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Final Episode: A Vanishing Island, the End of an Adventure

Barren Island photo by Tom Pelton.jpg

The Chesapeake Bay is full of history that is slipping away before our eyes.

This is the case with the dozens of Bay islands – once bustling with life, with churches, schools, farms, and baseball diamonds -- that are slowly disappearing beneath the waves as climate change and sea-level rise erode them.

On a recent afternoon, I set off in my kayak to try to find one of these vanishing islands – Barren Island – before it was too late.

I launched my boat from the shoulder of Hoopers Island Road, about 20 miles southwest of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a warm afternoon, with fiddler crabs darting and hiding in the marsh grasses at the water’s edge.

After about a mile of paddling westward over smooth waters, with silver storm clouds piling up high overhead, I saw the outlines of Barren Island. Loblolly pine trees – about half of them dead and bleached like old bones – rose along a stretch of empty beaches and spartina grass.

I dragged my boat onto the shore. Then I slogged inland through thick reeds, thorn bushes, and spider webs until I discovered a cool and peaceful grove of persimmon trees. They were thick with plump orange fruits but had nobody to pick them.

In the middle of this Garden of Eden was a relic from another time: A rusting, 1930’s era bulldozer that had plowed into a tree and died. Vines now curled through the bulldozer’s shattered engine, its tank treads choked with weeds.

There are no longer any homes or buildings left on Barren Island, which has been losing acres every year to rising sea levels. But once it was a very different place.

Years ago, the island flourished, first as a fishing and hunting grounds for the Nanticoke Tribe – whose arrow heads are seemingly everywhere in the soils here. And then, for more than 250 years, Barren Island was an English farming community, from the arrival of a Puritan named Richard Preston in 1650 to when its last families fled storms and rising waters in 1916.

As the waves spread across their fields and roads – consuming their school, and chapel, and general store – the islanders lifted their houses atop barges. They floated many of the houses across the Bay to Hoopers’ Island on the Eastern Shore, where some their descendants still live today.

The bulldozer I found covered in vines may have been used by a hunting club that maintained a clubhouse on the island from 1929 until the 1980s, attracting such luminaries as former Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel (who went to prison on fraud charges). Or the bulldozer could have been part of various failed real-estate schemes that later popped on the island – such as plans to build a vacation resort here, or an Alcatraz-style state prison.

After my day of exploring the island’s tangled forests, the sun set. In the dark, I set off paddling back toward home. I passed a sandbar that had a flock of hundreds of brown pelicans. The pelicans took off all at once – an avalanche of wings that soared up into the night sky, their shadows passing in front of the full moon.

Then the impressive birds were gone. The passage of time; the disappearance of an island; the fading of all the people who lived and died here – but who we never had a chance to meet.

To all my listeners out there, this is the final episode of the Environment in Focus. Over the last 14 years, and more than 600 weekly shows, I feel like I’ve met you, and become your friend and fellow adventurer.

I’ve shared an island with you here on the radio.

This island is now vanishing. But I hope to see you again, on another adventure, soon.

………………………

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.