What would we be without the Chesapeake? Maryland’s natural treasure remains a source of awe and wonder.

By Lydia Woolever

Spot Illustrations by Rose Wong

Opener: Photography by Cameron Davidson

Travel & Outdoors

The Wonder of the Bay

What would we be without the Chesapeake? Maryland’s natural treasure remains a source of awe and wonder.

By Lydia Woolever

Spot Illustrations by Rose Wong
Opener: Photography By Cameron Davidson

o anywhere in Maryland and you’ll find it. If you’re lucky, it’s within view or even reach. The old saying goes that if you live in the Old Line State, you’re never more than a few minutes from the Chesapeake Bay. And whether we know it or not, the nation’s largest estuary is all around us, flowing like arteries throughout this landscape. In the mountains of Western Maryland, small streams and creeks trickle south to larger tributaries, like the wide and majestic Potomac River, which cuts through our nation’s capital, then follows the western crag of Southern Maryland before heading out toward open water. In the central cities, like Baltimore and Annapolis, downtowns are designed around rippling harbors, and on the rural Eastern Shore, land slinks into rhythmic tidewater, as black-eyed Susan-clad signs that speckle the low-lying roadsides herald this place as “Chesapeake Country,” a nickname we could anoint the entire state.

In fact, in this region, nothing might connect us more—not crab cakes, not Old Bay, not the Orioles, not Natty Boh beer, all of which, one way or another, are also inspired by the Chesapeake. The Bay informs our history. It drives our industry. It fuels our economy. Whether you’re a waterman or sailor or seafood lover—or not—it inspires the way we eat, and play, and live.

It is the heartbeat of this place, and both literally and figuratively, we are entangled in it, with some 11,000 miles of shoreline crisscrossing not just Maryland, but beyond—from the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, through Delaware and Pennsylvania, up into upstate New York, where its 64,000 square-mile watershed begins.

Immense and immeasurable, “it is probably the most impressive body of water in the United States,” wrote Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine in 1954, which, we would argue, remains true to this day.

What would we be without the Chesapeake? Below, we’ll explore the ways this natural treasure has shaped who we are, turn to experts about the effects we’ve had, and endeavor to capture just a drop of the wonder that still moves us to save the Bay.

Council Rock on Otsego Lake at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay in upstate New York.—WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Let us begin with a lake in upstate New York.

y early November, most of the leaves have fallen from the trees on Otsego Lake along the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in Cooperstown, New York. Dappled in light, they float on clear waters, and with a slight breeze, flow south, past Council Rock—a small boulder sitting a stone’s throw from the shore, as old as the last ice age—then onwards, to the headwaters of the Susquehanna River.

It’s beautiful, sure, but also a bit anticlimactic. At the mouth of the lake, the mighty Susquehanna starts as a mere trickle—little more than a narrow stream that could comfortably be crossed with a rope swing—before gently wrapping beneath the village’s Main Street bridge and disappearing around a leafy bend. But eventually, it will snake its way a whopping 444 miles south, through fields, farms, and forests, towns and cities, becoming the longest river this side of the Mississippi, then dumping into its basin, the Chesapeake Bay. Five hours north of Baltimore, the birthplace of our estuary is where lake and river meet in the Empire State.

Of course, it’s easy for Marylanders to bristle at the thought of this, but the Chesapeake—Algonquian for “at a big river” or “mother of waters”—is not just the Bay proper, its broad waves speckled with white-sailed skipjacks and spanned by our state’s iconic Bay Bridge. Instead, it really is its watershed, aka the surrounding 64,000-square-mile landscape that covers six states, plus Washington, D.C., and is carved with a sprawling system of more than 100,000 streams, creeks, and rivers (known as tributaries) that provide half of its water.

A week later in Havre de Grace, many of those same ripples first spotted in upstate New York have now made their way to Maryland. Further south, they will become increasingly brackish—a mix of freshwater from the tributaries and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean. Altogether, they will mingle into the 18 trillion gallons that fill our shorelines, with some heading further still, on out to the sea itself. It’s a millennia-old journey, dating back long before there ever was a Chesapeake.



How glaciers, global warming, and one giant meteor helped create the Chesapeake.

long, long time ago. That’s when the Chesapeake Bay was born. And the number changes, depending on who you ask or how you look at it. Some say it’s 10,000 years ago, when this estuary—a body of water that blends rivers and oceans—first settled into its modern state. Others claim that it’s even older, dating to when the land first gave way to a wider and wider river valley—the predecessor of our present Bay. And few could argue, too, that it goes back further than that, to when the dinosaurs once reigned.

Whatever its birthday, the Bay’s formation is an epic and extraordinary story that sets the tone for its current magnitude. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of years,” says Richard Ortt, acting director of the Maryland Geological Survey. “Are you ready for a history lesson?”


Before there was an Atlantic Ocean, what we now think of as North America collided with North Africa as part of one colossal supercontinent, known as Pangea, and surrounded on all sides by open water. As those lands converged, immense pressure pushed the Earth’s crust upwards, creating what would eventually become the gentle rolling slopes of our modern Appalachian Mountains. Back then, though—about 200 million years ago—these ridgelines reached up as high as the Himalayas.

Over the epochs that followed, tectonic shifts caused the terrain to pull apart again, and those towering peaks eroded with it, their tippy-top sediments hauled east for a hundred miles to form the Atlantic Coastal Plain, on which we now sit. But picture this: our beaches ending not at Ocean City, but rather out on the edge of the continental shelf, where the land ended, the water still gets deep, and the early Atlantic originally began.

What did Maryland look like back then? “It changes through time,” says Carl Hobbs, geology professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Over the eons, swings between ice ages and global warming fluctuated sea levels by hundreds of feet. As glaciers melted, their runoff carved the ancestral Susquehanna River out of the land, and that over time, its valley would eventually become the Chesapeake. At times, too, a shallow ocean stretched west, filled with prehistoric sharks, whales, and sea turtles. Its waves came right up to the high-elevation “fall line”—think the Jones, Gwynns, and Gunpowder—that still cuts through the heart of Baltimore, which was then surrounded by tropical rainforest.


But that all got interrupted 35 million years ago, when, in a twist of geological fate, a meteor struck off the coast of what we now know as southeast Virginia. As many as three miles wide, this celestial rock crashed into the region at a staggering 76,000 miles per hour, leaving behind a crater twice the size of Rhode Island and as deep as the Grand Canyon—“a hell of a hole,” says Hobbs, and still the largest known in the United States. A subsequent tsunami wiped out much of the life on land, though it wasn’t a total loss.

