Dock of the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 24
June 14-20, 2001
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Rowing, Paddling & Wading into a Better River

Congressman Steny Hoyer measures the height at which retired state Sen. Bernie Fowler’s sneakers were visible.

June’s full moon was obscured by a lowering cloud lazily sliding in from the northwest. Eight boats coursed silently up the creek somewhere ahead of us. We’d said we’d catch up with them, but as time went on that seemed increasingly unlikely. We plowed along as quietly as possible in an ancient, clanking, tin jon boat with squeaky oarlocks, when suddenly, from way too nearby, came the sound of a bowling ball hitting the water with considerable velocity.

"Did you hear that!” my eight-year-old son exclaimed, interrupting the high-speed data flow that had suddenly erupted between my ears. No explosion. We weren’t being shelled, unless that was a dud. Snapping turtles don’t fly. Kamikaze ducks? Too far north for gators … I think.

We were, in our own small way, rowing in the week-long, 42-mile Patuxent River Sojourn, a gathering of like-minded souls that set off June 5 from a put-in place on the river just below the point where it crosses Route 214. They were wending their way to a point an easy distance from the river’s mouth just in time for the 14th annual Bernie Fowler Wade-In. All of the vessels, save the official escorts, were human powered.

"I don’t know, John. Actually I think there are some kinds of fish that like to lie on the bottom, and when they see something swim by overhead they go up really fast and get it from underneath.”

Why did I say that? He giggles nervously. Shark River in New Jersey, was it, in 1905 when those guys got et? I wonder if— paloosh! Another one. Thirty feet off the port bow. Well, they haven’t hit us yet. We slow down, slide in close to the left bank and creep along in silence.

After 12 minutes and another paloosh, we’re homeward bound, just circumstantially hugging the right bank. I figure that subs can’t maneuver nearly as well in the shallows. Then, illuminated by the distant loom of clouds lit from below, I see a small wet, furry head moving through the water in a course parallel to ours. It suddenly reverses, dives and leaps out of the water, landing in such a manner as to make it sound like a cannonball.

“I think it’s a beaver,” I laugh.

“What?” says my son.

“That sound. I think it’s a …” splash!

This one hits the boat on the portside chine about a foot behind me.

“What was that?”

“A fish. It’s okay. It’s okay.” Splash. Splash.
John didn’t say anything, but somehow I knew I hadn’t entirely convinced him.

The random splashes, soft and loud, continued to dog us as we headed for home. The river was alive, but apparently not as alive as it had been, which was why we were here.

I first encountered the Patuxent River Sojourners at their first night’s campsite at Patuxent River Park in Prince Georges County at the end of their first day on the river. They were joyously stomping their way through a contra dance.

“This is a really nice group of people,” said Joan Spinner, who has paddled the navigable length of the Patuxent. “They really just like being on the river.”

The days that followed revealed that these folks not only love the Patuxent but are committed to healing it.

“I can remember wading out into the river till my weight wouldn’t hold me and still being able to see a crab swimming along the bottom meters away just as clear as it could be,” said former state Sen. Bernie Fowler, who has for decades led efforts to clean up the river. He met with the sojourners after three days of paddling at Kings Landing Park in Calvert County.

“The advantage of being old is that I can remember how good the river was before things got bad,” said 77-year-old Fowler. When the force of living memory disappears, activists’ efforts can begin to seem idealistic and improbable and lose the public’s attention, he said.

“In a way, the current clean-up has hurt us. So long as people can swim and water ski, they feel the river is cleaned up,” said Fowler, who said that he is unsure that there is the political will to do the job right.

Fowler was preaching to an exceptionally motivated, educated and committed choir. The sojourners know their facts and figures: It is estimated that in the not too distant past, each water molecule in the Bay was filtered by shellfish once a week. The same process now takes 400 days. They know what the major problems are - storm water and runoff - and how to fix them.

This, of course, is the challenge. We can clean up the Patuxent and the Bay. In this time of peace and prosperity, we can pretty much do whatever we put our minds to, if we don’t mind paying the price. We won’t mind if we know the facts and figures and perhaps get a peek at the rewards. That’s what this sojourn is all about: Teaching and learning and doing.

The sojourners planted what I used to call simply seaweed, helped build an oyster bar, visited a heron rookery and an oil spill (still a very long way from being cleaned up) and taught my son more about tadpoles in a couple of minutes that I ever knew. They never made me feel dumb, even once. They were a very nice group of people to be around, and I’m not really a group kinda guy.

When the sojourners arrived at the Bernie Fowler Wade-In on the east side of Broomes Island early on the second Sunday in June, they were a tired and happy crew. Many talked of the upcoming Susquehanna Sojourn, where some would paddle, but sleep was on most minds.

