The bay for me, has become a monument to perpetual vacation, to ritual barefoot bliss. Every week there is an endless relaxation. Seven days without shoes, without anything in my pockets, I walk the sandy, rocky dirt roads wearing old, frayed shorts and a dirty t-shirt. Wandering down to the beach, my feet chunk-chunk on the wooden bridge across the reeds that stand behind the short, misshapen dunes. I step out onto the simple, empty white sand, and listen to the waves, the gulls, the wind, and the sweet silence of myself, alone on the beach. Balancing out on slimy wooden seawalls, I crouch for half an hour, the salty green water washing over my feet with the waves, watching the blue crabs cling to the pylons and forage from their surface. I begin to move like the animals, my body slowly falling out of step with the twenty-four-segmented worm of the human day. Back at the cottage, the clocks are all wrong or broken, and my day falls in with the rhythm of the tides, with the arc of the sun. I find my place, moving through time in step with the crabs, the oysters, and the barnacles. Found the right clock again, and I take the boat out in the middle of the afternoon, only because it feels like a good time to take the boat out. Sliding around the bay, surfing the currents of the wind, on a foamy green surface that slowly fades to red-orange as the evening wears on, listening to the waves against the hull, the cicadas on shore, I wonder how anyone can stand the perpetual roar of a powerboat. And as the evening continues to fade, and the sun finally sets, I turn the boat into the wind, feeling it keel over under my body until the waves nearly roll over the gunwales. We pick up speed as the boat reaches into the wind, reaching for home, I would say, if I were not already there.



The estuary of the Susquehanna River.

I don't have time or space to describe my entire life to you, and so you will have to be satisfied with the most superficial of  impressions of what the Chesapeake Bay means to me, along with a few geographical and historical facts.

Time spent with my father as he taught us to pursue the Bay's fishy denizens.  Long hours of relaxation as we drifted through calm, summer sun-lit waters, dragging our lines behind us. Times of being cooped up in the cabin, venturing out into the rain if a rod wiggled suddenly.  Going after rockfish on New Year's Eve, 1981, the day before the moratorium began. Terrifying moments running through the 10-foot waves brought by a sudden thunderstorm.  Dipping blue crabs out of the water as they swam by. Looking down at the immense vista from the top of the Bay bridge. Looking up at the Bay Bridge.

With 3,237 square miles (8,384 square kilometers) of open tidal water, the Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States, and is surpassed in size by only six or seven others in the world.

The estuary stretches about 200 miles (~320 km) through the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Conowingo Rapids (replaced by Conowingo Dam) on the Susquehanna River in Maryland to the Atlantic Ocean, between Cape Charles on Virginia's Eastern Shore to Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.   In between are countless bays, coves, islands, inlets, necks, marshes and points.  There are so many place names associated with the Chesapeake that I have created a separate node just for them.

The Bay splits Maryland in half, and slices a chunk of Virginia away as well.  The Eastern Shore of the Bay is, culturally, a world apart from the Western Shore.   But the Bay's influence extends far away from tidewater; its 77,000 square mile drainage basin includes a large chunk of New York, most of Pennsylvania and Virginia and almost all of Maryland, with a large part of West Virginia, and some of Delaware (and a tiny bit of North Carolina, if you include the Great Dismal Swamp).


50,000 years ago there was no Chesapeake Bay at all.  This was in the middle of the last Ice Age.  The southern fringes of the great Wisconsin Ice Sheet lapped over into the northern part of the Susquehanna River Basin.  The river itself flowed out of the Appalachians and across the Coastal Plain, several hundred miles more of which had been exposed by a drop in the level of the Atlantic Ocean.

The river flowed across a broad valley, and eventually into the shrunken Atlantic.  It deposited its sediment on the Plain. and frequently shifted its course in much the same way that the Mississippi does in its "Delta" today.

As the Earth's climate warmed, a certain amount of glacial meltwater was carried directly down the Susquehanna to the sea.  However, the greatest effect on the area came from the expanding Atlantic Ocean, which filled the lower parts of the river valley  as its level rose.  The flooded area crept slowly northwards, until the eastern side of the river found itself separated from the western side by as much as 20 miles of open water.

The Susquehanna, as well as smaller tributaries like the Potomac, continued to pour fresh water into this salty Bay, forming a brackish continuum, from nearly-fresh water at the northern end to ocean-like conditions at the southern end.   No longer able to carry its sediment out to the Ocean, the river dumped it in the Bay. Unique conditions at the other end also brought in sediment from the Atlantic, making the bay a sediment trap.  Only a rising sea level kept it from filling in; as the water rose, erosion kept making the Bay wider and wider. The tides which rise and fall like clockwork out in the ocean were made incredibly complicated by the Bay's countless nooks and crannies.

Around the same time as the Bay's formation, the first humans moved into the area.  The Bay provided a much easier way of life than was found out west, with abundant fish, shellfish, and crabs.  Later on, the land would prove itself well-suited to agriculture.  By 500 years or so ago, The Susquehannocks and Lenni-Lenape lived in the North, the Nanticokes on the Eastern Shore, and Powhatan ruled the Western Shore near the Bay's mouth.

One of these peoples had a name for the Bay from which its modern name derives. Some say this word was "K'tchisupiak," meaning "people of the great salt water."  Others say it was "great shellfish bay".  The truth is obscured, for a different tide was about to sweep in from the Atlantic, to the woe of the people already living there.

Giovanni Verazzano visited North Carolina's Outer Banks as well as New York Harbor, but appears to have completely missed the Chesapeake.  Spanish sailors appear to have sailed up the James River to gather provisions and water, and Sir Francis Drake appears to have paid a visit.