While the meteor did not technically make the Bay, as is often rumored, that cataclysmic impact would certainly influence its creation. Rivers flow downhill, so over time, the surrounding tributaries shifted their directions to convene at this new depression, near the future mouth of the Chesapeake. Before that, the Susquehanna had hooked a left and headed right out to the ocean, over what is now the Eastern Shore—no Bay required.

At that time, the Delmarva Peninsula didn’t exist yet. It would only show up over the last two million years, when glaciers sometimes reached as far south as Pennsylvania. Their mile-thick ice sheets pressed down on the Earth’s crust, once again pushing up sediment, which, over periods of rising seas, slowly sifted down the coast. Above the drowned Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Eastern Shore is essentially an ancient sandbar, sitting atop the long-lost crests of Appalachia.

In fact, it is ultimately the Shore that deserves credit for establishing the Chesapeake. Because without its 170-mile lowlands to both protect our state’s western edges from Atlantic waves and direct nearby tributaries towards its southern tip, an estuary might have never formed here. Who knows—Baltimore could have been a beach town, as up and down the western shore, “Those long rises of land that you can trace for hundreds of miles,” says Hobbs, “are old ocean shorelines.” Instead, we live between a quiet harbor and that looming fall line, where a supercontinent once stood, its enduring elevations now tumbling into tributaries toward the Bay.

And believe it or not, that big body of water is still changing. Glaciers continue to recede from some 20,000 years ago, and as the load has lightened on the Earth’s surface, parts of the Atlantic Coastal Plain slowly settle and, with the help of a warming climate and rising sea levels, begin to sink.

Always, too, there are currents, tides, winds, and rains that erode the land in one corner and deposit it in another. Old channels fill in. New sandbars curl out. And humans, of course, have an impact.

Today, the Chesapeake Bay proper is 200 miles long, ranging from three to 30 miles wide, with an average depth of only 21 feet. Below that bottom, traces of the old Susquehanna remain, its deep canyon slowly filled in with layers of time.

“Are we done?” says Ortt. “No. This is history. And the process is ongoing.”

It’s possible to commune with the past lifetimes of the Chesapeake. Just go stand at the edge of the Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland, and with enough luck, a relic might just reveal itself. An hour and a half south of Baltimore, along the Bay’s western shore, this ancient treasure trove spans 24 miles, notable not just for swimmable beaches but an abundance of fossils, sharks’ teeth, and seashells in its bluffs and along its strands, some as many as 18 million years old. During the Miocene Epoch, the region was a shallow sea, bound by tidal marshes, freshwater swamps, and bald cypress trees, not reaching land until modern-day Washington, D.C. Marine life was plentiful, and over the ages, their remains became buried under layer upon layer of sediment, being preserved for beachcombers like nine-year-old Molly Sampson, who discovered a palm-size Megalodon tooth this Christmas, or paleontologists of the nearby Calvert Marine Museum, where specimens from its 100,000-piece collection are regularly on display.



At the top of the Bay, Elk Neck State Park sits on a spit of cliff straddled by open water and its namesake river in Cecil County on the Eastern Shore, with campsites that afford epic views down the estuary, plus a sandy beach and scenic lighthouse.


Right in our own backyard, the Gunpowder River has long been heralded as an elite flyfishing grounds, beloved by the late Frederick native and famous fisherman Lefty Kreh Several stocked areas offer chances to catch-and-release brown and rainbow trout.


Hands down, the most iconic way to explore the Bay is by sailing along its waterways. In our state capital, hop on the Schooner Woodwind or Wilma Lee skipjack to see landmarks like the Annapolis harbor, watermen’s workboats, and the Bay Bridge.


This lower Eastern Shore river, with its cypress swamps and flowering lily pads, is like a trip to the Louisiana Bayou. Float through the flora on a rented kayak from Snow Hill’s Pocomoke River Canoe Company.


There are some days when the Downtown Sailing Center keelboats can really feel the essence of our state nickname, the Land of Pleasant Living (allegedly invented by Natty Boh executives on top of the Bay Bridge in the 1950s). “Getting out past Fort McHenry, you’re able to look back and see all of Baltimore, and it really is pretty,” says Josh Johns, the nonprofit’s youth coordinator. But there are also other times when a wind kicks up or a storm rolls in and everything changes quickly. “I got caught in a microburst just past the Francis Scott Key Bridge,” says Johns. “It ripped my sails to shreds.”

The Chesapeake is often lauded with a sea of superlatives. Largest in the nation. Extraordinarily long. Especially shallow. Overflowing with marine life. But by its nature, it is also an estuary that defies categorization. Compared to the Gulf of Maine, its tides are modest, driven by the gravitational pull of the moon and the occasional downpour, swinging an average 1.4 feet each day in Baltimore. And because of its north-south orientation, “we get pretty strong wind influences on [local] sea level,” says Victoria Coles, oceanography professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences (UMCES), notably during hurricanes.

Those storms slip through the Bay’s narrow mouth, their gusts pushing up that huge volume of water, causing flooding along our shorelines. But even the right breeze can increase typically mild waves over its wide surface, becoming downright choppy. “On nice days, it’s very predictable—kind of low and slow moving,” says Christopher Paternostro, oceanographer at the National Atmosphere and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA). “But it can definitely get churned up.”

Luckily, the Bay’s craggy shoreline helps reduce some of that surf, usually to a property owner’s chagrin, and for boaters caught in nor’easters or summer squalls, its infinite edges can provide safe harbor, their shoals and sandbars leftover from that ancient Susquehannal carving of the estuary. Just navigate carefully—even if you run aground, the bottom is mostly sand and mud. “In most parts of the Bay, even out in exposed waters,” says Pete Lesher, an avid sailor and chief historian at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) in St. Michaels, “you’re never terribly far from shore.”



Part of a diverse and dynamic ecosystem, the estuary’s waterways abound with wildlife.

t the southern tip of North Point State Park in Edgemere, there is a thousand-foot fishing pier that juts out into the upper Chesapeake. With Baltimore City at your back, it’s hard to imagine that beneath the water’s surface, there exists another metropolis, just as vibrant and complex. Schools of fish stream north and south. Reptiles glide back and forth. Mollusks linger along the bottom, and a multitude of microbes drifts throughout like snowflakes.