The Bernie Fowler Wade-In was a very pleasant gathering on a warm (this Yankee found it hot) and sunny Sunday. The tent was up, the mowed field crackled underfoot and Elvis and his band sang and played from a little black box as the hour approached.

The cactus was in flower, and the porta-potties were immaculate. A low-key crowd of more than 100 assembled, some recently from church. As the moment grew nearer, Senator Fowler switched on the mike and sang out, “Come one, come all. Gather round, gather round. Can you hear me? Can you hear me back there? Then come on over here!” They came.

Poets and politicians spoke. Among the former was Tom Wisner, who came up with the idea of the wade-in a decade and a half ago. Among the latter, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer heralded Sen. Fowler for his great contributions, and Maryland Sen. Roy Dyson worried that Pepco’s last year oil spill remained to be cleaned up.

Then, the time was upon us. In his trademark straw hat, overalls and white sneakers, Fowler led us to the water. We lined up alongside him, joined hands and waded into the river together.

The river was very cool and refreshing. It was a happy and magical moment. Fowler lost sight of his sneakers as the water reached the top of my inseam, and we all slogged ashore for the reckoning.

The measurement came up eight inches short of last year’s, but this was attributed to the effects of recent rainfall.

In this gathering, there was no talk of lack of political will. There was a strong and passionate fine old gentleman telling us we were going to do what was right and get out there and get the job done and done right. I was ready to follow him through flaming quicksand. With gators. And bowling balls. So was everybody else.

Senator Dyson looked me in the eye and said, “It’s now or never.”

- Christopher Jensen

What Guitar-Great Danny Gatton Left Behind

photo by Mark Burns
Mike Granados can’t find enough manure for the 2,200 acres he farms. So he’s happy to truck chicken waste from Eastern Shore farmers.

On a drizzly May day, I am standing in the garage where musician Danny Gatton shot himself on October 4, 1994. So are 400 or so people, rummaging through his home and walking up and down rows of plastic-covered antique furniture, pots and pans and old-car memorabilia at the auction where his entire estate will be sold.

Gatton, who mixed his own concoction of rockabilly and jazz, was a fiercely independent guitar genius, typically refusing to commit to the greats who sought him in favor of working on albums his mother produced with bands of his own formation, including the Offbeats, Danny Gatton and the Fat Boys, the Danny Gatton Band, Red-Neck Jazz Explosion and Funhouse. The auction has brought out both fans and serious collectors. This master of the Telecaster had a signature guitar named after him by Fender; many of his guitars will be sold today.

Gatton was also a collector of cars and car memorabilia. This auction is a treasure trove of auto parts, gas station signs and even an old green Tokheim gas pump that lets me know gas once cost 29 cents a gallon.

Looking around the beautiful 15-acre property graced with weeping willow trees, I wonder how this 49-year-old man in the midst of an enviable career could have felt such despair.

Gatton, a native of Southern Maryland, bought the four-bedroom, three-bath farmhouse with a wrap-around porch in 1988. It’s tucked away in Newberg, a small town distinguished only by a sign, about 10 miles south of LaPlata. His wife, Jan, and daughter, Holly, now in college, had continued to live there.

At noon, a group of 50 gather in front of the house, which — along with its seven-bay garage and acreage — will be auctioned off today by Homestead Auction Co. and W.J. Fitzgerald & Co. The pace is unusually slow. There are only a couple of bidders, and auctioneer Billy Fitzgerald — who looks a little nervous — takes time to discuss the merits of the house and its enormous resale value.

“Why, the garage alone is worth at least $130,000. Such a low price for such a fine, fine piece of property,” he says, trying to push up the price.

Several in the audience look over to the enormous garage and nod their heads, but still no counter bid. The bidding starts at $325,000 and eventually ends at $370,000, just barely grazing the $350,000 reserve.

“We’re very happy with the turnout,” says Fitzgerald. “Bidders came from as far away as California. People were buying anything with Danny Gatton’s name on it. Even the guitar picks went for $20 a piece.”

Over on the lawn in front of the garage, a second auctioneer, Rodney Thompson, goes through the strangely diverse household possessions. Boxed lots of plastic cups are sold next to antique purses and guitar parts. The auctioneer’s solid, driving song makes no distinction between them.

Back at the garage, the most personal objects are piled up on the rows of tables. There are letters from fans and record companies, old album-cover art, tools and guns, among other things. High up on the wall is a calendar from 1990 that shows a different guitar for each month, one of the few mementos that hasn’t been pushed aside for the auction.

I end my tour in the back bay of the garage. In this separate room there are only a few people, maybe because there is so little see: a couple of rows of boxes of craft materials and Christmas ornaments. The most imposing figure here is the shell of a 1949 Mercury. It waits, with all of the necessary parts, to be put back together.

- Greshen Gaines

Wedding Day 1863

photo by Amanda Lofton
Officiating at the wedding: The Rev. James D. McCabe, above, in 1863; and the Rev. William Ticknor, in 2001.

