Monday, June 21, 2010

The evening light of Summer along the Chesapeake Bay is a wondrous thing. It’s actually a combination of colors that can ebb and flow like the tide...

I went to a camping party the other night out a place called Holly Beach Farm, near the mouth of the Severn River in Whitehall Bay. Holly Beach is one of the few remaining vestiges of the natural world left in the Annapolis area. It juts out into the Bay like a giant finger and is home to everything that used to live in abundance around the Severn — fox, terrapin, otter. It is literally the last refuge for those poor critters and the beauty of the place can take your breath away.

But this story isn’t about lost havens, it’s about light, evening light.

As I sat near the edge of Hacketts Point, the sun set like a giant red fireball right over the top of the Whitehall Mansion, which has been kissing the sun good day since Colonial Governor Horatio Sharp built the Broadneck’s first grand home ten years before the start of the Revolutionary War.

As the sun dipped below the tree line the color show really began in earnest. You would think the exact opposite would be true: The sun goes down; everything gets dark; nothing much to see; time to go inside.

But I was camping out, so I stayed put and took in the many dazzling sights.

At first, Whitehall Bay turned a burnt orange, reflecting the last rays of direct sunlight. But orange soon faded to pink, and finally to this color for which there is no name. Oh, I’m sure Home Depot has a name for it in their paint department, but it’s not a color that rolls easily off the tongue. It’s sort of an iridescent silver that intensifies as darkness descends. The water takes on the look of mercury soup, sometimes still, more often mixed with gently rolling waves.

There is a very noticeable smell that comes off the Bay at sunset. The Chesapeake stew has been cooking all day. And as the heat is slowly turned off, the wind dies down and if you are sitting near the water’s edge you will suddenly smell the Bay in all of its glory. It’s the sweetest stink in the world; like life and death and procreation all rolled into one riotous belch. I imagine that folks unfamiliar to the Chesapeake would ask in a somewhat unpleasant tone of voice, “What is that smell?”

For me, that smell is probably the quintessential essence of the Chesapeake Bay. I can’t describe it. I have smelled comparable odors along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But there is a subtleness to this smell that is the Chesapeake’s trademark. It’s the unmistakable smell of home.

As nighttime settled in over the water, the boats began their solitary dances. They were out there all along, but the darkness suddenly made me notice just how many of them there were. Like a grand water world ballet, there was a symmetry to their little dance, like someone was choreographing their intricate movements. Hundreds of boats, with red running lights on the bows and white or green stern lights, moved across the surface of the water, shapeless and solitary, heading for somewhere hidden in the night. Absent any real sense of depth perception, the boats all seemed to be converging on one another, when in fact they were far apart. The near misses were simply an optical illusion.

Darkness is a relative thing along the water. As the sun fades into twilight the amplitude of light gradually diminishes. But even at nine o’clock there is still the faintest trace of light on the horizon, some of it manmade, but most of it starlight. It’s a light that’s hard to pinpoint. Given our summer humidity, the air is never crystal clear like out in the western states. And starlight spreads across the sky with a shrouded glow. It is very faint. And unless you are in a place far away from the direct light from streets and houses, you would never even notice it’s there. For instance, you probably have a better chance of seeing a rainbow than you do of seeing the Milky Way around here in the summertime.

I kept sitting there on the rocks asking myself why it wasn’t dark yet. It was almost ten. Surely the sun had long since set and gone. So why was there still this hazy glow? It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually I realized it was the collective twinkling of the stars — the champion “soft white” light.

Whitehall Bay has become a popular anchorage for sailboaters wishing to avoid the docking fees of Annapolis Harbor. Hacketts Point wraps around the mouth of Whitehall Bay, sheltering boats from wind and waves and making it the ideal place to moor a boat for the night. Last Saturday found at least twenty large sailboats moored along the lee side of the point.

Now, I have been around sailboats my whole life, and yet I never noticed the little white lights at the top of their masts. I assume they are there to warn other boats of their location — makes perfect sense. But as I watched those sailboats drifting at the ends of their anchor line with the outgoing tide, I was reminded of candles, giant towering candles. And that vision suddenly triggered thoughts of Christmas; which led me to fond memories of the Light Parade in Annapolis Harbor, when all the boats don Holiday lights; and a feeling of melancholy washed over me like a warm wave. Could there be a finer place on Earth?