From the freshwater streams of the watershed tributaries to the tidal marshes of the Bay’s middle to its saltwater mouth at the Atlantic Ocean, more than 3,000 species of flora and fauna live across the myriad environments of this estuary. There are those we know well—the holy trinity of blue crabs, oysters, and striped bass (that’s rockfish to locals)—as well as some 300 other types of fish, 170 other types of shellfish, dolphins, Diamondback terrapins, otters, and, of course, jellyfish—the Bay being home to its own unique kind. There’s even the occasional seahorse. Not to mention the rest of the life, from white-tailed and wild turkey to beavers and black bear, that lives on land.

“Estuaries are really cool places because they are so dynamic,” says Sean Corson, director of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office. “You’ve got these huge rivers with huge pulses of freshwater draining huge watersheds into this quite shallow body of water with a narrow mouth, making it a very productive environment that supports a huge range of species.” In fact, ecosystems like the Chesapeake are some of the most biologically productive on the planet. And their physical features play a pivotal role.

It’s been said that a six-foot man could walk much of the Bay without getting the top of his head wet—24 percent, to be exact. That shallow depth allows light to permeate the water and, through photosynthesis, essentially feed phytoplankton, which work their way up the food chain. Varying salinities create ideal conditions for a variety of species, from freshwater and saltwater specialists to brackish in-betweeners. There are those who migrate in for certain seasons and others who live here year-round. “In the summer, we have cownose rays that come from Cape Hatteras,” says Matthew Ogburn, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater. “And in the winter, species like herring and shad make their way from Long Island or the Gulf of Maine.” And with the help of wind and rain, the surrounding watershed seeps nutrients from the landscape, which, at the right levels, help the wildlife survive—and flourish.

Indeed, “The Bay is so large and has so many connections,” says Dave Secor, marine biology professor at UMCES, “which is a key reason why it’s so diverse.”

As one might expect, the wildlife itself is also interacts constantly. Take oysters, for instance. These immobile mollusks filter phytoplankton from the water and provide habitat for small fish like menhaden. Those tiny foragers are an important food source for rockfish, but themselves feed on the likes of zooplankton, which include baby blue crab larvae. Later, those adult crustaceans will, in turn, eat oysters and even other crabs, before being devoured by birds, bigger fish, and humans, who dine on the bivalves and rockfish, too. Oyster reefs also help dampen waves that cause erosion, thus protecting our shorelines. And, with their water-cleaning abilities, they create more hospitable growing conditions for underwater grasses, which, in full circle, provide protection for their predators.

On the whole, the Bay is full of delicate balances, and both big and small shifts can have significant ripple effects across the ecosystem. Could local declines in menhaden be causing the drop in rockfish populations? Is the rise of invasive blue catfish influencing historic lows for crabs? Will warming water temperatures push more species like flounder out of the estuary? Where do new species fit in, like the Carolina shrimp now moving up the Bay? And what will it mean for the Chesapeake’s resilience to climate change? Only time will tell.

“At a really broad scale, the most biodiverse places are further south, with the most being the tropics and the least being the poles,” says Ogburn. “In theory, biodiversity might actually be increasing. But it means big changes over time.”


Behold, feathers in flight!

Aquatic creatures aren’t the only stars of the Chesapeake. For some, birds get top billing here, with both wildlife lovers and waterfowl hunters alike flocking to observe their abundances in the heart of the Atlantic Flyway, while locals mark the seasons by their migrations. In the spring, ospreys, eagles, and both green and great blue herons are common sights along our shorelines. Come winter, hundreds of ducks, geese, tundra swans, and snowy egrets descend upon the waterways, arriving from as far north as the upper reaches of Canada. But of course, there’s nothing more miraculous than spotting a Baltimore oriole, found along local riverbanks in summertime.

If you throw a fishing line enough times in the Bay these days, the odds are likely that, before long, you’re going to haul up a trespasser. The blue catfish is the biggest culprit, with an estimated 100 million of them now living in the estuary, even though they don’t belong here. Thanks to human error, these whiskered bottom-feeders were introduced in Virginia for recreational angling in the 1970s, spreading vigorously and becoming a voracious new predator for baby crabs, juvenile rockfish, and lots of other native species, disrupting our natural ecosystems. But they’re not the only ones; the newly infamous snakehead—sharp-toothed and able to walk on land—is just one of the Bay’s 200-some invasives. But fortunately, humans can help. Those two, at least, are edible and increasingly found on local restaurant menus. And guess what? They actually taste good. Save the Bay by eating them.



Forget Preakness—for 76 years, the hottest race in Maryland has taken place on Labor Day Weekend in Crisfield, once dubbed the “crab capital of the world.” In peak Eastern Shore fashion, come see which crustacean can scuttle the fastest. Stay for the crab picking, crab cooking, and Miss Crab Claw contests.


Some of Baltimore’s best seafood slingers bring their bivalve skills to this festival’s national shucking competition. At the St. Mary’s Fairgrounds in Southern Maryland on the third weekend of October, swing by the tasting tent to slurp shooters and half-shells grown in nearby waters.


What a little water-loving rodent for such a wildly polarizing Chesapeake creature. In February, cast your squirminess aside, when a Dorchester County middle school transforms into the state celebration of all things muskrat, with wild-game tastings, world-championship skinning contests, and pageants where the winners take home fur sashes.


On the verge of collapse, some of our once-famous species get a second chance.

For a long time, it was the rite of spring—fishermen crowding the river’s edge in wait for the annual shad run, when millions of silvery slivers returned from the ocean to their native tribtuaries to spawn. Latin for the “most delicious,” these rich bony fish were coveted for both their buttery flesh, typically smoked over cedar planks, and their luxurious roe, considered a delicacy.

“Our heart goes out in pity to those luckless Americans who know nothing of the Chesapeake shad,” wrote H.L. Mencken in a 1907 Sun, which at the time seemed like an unthinkable possibility. After all, this was the Bay’s first commercial fishery, a staple food for Native Americans, and the “savior” that fed George Washington’s troops during the American Revolution, but the Baltimore Bard’s words would prove alarmingly prescient.

By 1980, Maryland shuttered its shad season, those once-abundant populations having plummeted to historic lows due to overharvest, pollution, and, perhaps biggest of all, the addition of dams like the Conowingo. Those blocked the migrations of myriad species, including herring, sturgeon, and eel, with consequences up and down the food chain.

But restoration efforts are now underway across the state, including on the Patapsco River in Baltimore. Three major dams have been removed, and scientists are now waiting to see whether the fins return. “It’s been a challenge,” says SERC’s Ogburn, who’s leading such studies, “but we’ve seen some fish moving upstream.”



The first Marylanders lived close to the land and tides.

ust 20 miles north of the Maryland line, surrounded by a wide flat vista of Pennsylvania forest, a series of island-like boulders rise from the middle of the Susquehanna River. At certain times of day, when the tide recedes, a series of etchings reveal themselves—petroglyphs of people, animals, spirits—and tell an ancient story of this tributary.