In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted one of her more adventurous courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, a charter to settle and exploit the area.  Raleigh claimed the entire North American continent and named it Virginia in Elizabeth's honor.  The first settlement in Virginia was on Roanoke Island behind the Outer Banks  (an area that a later king would have named after himself).  The failure of this colony (and Raleigh's loss of his own head) could not stop Enghish settlement, and another attempt was made further north, in the Chesapeake Bay area. In 1607, Captain John Smith planted some settlers on an island in the James River, and then sailed up the Bay to chart it.  Many of the names we have come from his first map.  Smith must have been in a foul mood as he approached the upper bay, as he gave out names such as Bolus River, Damn'd Quarter, and Maggoty River.  Meanwhile, Jamestown, on a swampy, mosquito-infested island, almost failed.  Soon after, King Charles granted one of his supporters a large plantation in the north of Virginia, to be named "Maryland" after Charles's queen, Henrietta Maria.

The settlers found little actual gold beyond the trade goods they took from the local natives.  Soon, tobacco would be all the rage in England, and in order to exploit this market, vast numbers of trees would be cut down, vast fields would be planted with the weed.  Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop, but a program of transporting convicted criminals as indentured servants didn't provide enough return on investment, and so the planters had to import captives from Africa.  Money from tobacco and stolen lives turned Virginia and Maryland into profit centers, at least for the factors back home in England, and soon, other colonies were founded, emulating them.

There was still little need for roads in the Chesapeake Bay area -- there was a big, watery highway for everyone to use.  Because of this, the Bay has a rich maritime tradition to draw upon.  Countless numbers of boats and ships were built along the Bay's coves and inlets; several styles of boats were developed here, such as an elaboration of the dugout canoe called the 'shallop' as well as the Baltimore Clippers, workhorses of maritime trade, and several types fo work boats, including the graceful skipjack.  The best-known museum dedicated to preserving the Bay's maritime heritage is in St. Michaels, Maryland.

The Bay remained a larder for its residents, as well as the rest of the country -- countless fish, terrapins, crabs, ducks, Canada geese, oysters, muskrats, and the like created were pulled out of the bay and sent to the big cities of the Northeast, creating the conditions for Ralph Waldo Emerson to proclaim Baltimore 'the gastronomic center of the Universe' (a position which, it is safe to say, it has since relinquished).

The British retained a tight grip on Virginia for most of the Revolutionary War, but the final decisive battle of the war occurred on the Chesapeake, as French Admiral Jean François de Grasse kept the British from reinforcing Lord Cornwallis' garrison at Yorktown.

The War of 1812 saw the British return, sailing up the Bay and marching on Washington to burn it.   Baltimore was a haven for so many privateers empowered by the United States government to harass British shipping that the British called it 'a nest of pirates'.  The British attack on Baltimore was repulsed, however; a night-long naval bombardment of Fort McHenry provided the inspiration for a song that would become the country's national anthem.

When war broke out between the states in 1860, the Bay area became one of its principal theaters. The first bloodshed of the war occurred in Baltimore; the first real battle occurred along Bull Run, within hearing distance of the capital.  The bloody, decisive battles of Antietam and Gettysburg occurred along its western tributaries, and the patterns of the Bay's tributaries in Virginia determined the course of the early campaigns, as well as the long, final bloody campaign through Virginia down to capture Richmond and Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House.

The cities along the Bay shared in the industrial and shipping boom that followed the Civil War, if not quite as much as places farther north.  Factories darkened the skies of Baltimore and Norfolk, and paddlewheel steamers now plowed regularly between Baltimore and Norfolk, and ferries carried people back and forth across the bay.

The twentieth century saw a steady increase in population and development around the Bay. A few events have a special importance in changing the landscape:

  • The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was dug to connect the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays.  While this provided a much shorter route for ships to reach Baltimore, it mixed salty water from Delaware Bay into the almost-fresh upper Bay, restricting and destroying some of the Bay's environments while expanding others.
  • The construction of Conowingo Dam in 1926 provided cheap electric power to Philadelphia but wiped out several species of fish (especially the hickory shad) that bred in the upper Susquehanna.
  • The development of the automobile finally caused overland travel to become more important than over-water travel.  The Susquehanna was bridged in several places early on, but after World War II, two bridges were built across the Bay itself, one in Maryland near Annapolis and the other in Virginia, connecting Cape Henry and Cape Charles. These bridges provided automobile and truck access to the Eastern Shore, put the ferries and steamboats out of business, and opened the way for millions of tourists seeking the ocean.
  • The introduction of foreign species such as Nutria, phragmites reeds, and the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo have dramatically affected the bay's environments, competing with and sometimes wiping out many native species.  The Bay has been overfished by watermen and recreational fishermen.  But even more, industrial and agricultural pollution, as well as the sewage of fourteen million people, have reduced the Bay's formerly vast bounty so much that watermen find it difficult to make a living.  Attempts by the Federal and State governments to remedy the situation, no matter how necessary, have made that living even harder to make. Nowadays, the blue crabs you buy in Baltimore were most likely shipped from the Gulf Coast, or even Venezuela.

The various states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, operating upon widely differing political philosophies, have found it difficult to agree upon what, if anything, should be done to save the Bay.  Even so, some progress has been made.

Nevertheless, the Chesapeake Bay still survives. Despite the fact that we've dammed it, polluted it in all sorts of nasty ways, overfished it, and taken it for granted, it is still the source of almost everything good in Maryland, and, I assume with great confidence, Virginia.

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