were sticking out from the sandy soil. We recoiled in shock, disbelieving at first what we were seeing, and I felt disgust at Maryland's authorities for denying the protection this desecrated land deserved. The bodies of hardworking locals folks were here, alongside those of slaves and soldiers who had died in wars going back to 1812, people whose remains were entitled to peace and respect, and instead, had been completely abandoned. The authorities may not want to build a seawall because the land is being claimed by rising seawater, but they could at least encase these bodies in a communal concrete casing with a plaque instead of leaving them so exposed.
It looked like Mr Whilley had given up his quest also, earth moving machinery alongside trailers and old boats had been left here, and didn't appear to have been used for some time. We left quietly. This link shows photographs of Mr Whilley and the cemetery that were taken in 2011, it's evident the area has eroded considerably further when compared to my photos...
We stopped at one more old house after gobbling down a late lunch at Old Salty's, the only restaurant on the islands. nothing to write home about but very much needed, we were starving. Afterwards we rode back to the cars, completing about 17 miles, and since the light was fading along with the temperature dropping, we drove to our last abandonment.
We snapped our final shots in the fading light and Richard took this one of me, reflected in his car window. And then we drove up to Cambridge to find a motel and try out RAR Brewery. A great day, but tinged with sadness after witnessing the cemetery's demise.

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