“Human habitation in the Chesapeake Bay region goes back a long time,” says CBMM’s Lesher, “before the Chesapeake Bay even existed.”

Indeed, Native Americans arrived in this region more than 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last ice age, when the estuary was just a dry sweep of land along the ancestral Susquehanna. Small bands evolved into more than 40 tribes, always following the waters and their ample food sources—first with inland tributaries, then, as temperatures warmed, the widening Bay. Archaeologists have found their millennia-old oyster shell piles along the Potomac, near Annapolis, and on the Eastern Shore, and their handcrafted fishing traps inform the modern trotlines and pound nets we still use to thiday. When Europeans showed up in the 1600s, many Indigenous communities helped the settlers survive, but new disease, colonial conflict, and forced exile led to their dramatic declines.

Still, more than 40,000 Marylanders identify as at least part Native American today, with three tribes—the Piscataway Conoy, Piscataway Indian Nation, and Accohannock—officially recognized by the state, though others also remain. (The Lumbee also now reside in Baltimore, having migrated from North Carolina in recent decades.) And their influence is all around us, from the roads we travel, to the names of our towns and waterways (Patapsco is Algonquian for “backwater”), to sacred sites across the estuary.

“We have been here, we are the people of the Chesapeake,” says Piscataway Conoy tribal chairman Francis Gray, whose ancestral lands extend along the Western Shore, from the Patapsco River in Baltimore County through Southern Maryland, where his people work with the National Park Service, NOAA, and regional waterkeeper associations on local environmental projects. “In our worldview, the Bay is a living entity.”


The city was built on the back of its marshy basin.


When Baltimore Museum of Industry visitors ask how the city came to be, senior docent Jack Burkert knows the answer: “I take them to the window and point to the harbor . . . it begins here.” In 1661, an English Quaker named David Jones built the first farm in the region, just north of a marshy basin off the Patapsco River—on a plot of land and along a winding stream that would both eventually take his name (Jonestown and the Jones Falls, respectively). Before long, other settlers were drawn to those fertile soils and fine forests, and by 1729, Baltimore Town was established as a future tobacco port. It never quite became one, but over the centuries, a booming hub did develop around its waterfront, starting with the deepest docks in Fells Point. From Woodberry to Curtis Bay, neighborhoods fanned out along the waterways, founded on industries that were forged by the harbor and fueled by immigrants whose port of entry was the Chesapeake. “Looking at old maps, you can see the city grow in this concentric circle, bigger and bigger, out from the harbor,” says historian Johns Hopkins (no relation) of the nonprofit Baltimore Heritage (BH). “But the oldest part remains right there.”

In the summer of 1608, Captain John Smith launched a small sloop from Virginia’s Jamestown and started to make his way up the Chesapeake. The English explorer was in search of precious metals and a passage to the Pacific Ocean, part of his home country’s quest to capture a viable colony in the “New World.” Instead, through storms, seasickness, and a near-death by stingray, he found a different kind of gold mine: “the most pleasant place ever known” with “large and pleasant navigable rivers” where “heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation” along a “fair bay, compassed but for the mouth, with fruitful and delightsome land.” While historians have since questioned some of Smith’s details (like that run-in with Pocahontas), his records would inspire others to explore, and then colonize, this estuary, shaping where we live today. A complicated character, indeed, but he offers us a peek into the Bay that once was—as well as old Baltimore. His noted “bank of red clay” would eventually become Federal Hill.

Trace the lines of any Chesapeake skipjack and you’ll follow the shape of water. Maryland’s state boat is part of a long lineage of local watercraft that were built for this particular estuary. Like log canoes, pungies, bugeyes, and even Baltimore clippers before them, their shallow hulls were made for the shoals of our tidal waterways. Simple sails were fit for both our mild winds and smaller crews, so more energy could be spent, say, fending off the British or harvesting oysters. Materials hailed from nearby natural resources, like white oak and yellow pine forests, while some designs and techniques dated back to Indigenous shipwrights.

Before roads, boats were our Buicks, used for everything from carrying cargo to just getting from A to B. And up and down the Bay, a few of the region’s once-prolific boatyards still exist, like the Patuxent Small Craft Center on Solomons in Southern Maryland, or the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where they just finished a replica of the Maryland Dove that belonged to Lord Baltimore. In Baltimore, head to the harbor to watch canvas unfurl when the Sigsee, Constellation, and Pride leave their slips. And any time you cross over the Bay Bridge, know that those iconic deadrise workboats are a hat-tip to their predecessors, with some of the same graceful curves riding the waves as they have for centuries.




An estuary that could launch a thousand ships—and then some.

riving along the Jones Falls Expressway, motorists often forget that the once-rushing stream of its namesake is now buried beneath them. And not just any stream, but a 17-mile tributary so significant that it can be credited with the transformation, if not creation, of Baltimore.

Before it was a bona fide boomtown, the city was just a sleepy backwater with a struggling tobacco trade, with economic success felt further south, on the plantations of the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland. That is, until the 1750s, when Scottish colonist John Stevenson got the grand idea to sell a different crop that actually liked the local landscape. He packed up a few bushels of wheat, bid it goodbye down the swampy harbor, and the rest is history.

Dozens of water-driven gristmills soon scrambled to that old geological highline—the Jones and Gwynns Falls, as well as along the Patapsco River—and Baltimore flour made Maryland the “breadbasket of the American Revolution.” “That was the city’s first big success,” says Baltimore Heritage’s Hopkins. From there, “Our harbor became busier and busier, then people start sending all sorts of stuff out of it.”

Of course, to move that merchandise, we needed ships, and Fells Point’s first shipyard heeded the call. Soon, other boat-building operations lined the waterfront, with wharves and warehouses rising to meet demand, launching the city’s second industry. Ironworks forged anchors. Fiber factories twisted hemp into rope. And as agriculture diversified, those old mills turned to flax, then cotton, making Baltimore the nation’s largest maker of “duck canvas,” aka sails. The Chesapeake was now a maritime Mecca, and the city’s eventual clipper ships can be credited with winning the War of 1812, thus saving America.

It was around this same time that we also began using boats to hungrily harvest the Bay’s finest export: seafood. Inspired by a growing population, watermen took to the then-prodigious oyster reefs—once solely used for local sustenance and so large they were navigational hazards—then sold their catch through Baltimore. Some of it traveled on ice via the B&O Railroad, but for better shelf life, with the advent of steam, the city’s first cannery opened in 1849, followed—like shipyards—by a hundred others, gaining the town its reputation as “Oyster City.” In the off-season, they packed produce—sweet corn, tomatoes, peaches—sailed in from the Eastern Shore. “Waterways were the highways,” says the BMI’s Burkert. “We had ships that went in every direction in and out Baltimore.”

