The name Chesapeake comes from the Algonquin word K'che-sepi-ack, "country on a great river." In fact, Chesapeake Bay is a tidal estuary where fresh water from the land meets salt water from the sea. Estuaries are unbelievably rich in life, and Chesapeake Bay is the largest and most valuable estuary in the United States. But it is something else, too—acre for acre the most productive body of water in the world. Lefty Kreh, who is the outdoor columnist for the Baltimore Sun and a leading angling authority, says, "Last summer charter boats carrying four men, fishing no more than five hours in the bay, regularly returned with 500 to 600 pounds of bluefish."
The Chesapeake yields an average of 125 pounds of seafood per acre per year to sports and commercial fishermen. Its closest rival, the Sea of Azov in southern Russia—the estuary of the River Don—once produced 71 pounds of seafood per acre per year, but that was before part of the flow of the Don was diverted for irrigation in the 1950s. To biologists, the Chesapeake is "the queen of estuaries." There is no king.
The Chesapeake drains a watershed of 74,000 square miles—parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware and all of Maryland. Almost two dozen major rivers empty into it, one being the Susquehanna, the biggest river on the East Coast of the U.S. Running south from the mouth of the Susquehanna to the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henry, Va., the bay is 180 miles long and from five to 30 miles wide. Its surface covers 4,300 square miles, but its average depth is only 27.6 feet. The shoreline, which zigs and zags and zigs again, is 4,500 miles long. Its astounding length and shallowness result from the fact that the Chesapeake is a drowned river.
When you grow up near a large body of water like the bay, life for a young boy is not the same as it is in a place where there is none. For the water speaks of passage, of exotic distance, the darkness of exploration, all of which are difficult to hear behind a jackass and a plow engulfed by miles and miles of confining land; something else might be heard, or felt, but it is not the call of water in back of your door. Even so, great leaps of imagination could not obscure the fact that the shabbiest part of the bay lapped up against those Baltimore streets: sick-brown water with a surface of slime and malodor; steel mills and shipyards, nightmarish castles of noise and deadly ritual standing on its banks; the endless trail of long barges moving like legless roaches, and the freighters without the sparkle that the open sea would give them. It was not much, this perspective of the bay, but now it seems to have been better than none at all.
The true wonders of this water seemed far away; there were only the words and the still lifes that attested to their existence: fresh fish from the regal blue to the lowly cod resting in giant bins of ice at the fish market; bushels of squirming crabs ready for the steaming pot, the sea grass still twisted in their claws; ducks and geese, just downed, hanging in the windows of the corner stores; and the constant talk of men, sitting on their steps next to pails of draft beer, telling of past and future expeditions to secret places.
And then there was the weather of the bay, perfect for murder, with its winters of fog and dampness, dispiriting in the summer caught in the vise of cement and row houses. Summers dropped on the psyche and body like heavy, wet rope, beginning with the first glare of morning. The sidewalk trees seemed to beg for a wind, portending what the day would be for the aaa-rabs who yelled their way through the twisting alleys with their horses and wagons filled with everything from watermelons to corn on the cob, for the stevedores who would stagger back from the docks like weary fighters looking for their corners. If you were young, there were several exits from the heat: go to the end of a pier and try to catch a breeze, all the while thinking of the cold chill of Norway as one of its merchant ships coasted by; scratch enough pennies together to buy a cold watermelon, and then split it against a fire hydrant before burying your face in its cold red heart; or go visit the sailmaker up in his loft, with the hope of an odd job.
He was a tenacious man and surely one of the last of his kind. The loft was quiet and cool, with a wooden floor that was shiny and smooth from the years of having massive canvas pulled across it. He had always done most of his work by hand with waxed thread and needles. But now he had a good sewing machine, the thought of which brought a wry smile to his face, because he knew that soon his trade would be useless in the face of progress. Men like him would only be needed to equip the oyster boats, which by law still operated under sail. Since the decline of sailing ships, business had been bad, but now the loft was merely a place in which to dream and fiddle about. "Won't be here next week," he finally said one day, his eyes moving over the walls covered with pictures of ships for which he had made sails, of sketches and sail plans of vessels he had sent into wind. Long after he was gone, the smell of clean sail lingered on that street, the flash of long, quick fingers would oddly jump through the mind, and even now these things seem so real as one tries to re-create a young and faraway perspective of a body of water that holds so many.
Fifteen thousand years ago, Chesapeake Bay did not exist. There were no great stands of marsh lush with Spartina grass. There were no tide flats with clams, no reefs or oysters. Instead, a mighty, prehistoric Susquehanna River roared to the Atlantic through a bleak valley. Glaciers stood near to the north. With much of the continent covered by mile-high slabs of ice, the level of the Atlantic was 100 feet lower than now and the sea was 100 miles farther out from the present shoreline. As the glaciers melted and retreated 11,000 years ago, the ocean level rose, and salt water began to flood the continental shelf and surge into the valley. The tide now covers every corner of the bay and reaches well up into many tributaries, and still the level of the ocean continues to rise. In the last 50 years it has risen 8.5 inches in Chesapeake Bay, and the evidence is visible. Toppled trees, their roots undercut, fall into the bay as the tide eats into the shore with each rise and fall. The site of the original fort built at Jamestown in 1607, the first permanent English settlement in North America, slumped into the tidal James River in the 1890s, and the remains of the rest of the colony, visited now by tourists and schoolchildren, would be eroded were it not for a rock seawall erected by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
Erosion from tidal action, storms and river runoff make the Chesapeake murky. Maryland waters toward the head are darkest, but visibility is limited even in Virginia waters, where a diver enters a gloomy and foreboding realm. Swimmers accustomed to clearer depths are sometimes put off by the muddiness of the bay. Jellyfish are also a problem. Around the Chesapeake, people tend to speak softly of the jellyfish, as they might of some ne'er-do-well relative they wish would go away. But the jellyfish stay, and in the summer months they are so abundant that a cove might look as though it were covered with thick mucilage. The most bothersome of the sea nettles, Chrysaora quinquercirrha is a bell-shaped pulsing body of milky white that has hundreds of stinging cells on trailing tentacles up to four feet long.
The Chesapeake is probably the most studied estuary in the world. A couple of years ago the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory-Natural Resources Institute of the University of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Institute of Johns Hopkins University, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Smithsonian Institution all joined in a research consortium, and a special supplement of
Chesapeake Science, a quarterly journal, was devoted to the state of knowledge and condition of the plants and animals in the bay. Specialists wrote on such subjects as the local fungi, the reptiles (including the rainbow snake which, it was noted, "feeds almost exclusively on the common eel") and waterfowl. The Chesapeake is the largest wintering ground in North America for Canada geese—there are three-quarters of a million of them—and often attracts the largest concentration of whistling swans, black duck and canvasback. For most waterfowl an important food is the bay's widgeon grass, Ruppia maritima.