Lanterns shined softly from the cabins of the sailboats and I wondered what those sailors were doing in their boats — reading, cooking dinner, snuggling with a loved one, lounging on the deck and staring up at the stars. Did they too feel at home?

A small motor boat made its way out of Meredith Creek, weaving through the anchored sailboats as if navigating a slalom course. The wake from the boat made the candle-topped sailboats bob quickly up and down, crowning the night sky like shooting stars.

The silence of the evening was suddenly broken by the screeching cry of a great blue heron, a slow-motion silhouette flying only inches above the surface of the water as it headed home toward Burley Creek.

From its nest of sticks atop a lightning-scarred cedar an osprey angrily answered the heron. It sounded like he was telling the other bird to shut up.

Two mallards swimming close to shore called to one another softly and took flight as they neared the osprey’s nest near the end of Hacketts Point. Better safe than dinner.

A large fish, probably a rock, broke the surface with a loud slap of the tail and the water sparkled like diamonds in its wake.

My eye was drawn to the horizon where the State House dome shined brightly above the tree line along Grenbury Point. Since I was a small child, every time I see the State House at night, I feel reassured. It’s sort of like my security light.

The one thing that genuinely surprised me as I scanned the skyline that night was how many radio towers still dominate the nighttime sky around Annapolis. After the Navy brought down almost all of the radio towers on Greenbury Point a few years back, I figured most of the towers in the area were now gone, but that simply isn’t the case — not by a long shot. And I’m just talking about large towers, not the antennae on church steeples and water towers. It was hard to tell exactly what each one was, but as best I could figure there were the radio station towers for WNAV, WANN, WYRE; the three large county radio towers in Parole and several others that were a complete mystery.

And then, of course, there were the three Greenbury Point radio towers standing together on the end of the point. Even in the dark, their distinct outline was clear. Like Eiffel Towers, highlighted with red lights along their spines, they shone like beacons. They are the first thing a boater sees when nearing Annapolis. They stand like giant sentinels guarding the Severn, and they frame the entrance way to Annapolis harbor for anyone arriving by sea. From Hackett’s Point they looked downright majestic.

As I headed back to the beckoning comfort of the camp fire, I came to the conclusion that there are two essential ingredients for catching the light on a summer night around the upper Chesapeake Bay. Patience, and a real good supply of bug juice.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

When it comes to wild animals in the house, I usually try and draw the line.

This past Sunday I had just returned home from a wacky weekend at the beach and I was watching the evening replay of the World Cup match between the US and England.  The English goalie had just goated a goal to tie the score and it seemed like a good time to grab a cold drink.

I headed for the kitchen and stopped dead in my tracks. Slithering along the baseboard in the main hallway of my house was a black snake the size of...well, it was big. I stared in utter amazement, wondering if I was hallucinating. I’ve had bats and birds get into the house before, but never a snake.
I cautiously walked over to my unwelcome guest to get a better look. It slowly coiled itself around the leg of a very expensive antique chair at the entrance to our dining room and then did that snake thing with its tongue, feeling the air and scoping me out with its unblinking, shiny black eyes.

I’m not afraid of snakes. In fact, I have had several close encounters with snakes over the years. I did field survey work for a long time out on the Kaibab National Forest near Grand Canyon, where I regularly crossed paths with the local rattlers and came to respect their predatory skill and never back down style.

As a general rule, most humans fear snakes. It’s bred in our bones, and fueled by the Bible and countless myths and stories about the evil and dangers surrounding the snake. But think for a minute how scary we must be to a snake. We must seem incredibly threatening, towering over the snake like a giant, like a tree. Now, throw in our hostile and unpredictable behavior, and it should be pretty clear that the snake has much more to fear from us than vice versa.
But what happens if a snake does attack? Well, a few years back I was doing a tough trek in a forgotten canyon called – I’m not making this up – Carcass Wash. It’s a beautiful oasis in the middle of the Waterpocket Fold in southern Utah. I had hiked down to Lake Powell for a swim and was into mile fourteen of a very hot fifteen mile hike. I had a Walkman on and was thinking about the chilled beers sitting in a cooler in my truck, when – BAM! – I suddenly felt a burning sensation on my left shin. Instinctively I recoiled sideways away from the danger. Facing me was a very angry rattlesnake that I had evidently just missed stepping on. He had defended himself by biting me in the leg. I looked down and could see two bloody fang marks above my right ankle.
I won’t regale you with what happened after that, but I can tell you that it never entered my mind to hurt that snake in retaliation, which, after all, was merely protecting itself. If I hadn’t been listening to head-pounder music and dreaming about beer, I would not have nearly squashed the poor creature. After getting treated with snake venom at the Escalante Hospital, I returned home with some very wild memories and a punch line delivered to friends and strangers alike for many months thereafter. “I didn’t get sick from the snake bite, but the snake died.”