Fittingly, too, those cans were made of steel manufactured just down the harbor, at Sparrows Point. The freshly dredged shipping channel launched another new era, with deep-sea vessels pouring into Bethlehem Steel and the Port of Baltimore, which remains the ninth most valuable in the country.

Over the years, the Bay’s industry has evolved—exit tinned fish, enter recreation and tourism—but the estuary endures as an economic powerhouse. Fisheries still bring in $300 million annually, while restoration-related projects create thousands of jobs. And in Baltimore, one particularly sweet vestige hangs on today. By the late 19th century, sugar refineries speckled the harbor, says Hopkins. “You can still watch the big old ships, coming and going with Domino.


The patron saint of Chesapeake cuisine, chef John Shields shares a few fond memories.

If we only had one word to describe the Bay’s terroir, that would be easy: brackish. Mencken referred to this slightly salty place as “the great protein factory,” and aquatic ingredients are undoubtedly the heart and soul of our local foodways, much as they always have been. But few chefs champion that bounty quite like John Shields of Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen. Since 1998, he’s kept first-rate fried oysters and classic crab soup flowing in Baltimore, though the 71-year-old Parkville native has spent a lifetime loving the Bay’s seafood.


On public markets:
“These days, we have ‘sexy’ seafood, but back in the day, it was pan-fry fish. Perch, herring—like Herring Run! We lived here in Baltimore and there were so many wonderful fishmongers. North Avenue Market. Cross Street. And of course, Faidley’s at Lexington.”

On the best striped bass:
“One of my favorite things, my grandmother, Gertie, would make once or twice a month during the season, typically when the relatives went fishing and brought home a beautiful rockfish. She’d butter a baking pan, slice in some onions, take the whole fish, wrap it in bacon from the German butcher down the street, put it in the pan, then pour local milk in the bottom. It would roast and steam all at the same time. It was so good, but also so simple.”

On beginner bivalves:
“Growing up, I had a pretty working-class upbringing. I remember some of my father’s friends would come home after working a night shift, grab us kids, and take us to the corner bar. For breakfast, they’d get platters of oysters and glasses of locally brewed beer. I remember thinking that was the coolest thing. Way better than my oatmeal.”

There is a place on the upper Eastern Shore where fields lead to forests that turn to bluffs that tumble into the tranquil Sassafras River, and if you arrive too late after the autumn equinox, it will smell like sweet garbage. Weeks prior, this pawpaw grove hung heavy with the perfectly ripe version of North America’s largest native fruit—dusty green, the size of your palm, soft to the touch, like a naked avocado. Until recently, such wild orchards were one of the watershed’s best-kept secrets, with only multi-generation fans and master foragers knowing exactly where to find them. But once you’ve studied their smooth trunks and sizable leaves, you realize: They’re everywhere, and always near local streams and riverbeds. Maryland is one of the pawpaw’s 26 home states, and that custardy pulp is now making its way onto regional menus—a fleeting delicacy usually served in the shape of jams, pies, and ice creams. Long before that, though, they were a common food for Native American communities, Lewis and Clark expeditions, and African Americans on the Underground Railroad. That first taste should involve cracking one open, grabbing a spoon, and eating it raw. Just catch them before they fall—and ferment. At that point, they’re raccoon food.



It’s quite the vision to witness the Bay’s last working sailboats as they ply its waters once again. Make it a bucket-list item to visit Deal Island, where every Labor Day, this vanishing fleet embarks on an exhilarating race along the southern Eastern Shore.


One of the Bay’s most cute and quirky attractions is this circa-1683 ferry line that treks less than a mile at a snail’s pace between its two namesake towns in Talbot County. Drive or bike on, then delight in a few minutes of time travel.


This Harford County haven offers everything one could possibly want to know about the waterfowling history (and decoy carving art) of the Chesapeake. But even if that’s not your cup of tea, consider it worthy for sweeping scenes of the Susquehanna Flats at the very top of the estuary.


Although it’s admittedly a tourist attraction, one should see at least one lighthouse in their Maryland lifetime. Built in 1828, this Calvert County beacon is still in operation, providing assistance for passing vessels, plus an Airbnb rental for a quintessentially Chesapeake getaway.


There are New England clambakes and Louisiana crawfish boils and Texas barbecues. But we’ll use our fighting words to say: No region’s edible traditions can touch a Chesapeake Bay crab feast.

Long seen as the poor man’s seafood, crab wasn’t king in Maryland until the turn of the last century, when the prestigious local oyster population declined and the callinectes sapidus, aka “savory beautiful swimmer,” finally got its time to shine. During World War II, the invention of the modern-day crab pot propelled that star status further, and with the rise of refrigeration, crab houses were commonplace by the 1950s. Last year, some 30 million pounds of them were heaved up from Chesapeake waters, with demand now so high that local picking houses often have to haul in hard shells from other states.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to eat our Bay blues. By your lonesome. At an intimate gathering. At a restaurant with tablecloths (good luck with that). But for our money, there’s nothing as magical as a Maryland crab feast.

For starters, time slows down and shoulders ease when that first yard of brown paper unfurls. Friends, family, and strangers gather, and before long, a piping hot pile of newly red crustaceans, dusted in salt and spices, gets dumped onto the table. Then all standards of manners are thrown to the breeze as we commence a primal ritual. “After that, nature takes its course,” wrote The Sun in 1937, even suggesting the use of a “broomstick or other suitable weapon” for those especially strong shells.

Brows are wiped with elbows. Mustardy innards are licked from bare fingers. Whole creatures are meticulously picked with buzzard-like precision, then devoured, with swimmer fins serving up those prized pieces of jumbo lump. We prick our mitts. We get Old Bay in our eyes. Corn cobs and watermelon rinds get thrown into the carnage.

But we crack open another Natty Boh and continue to eat our hearts out, sometimes well into the night.



All hail our small but mighty tribs.

n Frederick County, the gentle curves of Big Hunting Creek wrap through the Catoctin Mountains on the western edge of central Maryland. Hemlocks and hardwoods lean out over the rocky water, while the occasional brook trout slips between the shadows. No houses, no asphalt, no noise beyond birdsong—it can seem like a world unto itself, likely close to what it looked like before 18 million people decided to call this watershed their home. But gravity knows, there are no boundaries, and eventually this sinuous creek will draw outward, swirling with other small streams, before slipping into the free-flowing Monocacy River, then traveling south to the powerful Potomac, which hundreds of miles later opens into the big wide blue beyond.