You are cordially invited to attend the 1863 wedding of Frances Weems to John D. McPherson on Saturday, June 16 at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum in Shady Side.

There you are encouraged to fall into a daydream of yesterday as you mingle on the lawn with ladies in hoop skirts and the courteous gentlemen on their arms.

Your companions are descendants of Captain Avery, friends and family of the bride and groom and modern neighbors. Wearing formal Civil War morning clothes - dressy clothes less formal than evening wear - volunteers will act out an historically accurate Episcopalian wedding service performed by the Rev. William Ticknor, who is rector of St. James’ Parish in Lothian, as was his great, great, great, great grandfather before him. So old is his church that Weems and McPherson were married there, by the Rev. Doctor James D. McCabe, in a time so wracked, as church records say, “by the desolation of war,” that only 14 other couples married there that year.

Still, their wedding was a community event for members of the congregation and the town. Organizers from the Society hope to evoke that same feeling.

“We want this to be fun,” says June Hall, a docent at the Avery House. “The idea is to use entertainment to get people interested in the Bay and the history of the people who lived around it.”

History will be on display with a sampling of the traditional wedding gifts that would have accompanied the couple into their new home. Friends and family often gave luxury items that the newlyweds would use on special occasions.

The bride sewed her own trousseau, a hope-chest of linens, nightgowns and lingerie hand-stitched over years of anticipation.

After the ceremony, learn more about Bay ways by touring the Captain Salem Avery House to catch a glimpse of the life of a successful waterman and his family. The tight living quarters are arranged just as they might have been on a typical day in the late 19th century, complete with a bathtub in the kitchen.

The house was built around 1860. It was purchased in 1989 by the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society, which has worked steadily to bring the building closer to its original condition. The Society, which sponsors events and exhibitions year-round at the house, has now opened a library for historical research.

“The Society is a wonderful group that puts all their energy into the museum and has accomplished much in the 16 years they’ve been incorporated,” says Laura Hanes, an intern from the University of Maryland. Hanes researched local wedding traditions and picked this year’s bride and groom.

On Saturday, which is the annual celebration of Founders’ Day, you’re invited to meet members of the Society. You’re also encouraged to connect with neighbors while listening to the traditional music and entertainment by the Ship’s Company chanteymen, Miriam O’Connor and the Good Deale Pickers and the String Man. Steve Lampredi of the Ship’s Company also previews his 19th century melodrama, a precursor to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

“To find a way to connect history to the community,” says Hanes, “is the idea behind Founders’ Day.”
Hum along and spread out a blanket. Unpack a picnic basket from home, or choose from the hot dogs, hamburgers, crab cakes, barbecue and dessert, plus beer, wine and soft drinks, all for sale.

Take a post-meal walk down to the water, where you’ll see the banks of the West River to your left and the Chesapeake Bay on the right. Sightings of modern boats might be enough to bring you out of your historical reverie, but it’s a beautiful sight all the same — and all of it history.

Founders’ Day for the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society is celebrated rain or shine on Saturday, June 16, beginning at 4:30pm at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum, 1418 E. W. Shady Side Road. Free: 410/867-4486.

- Greshen Gaine

Way Downstream ...

In Calvert County, something odd was discovered in the pipe at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, which takes in over one billion gallons of Bay water daily: a dead sea turtle, the plant reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week. Many sea turtles are endangered; plant officials said they didn’t know the species …

In Washington, Wal-Mart agreed last week to a $1 million penalty and a $4.5 million environmental management plan to settle charges of Clean Water Act violations at 17 locations in four states, the Justice Department announced. Wal-Mart is pushing to open more stores in Chesapeake Country …

In San Francisco, the National Clean Boating Campaign kicked off its new season last weekend at a pier near Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s part preaching and part products; two of this season’s hot products are the Smart Sponge technology (, which removes oil from water and IONMAN (, a soapless boat washing system …

In London, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney - now Sir Paul in Britain - has replaced the late Princess Diana as the leader of a global campaign to rid the world of landmines. McCartney, accompanied by new girlfriend Heather Mills, said in announcing the new drive that landmines kill or wound three people every hour. About 60 million landmines are buried in 70 countries …

Our Creature Feature comes from Pittsburgh, where a headline in last Friday’s Post-Gazette told what had invaded downtown: Sex-crazed mayflies. Tens of thousands of the huge, wispy-winged mayflies, a staple of streams in rural Pennsylvania and Maryland, swooped down on buildings along the Allegheny River. They covered the windows of one skyscraper up to the 32nd floor.

Some of the city folks worried that their town was being taken over by creatures from outer space. But conservationists were overjoyed: It meant that the once-foul Allegheny River has become clean enough to encourage the hatching of these majestic aquatic insects.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly