Friday, July 28, 2017

The Retreating Tangibility of Tangier Island

On Sunday,  Emily and Richard and I drove down to Reedville, VA and caught the ferry to Tangier Island. I'd always wanted to visit Smith Island, but Tangier is smaller and in dire need of being rescued before it disappears forever beneath the sea, likely before 2050. The ferry ride was an 18 mile trip and a good 90 minutes. With no alcohol being available on the island, we had brought a cooler with some craft ales to taste and mimosas for the trip there.
It was darn hot again and despite the ferry thundering across the water at a fast rate of knots, the humidity still clung in the air. We settled under a shady canopy on the top deck and enjoyed our mimosa breakfast, plus a beer, because we could. Needless to say, we all had a little buzz going so went to the front of the boat where we hoped the strong drafts, created by the ferry, would blow our fuzziness away and return our sea legs, as we had all walked to the front in a zig zag fashion, but of course blamed it on the turbulence. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the captain as he gave out snippets of information over the speakers. His accent was amazing, a slow drawl that I could have listened to all day.
We watched some dolphins cresting the waves and as we approached the island, we could see how low the land was, areas of water were also inside the sea wall. Apparently one side of the island has been bulked up with rocks but the other side desperately needs help, and isn't getting it.
Tangier Island has a population of about 450 and is known as the Soft Crab Capital of the World. We saw many small docks, all with small sheds, piles of crab pots and small boats. There were also some that had been abandoned, left to disintegrate and fall into the sea. Scientists estimate that Tangier Island will be underwater by 2050, one more island to be lost from the Chesapeake Bay where more than 500 islands have been lost to erosion and storms since the 1600's. This little island is losing about 16ft of shoreline each year.
We left our cooler on board the ferry and as soon as we disembarked, some of the locals swarmed around us, wanting to hire out golf carts or steer us towards the few attractions, a museum, a tourist store, an ice cream parlor and a couple of restaurants. We walked past and hoisted our cameras from our bags. There was just one road heading away to our left, lined with small white houses, so we took it. A few other tourists walked the same route, while others dived into the stores or climbed onto the golf carts. We hadn't got far before we found ourselves in front of the restaurant that we'd decided to have lunch at, an 'all you can eat' deal for $22. We were herded with another small group through the doorway by a few ladies wearing the restaurant t-shirts, and then into a room with tables laid awaiting guests.
This wasn't what I'd been expecting at all, I had thought we'd have a buffet that we'd help ourselves too. Instead, the table was filled with dishes, some of which I recognized, and some that I didn't. I gallantly ploughed my way through as much as possible, but avoided the ham, the bread, the apple sauce and the potato salad. I only had a taste of the corn pudding, (nope, didn't like it!), I wasn't keen on the beets, (too sweet), but the crab cakes were the best I'd ever had. And the coleslaw was tasty too, not loaded with sugar. I really enjoyed the meal, and then after discovering that the wedge of cake on a separate plate was actually lemon cake, I demolished that too. It was the best! I dearly wanted to reach for everybody else's lemon cake and pack it away for later but managed to control myself. The crab cakes were the only item that weren't left on the table so none of those could be snaffled. The fried clam fritters were good too, but just not on the same level. We waddled out and although I was glad to be upright and walking again, the heat literally kicked us as we tottered down the steps.
We lathered up with sunscreen, (Emily more than Richard or I), and bug spray under a shady crepe myrtle then continued walking, a lot slower by now.
One of the interesting features of the island were the graveyards.There were so many of them and all very close to the houses or actually in their yards. We discovered that this was due to grave-robbing which had been an issue in the 1800's and early 1900's. Also, it meant loved ones didn't have to travel far to visit, plus the ground is higher near the homes, so graves were less likely to fall victim to flooding. Apparently dogs had once been a problem too, digging up the burial sites, although I only saw one woofer while we were on the island.
Many of the homes had beach bikes left in their yards, and some were for rent too. The residents cycled, or used mopeds. Many had golf carts which they parked on raised wooden ramps in their yards. I only saw 2 cars and 3 trucks, and wondered why these were even necessary.
As well as numerous religious markers on the island there were a lot of sorry looking boats left in the grassy marshlands, I couldn't be sure if they were still in use or abandoned. There's a lot of water within the island, tidal creeks known as 'guts' by the locals have meant the turf has become tidal grass. On this area there used to stand a shirt factory in the early 1900's, employing 60 women and turning out 125 dozen shirts a day that would be taken up to a Baltimore market. The factory was burned down in 1927, supposedly by the men on the island who didn't like their wives working there.
As we strolled along the narrow streets, we spotted many feline residents, most of whom were very willing to be stroked and petted. Just as many of them though were sleeping in shady patches by buildings or under golf carts. They seemed to be an important and much loved part of the community and I found an article on them here.
I loved this friendly little place, the residents with their drawling accents were welcoming, apart from one old lady who threw open her front door to yell at us, "Is that all you can take pictures of?!" as we photographed her neighbor's untidy yard. She hollered at us again when we walked back but I smiled, guessing we were her entertainment for the day. Everyone else had been smiling and more than happy to pass on information, a tight knit community, reflected by the names on the gravestones, many of which bore the same surnames. We only had a few hours here, not enough since we were walking everywhere. I would have loved to walk on the beaches and explore every end of every road but time was not on our side, and the burning sun was relentless, as well as the biting flies, which attacked both Richard and I on our backs, leaving welts that still itched 3 days later.
There's only one school here that teaches 72 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, and the youth tend to move to the mainland to find work. The residents want the island saved, a new seawall is needed, costing more millions than the government seems willing to spend.
Tangier Island is also hallowed ground, the final resting place of Native Americans who were banished here, residents who lost their lives fighting in the forces, British sailors and soldiers who died during the 1812 War, and it's also the soil that African Americans first walked on as free people.
The residents refuse to believe in the climate change causing rising seas, saying instead that the island's disappearance is due to land subsiding and erosion. As we chugged away from the island on our ferry, I thought of these determined islanders. With their soft dialect originating from the first settlers coming from Cornwall, England, their resoluteness reminded me of the British gentlemen on the sinking Titanic, standing on the deck, singing and smoking cigars as the ship sank below the waves. That same steadfastness was apparent in the older residents on the island, many saying they had grown up here and wouldn't leave their home now. They weren't going to desert their sinking ship.
A recent article about the island is here, and another from 2016 is here.
On the way back home we stopped at a few abandoned places we found in Northern Neck, old houses and an old school, albeit with a certain amount of enthusiasm lacking. It had been a long day and the sun was still beating us up. but it was interesting to have the drive back broken up, and we managed a few photos.

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