Without much ado, one tributary flows into the other on the Chesapeake, some 100,000 of them funneling into a labyrinthine patchwork of watersheds within watersheds across six states and Washington, D.C. In Baltimore, we know a few by name. The Patapsco. The Gunpowder. The Gwynns Falls. The Jones Falls. The Herring Run. But there are myriad others, from the largest rivers, like the Susquehanna, Potomac, Patuxent, and Choptank in Maryland or the Rappahannock, York, and James in Virginia, to the smallest branches, streams, and creeks with lesser-known names like Big Hunting. These “tribs,” as some locals call them, are never far from reach—the unassuming waterways that slink through our towns, under our bridges, between our neighborhoods, even into our own backyards, each with their own unique character and interconnected community of living things.

Both modest and mighty, it is here where much of the Bay’s life is born, where other creatures come for food and shelter, and where we humans hike, paddle, fish, take dips and, these days, sunset selfies. Their fresh waters are often our closest tether to the estuary, and our interactions have implications downstream. All eventually pulse into the heart-like basin—some 50 billion gallons a day—where they blend with the ocean tides to form the foundation of this grand ecosystem, as well as its future. “What goes into our local streams is what makes it into the Bay,” says Scott Phillips, retired Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “and that’s what makes a difference.”


For the enslaved, water was a means of emancipation.

All across the Chesapeake, the landscape is carved with a tangle of tidewater—its creeks, streams, and rivers unfurling like their own sort of road. During the days of slavery, this geography established a sense of isolation for African Americans, but also channels of information, and even emancipation. Visiting Black sailors helped spread stories of freedom throughout the estuary, and at times provided secret passage to safer shores up north. Notably, between the tributaries of the Delmarva Peninsula, numerous relics still linger from the life of Harriet Tubman, pictured above, including several locations said to have been involved in the Underground Railroad, not far from where her namesake museum now stands in Dorchester County. Born in the marsh swamps outside of Cambridge in 1822, the abolitionist fled this region but famously returned at least 13 times to free more than 70 friends and family members. Around that same time, just up the road in Easton, Frederick Douglass made a failed attempt to flee by canoe in 1836. Years later, though, he did escape, while hired out in Baltimore as a ship’s caulker, but this time via train from the President Street Station, disguised as one of these very African-American seafarers.



Throughout the year, Blue Water Baltimore hosts recurring stream cleanups, with volunteers removing 1,500 pounds of trash and debris from city waters in 2022. Stay tuned to their website for upcoming dates.


After ordering an iconic “SAVE THE BAY” bumper sticker, join one of CBF’s regular tree plantings to help buffer local shorelines from pollution and erosion, with events taking place around the state and watershed.


The Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Shell Recycling Alliance partners with more than 300 watershed restaurants and public drop-off sites (including 48 in Baltimore) to repurpose old shells for reef restorations.


Homeowners can rethink their lawn chemicals and landscaping fertilizers, which contribute to runoff around the estuary, and also ask their Audubon Center about the extra benefits of gardening with native plants that promote local wildlife.


It’s become an increasingly familiar scenario. After heavy rains, the Conowingo Dam heaves open its hulking floodgates and releases a cascade of muddy water into the headwaters of the Chesapeake. A polluted influx of Pennsylvania debris invades tributaries, piles up along beaches, and sullies the upper reaches of the estuary for weeks, its lingering effects lasting even longer.

But it’s not just these big events that play a role in the Bay’s perpetual poor health—receiving a C-plus on its last official report card, released each year by UMCES. “The tributaries are the plumbing of this watershed,” says USGS’s Phillips, “and if they don’t carry clean water, it’s going to end up dirty downstream.”

Less than 30 percent of tidal waters meet the standards of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Watershed Agreement, up for review in 2025, and most of the millions of pounds of pollution added to them each year actually comes from on land. The Bay’s ecosystems need nutrients to survive, , which they’ve long received from the surrounding soil, but unnaturally high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus fuel algae blooms that block sunlight and reduce oxygen in the water, suffocating marine life—aka those infamous “dead zones.”

Of the usual suspects, sewage treatment plants are actually improving, thanks to infrastructure upgrades, but urban-suburban stormwater remains an issue, and agriculture runoff is still the biggest concern. Both are driven by precipitation and often also carry water-clouding sediment and harmful chemicals. “It’s easy to point fingers,” says Adam Ortiz, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. “But most of the states are falling short one way or another.” And all are needed to actually clean up the Bay.

Throughout the watershed, farmers are being incentivized to green their practices, forests are being protected and planted for their ability to absorb runoff, and smart development can soften the blow by prioritizing pervious surfaces, for starters. “We have really big challenges,” says Hilary Falk, president of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “But if we follow the science, if we hold ourselves and each other accountable, if we think about investment and innovation, we can do this. Right now, it’s important to keep going.”



The Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper leaves hope for the Patapsco.

he Patapsco River gets a bad rep. And at times, in Baltimore, fairly so, with its Inner Harbor on the receiving end of sewage spills and its Middle Branch encircled by a snare of interstate highways. In fact, the 40-mile tributary has one of the lowest water-quality scores on the Bay’s report card. “The Patapsco River is seen as a blight, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), who oversees 49 monitoring stations between the Patapsco and Back rivers.

Decent conditions are reported at headwaters like Dipping Pond Run of the upper Jones Falls and outer reaches like Bodkin Creek, but further into the city, four main pollutants become pervasive—wastewater and stormwater, as well as trash and toxic contaminants. “Our streets are our streams,” says Volpitta, with every sidewalk draining directly into local waterways. “We have a lot of vibrant ecosystems here, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. We’ve built this city with our backs to the water, until you get to the Inner Harbor.” Even then, though, Pier 5 is one of her most polluted sites, though it joins 33 others in showing signs of improvement.

In 2017, under state and federal pressure, Baltimore enacted a $1.6-billion upgrade for the city’s antiquated sewer system, which leaks waste not just into surrounding waters but also local homes, up to a dozen times a day. “There’s still a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction,” says Volpitta, tipping her hat to Mr. Trash Wheel for removing 2,362 tons of garbage to date, but also noting the need for more trees, green spaces, and natural shorelines throughout the city to absorb stormwater.

Many stations remain too polluted for recreation, their high bacteria levels harmful to human health. BWB maintains an online map of their statuses, but it remains a perennial question: will we ever swim again? “I’m never going to tell somebody not to go swimming in the harbor, and I probably won’t tell somebody to either,” says Volpitta. “I want to give people enough information to make their own choice. Will I take my four-year-old wading into the amphitheater steps right after a thunderstorm? No, because there’s probably been a sewage outflow. But am I going go kayaking in July, if it hasn’t rained in a while, I don’t have any open cuts, and I’m a healthy person? Absolutely, I would.”




On the low-lying Eastern Shore, far out along the western edges of Dorchester County, the line blurs between where land ends and water begins. The magnitude of the 9,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is best observed along Maple Dam Road, a sinewy country two-lane that cuts through its seemingly endless horizon of majestic marsh. The occasional muskrat or sika deer stumbles across the weather-worn asphalt, and bald eagles and hawks hover over the cordgrass and bulrush in search of supper—just some of the 250- plus bird species, including tens of thousands of overwintering geese and ducks, that call this habitat their home. Along an inky terrain, these wetlands live in a balancing act with the brackish tides. As the Bay bombards its shorelines, the grasses adapt, growing upward by collecting sediment beneath them, or slowly but surely moving inland, as the surrounding loblolly pine forest succumbs to the stress of intruding saltwater.

That natural resiliency proves vital in the face of rising sea levels, with wetlands also existing as a sponge-like buffer to soak up runoff, subdue storm surges, stabilize shorelines against erosion, and, like trees, sequester carbon—though it’s likely that climate change will eventually outpace them. Some loss is already evident, and worst-case scenarios project almost all of Blackwater vanished by 2100. Scientists are scrambling to keep up, creating or restoring 16,000 wetland acres across the watershed, with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s ultimate goal being 85,000. And others are getting creative, with projects underway like the National Aquarium’s floating wetlands and Middle Branch Park’s forthcoming living shorelines.

“When people think about the Chesapeake Bay, they think about the open water, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that what really inspires us are the edges,” says Patrick Megonigal, a principal ecologist at SERC, who specializes in studying these ecosystems. “Whether we realize it or not, a lot of that is wetlands—these grassy shores, full of great blue herons, and egrets, and oyster reefs, where we kayak in and out of tidal creeks. We’re intimate with them. They’re what makes the Bay so enigmatic.”

There are parts of the Chesapeake that could be mistaken for the Everglades. Looking out over a boat’s edge near the Virginia line, undulations of underwater grasses ripple and rise to the surface, providing not just a stunning scene but a host of benefits—blue crab habitat, waterfowl sustenance, shoreline buffer, runoff removal, carbon capture, and, like other plants, oxygen for wildlife to breathe. And because they need clear water to grow, this submerged aquatic vegetation (known as “SAV” among environmental folk) is considered a key indicator for the estuary’s well-being. “They’re the canary in the coal mine,” says Bill Dennison, marine science professor at UMCES and scientific lead of its annual report card. “They’re the first to go, but also come back.” With the right precipitation and reduced runoff, SAVs thrive here. But with heavy rains and poor regulation, pollution and sediment flow in and cloud their sunlight, stunting them. Currently, they’re recovering from two especially wet years, rebounding to 67,470 acres in 2021, though scientists estimate historic peaks as high as half-a-million. Some of the 20 local species are especially sensitive to shifts in conditions, like widgeongrass and eelgrass. The latter has a low tolerance to warming water temperatures, which are only slated to increase with climate change. But just up I-95, the 10-square-mile Susquehanna Flats continue to sprawl out in Harford County. These well-established beds—SAVs like wild celery, stargrass, coontail, sometimes six feet long—have crossed a size threshold and built up a natural resilience to storms and stress, at least in part due to Bay cleanup efforts. “It’s an amazing sight,” says Dennison, noting that the Flats are visible from satellite imagery. “If given a chance, they can bounce back.”

An eroding Watts Island in the Tangier Sound of the southern Bay.—Photography by Jay Fleming


The Chesapeake Bay hangs in the balance of a changing planet.

t first, a 1965 map of Smith Island doesn’t appear that different from the way it looks today. But moving in closer, the lines soften, the water widens, and the land recedes, if not disappears entirely. There are still 261 residents on this Maryland archipelago near the Virginia line in the middle of the Chesapeake, and several of its once-inhabited marshes have returned to nature, with more than 4,500 acres now protected as the Martin National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s a glimpse into what the Chesapeake looked like, even half a century ago,” says Matthew Whitbeck, the refuge’s supervising biologist, pointing to its pristine habitat for nesting birds. “The problem is, it’s disappearing quickly....Eventually it will go underwater.”

Like many other waterfront edges along this estuary, Smith Island is succumbing to winds and waves, with erosion and rising sea levels predicted to only increase in coming years in the face of climate change. Over the last century, the Bay’s waters have risen about a foot, but are expected to climb as many as 2.3 feet by 2050—or 6.9 by 2100. That’s three times faster than during colonial days, and the future height hinges on our rate of greenhouse gas emissions—the primary cause of present-day global warming. “That’s what the science tells us, unequivocally,” says Donald Boesch, president emeritus of UMCES and co-author of the 2018 sea-level rise projections used by the state of Maryland. “The Bay is changing, and there are many issues related to climate change, but we shouldn’t be fatalistic.”

A circa-1877 map of Smith Island on the Maryland-Virginia line.—Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Trust

Admittedly, that’s easier said than done, with unprecedented effects already underway throughout the Chesapeake. The region’s average air temperature has increased about two degrees since 1900, with as much as an additional five projected by 2060. That might not sound so bad, but like the human body, even a small uptick can mean the difference between sickness and health. And in a shallow Bay, the Chesapeake feels it quickly. “Temperature turns out to be really important,” says SERC’s Ogburn, with warmer air meaning warmer water, which can cause what scientists call “ecological regime shifts.” With rising temperatures, some SAVs decline, impacting the marine life they house and feed, like blue crabs. Such fluctuations could also influence seasonal migrations for species like spawning rockfish, potentially to their detriment—or ours, if they move north. And so it could go, dominoing down the food chain. “We’ve got a very productive environment that supports a huge range of species, but it’s also mercurial, it changes a lot, depending upon weather, which we know is shifting because of climate change,” says NOAA’s Corson. “We’re only just now beginning to explore what the impacts might be.”

It is certain that warmer waters hold less oxygen, which can exacerbate “dead zones” caused by pollution. And despite our best efforts, more runoff seems inevitable, with global warming’s changing weather patterns including not only milder winters, earlier springs, and longer summers, but more precipitation, with more intense but sporadic downpours, as well as storms. Which people in this densely populated estuary already know means more floods.

Twenty years ago, Hurricane Isabel brought an eight-foot storm surge into the Inner Harbor, destroying nearly 600 homes and businesses and causing $4.8 million in damages. But increasingly, there’s also “nuisance flooding,” once an occasional occurrence that now happens dozens of times a year. You can see it in Baltimore’s Fells Point, Annapolis’ City Dock, and on the National Mall in D.C., but, as with most environmental hazards, minority communities, like West Baltimore’s Frederick Avenue corridor, which was devastated by a flash flood in 2018, often bear the brunt.

“Then, just to make life complicated, there is the fact that our land is sinking,” says UMCES’s Coles, referring to natural “subsidence,” partly due to the last ice age’s receding glaciers, causing the local landscape to settle, compounding rising sea levels, making them twice as fast as the global average here. Altogether, “We’re losing islands, we’re losing wetlands,” says Beth McGee, director of science at CBF. “Climate change is going to make our restoration challenges more difficult.”

Still, there are ways to mitigate, and adapt, and often they also help clean up the estuary, like implementing natural shorelines and increasing forest cover, which is being lost in the watershed by 70 acres a day. Maryland has pledged to plant 500 million saplings by 2031. And along with Virginia, it is also restoring 1,282 acres of depleted oyster reef—a living breakwater, with each mollusk able to filter up to 50 gallons of Bay a day. And Governor Wes Moore just committed the Old Line State to net-zero emissions by 2045. Sustainable development, regenerative farming practices, and electric vehicles will help achieve that. “For some, changes might seem rapid or intrusive, but that’s the nature of the problem, it requires a forceful response,” says UMCES’s Boesch, who also points to the benefit of solar panels. “It’s difficult to think about what we need to do, but I don’t think it’s that difficult to convince people to save the Bay. It’s part of who we are, it’s our sense of place.”

Any Smith Islander will tell you, if it comes from the mainland (like that one baking company in Crisfield with a familiar name)—it ain’t a Smith Island cake. Instead, those real-deal confections——at least eight ethereal layers of vanilla cake caulked together with fudge frosting—are made out in the open water of the Chesapeake on its namesake island, in the home kitchens of multigenerational ladies who keep their recipes close to chest. We’re talking about the late Frances Kitching, or the enduring Mary Ada Marshall. And other names lost to time. No one knows the dessert’s true origin, but legend has it that watermen’s wives concocted these towering treats to fortify their husbands through winter oyster harvests. Others say that the fudge helped keep slices fresh, that thin layers were easier to bake before electricity, and that the secret ingredient of evaporated milk was due to the island’s dearth of dairy cows. But what is it that makes Maryland’s official state cake so good? “Sugar! Butter! Icing! Which is butter and sugar!” says chef John Shields, who used to host Chesapeake Bay Cooking on PBS, through which he met Mrs. Kitching. “With so many layers, they’re just fun.”



At the very end of the Delmarva Peninsula, Virginia’s Eastern Shore ends with this quaint waterfront town worth the trek for its sandy beaches, scenic nature preserves, and panoramas of some of the broadest widths of the Chesapeake.


In its fourth century, the first English settlement in North America now offers a thought-provoking portrait of the life for early colonists, Native American communities, and enslaved African Americans along the James River.


The Pamunkey Indian Museum exists on the tribe’s reservation along their namesake branch of the York River. Pay homage to their ancestral lands and learn about their way of life, dating back as many as 12,000 years on this estuary. Hours vary throughout the season.


As the mailboat departs from Crisfield, it only takes about 30 minutes to lose all sight of land. It happens not long after the hull’s chop cuts through the invisible Maryland line and moves into Virginia waters. Out here on this ad-hoc ferry, about a hundred miles as the crow flies south from the Baltimore harbor, this widest stretch of the Chesapeake looks more like the Atlantic Ocean—a world of blue. But within the hour, a fleck of green comes into focus on the horizon, and before long, a stream of shanties situated on half-submerged pilings leads into Tangier Island. It is the last speck in this great estuary’s path on out to sea, and it has become the poster child for climate change, with locals placing most blame on erosion, sometimes with the 11th-generation hint of an English brogue.

Visiting can induce a sense of voyeurism, having ventured out so far to set eyes on this bygone way of living. Instead, go for the soft-crab sandwiches, bring a kayak to explore the deserted Uppards, and if you’re lucky, find a local willing to show off the other islands—Watts, Goose, Fox, Smith. There were others, too, but they have tumbled into the tides. The water allows a rare, reverie-like encounter with a remote version of the Bay, still largely untouched by the march of time—pelicans roosting on beachy marsh, submerged forests telling tales of past shorelines, watermen quietly plying the grasses for those “peelers” that you had for lunch, as those before them have done for centuries.

“Without its islands, the Bay would lose a vital texture,” wrote Tom Horton in his 1987 Bay Country, and over time, his words have become even more relevant. Some could vanish in the next half century. But for now, they stand as testament to the long arc of our ancient Chesapeake.




It’s a feat to read this 896-page novel that has undoubtedly become the most famous book about the Bay. Published in 1978, Chesapeake attempts to illustrate 395 years of local history, from early Native Americans through Hurricane Agnes. Unironically, Chapter One is our favorite. The main character’s first encounter with the estuary reflects its grandeur to this day.



If there’s one book to read about the Chesapeake, it should be this 1977 Pulitzer Prize winner, which gracefully documents the salt-kissed way of life for local watermen. Even more impressively, Warner is able to capture the elusive magnetism of our beloved blue crabs, and the enduring allure of our splendid Bay—which he so eloquently calls an “intimate place.”



One cannot tell the story of this estuary without mention of the brutal realities of slavery. Published in 1845, this autobiography by Maryland’s most famous son shares the horrors of his bondage along Eastern Shore tributaries and tales of setting sail for Baltimore, where he would live as a hired-out ship’s caulker, then later escape. “One hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will,” Douglass dreamed as a young man. “It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very Bay shall yet bear me into freedom.” And so it did.


The Bay Journal is a great reminder of the importance of the free press, with its monthly print and weekly digital newspaper dedicated solely to covering the environmental news of the Chesapeake. Launched in 1991, the nonprofit newsroom is the premier source for everything from estuary science and the state of local seafood to essays rooted in the region. Best of all, subscriptions are free.



This former Sun reporter and de-facto Bay Bard created a classic with his 1996 memoir about living on Smith Island, leaving behind a time capsule for this remote enclave of the lower Chesapeake, its uniquely preserved culture, and its majestic marshes.


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