The one thing I vividly remember about that snake in Carcass Wash was its defiance and complete lack of fear. It coiled itself into a tight ball and felt the air with its tongue as its tail rattled out an angry beat. “Bring it on!” it seemed to hiss.

As I looked at the uninvited black snake in my dining room, I was seeing that same face of steadfast survival. The black snake had stumbled into the great unknown and was faced with what surely seemed – and could have easily been – a life-threatening situation. But he was not backing down a bit.
I don’t have a lot of experience herding snakes. It’s just not a skill that we suburbanites have any real need to master. And out west there was always plenty of room to just run away.

So, I was faced with a dilemma. I didn’t want to hurt the snake, but I didn’t want it in my dining room either. So what was I to do?
We all have probably seen that Australian nut-job on TV in the black boots and khaki shorts, who went around grabbing the world’s most poisonous snakes and waving them at the camera like he was playing with a slinky toy -- that is, until a stinray stabbed in the friggin' heart and killed his stupid ass.  Crikey, Mate!  When he encountered a snake, he somehow gets his boot onto the top of it’s head and then quickly grabbed it behind the ears and lifed it up. It looked easy as pie. But as I considered that approach I was stymied by how you actually make that initial move, the one where you pin the snake’s head down – especially in bare feet. You see, the snake would definitely sense the foot move and strike as soon as my size twelve got into range.
A tool of some sort was needed. I looked around the kitchen and considered hand-tongs like you use for picking up spaghetti. They work for crabs, so why not snakes? I felt like an idiot, holding my little tongs, as I faced off against Mr. Snake – who I was now calling Blackie, because you really can’t play with a snake unless you can talk to them. I quickly came to the conclusion that sticking your hand in the face of a snake is even dumber than sticking out your foot.

I headed for the garage in search of some larger tool with which I could get rid of the black snake invading my kitchen. I considered a rake (too big and unwieldy), then a shovel (perfect for killing, but not shooing), and settled finally on a broom. For good measure, I picked up a golf club. On my way into the patio I left the door open so Blackie could have a straight shot out of the house. Using the broom as my primary mover I warily approached the snake. He tongued the air and slowly raised his head as if preparing to do battle.
What the heck was I doing, fighting with a snake in my kitchen? I just wanted to watch the soccer match.

I tried to push the snake toward the kitchen door with the broom. Blackie struck defiantly at his attacker. I used the golf club to try and sort of lift the back end of the snake along.

At this point Blackie decided to retreat and it slid behind the refrigerator. This was not good. The battle was degenerating into a “come and get me” disaster. I briefly wondered if there was a number I could call to get someone to come and rid me of my intruder – you know, like Snakebusters. But that clearly wasn’t happening on a Sunday night.

I bent down and looked under the refrigerator. I could see nothing. I stood up and said, “Blackie, go HOME!”

I went back to the library to check out the soccer match for a few minutes and settle my thoughtrs.  The americans were in full defensive mode and the English were peppering the U.S. goal relentlessly.

I returned to the kitchen and pulled the refrigerator out from the wall and peered into the open space, but Blackie was nowhere to be seen. After five minutes of searching and poking at everything in the kitchen and porch with my trusty golf club, it was clear that my snake friend had indeed gone home. He must have followed his own scent back out the way he came in. That’s very cool. I didn’t know snakes could do that.

I am still uncomfortable with opening up my home to the local wildlife. But then again, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of some of these darn crickets that are roaming around my house these days.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Mosquitos are a plague on us all.
Mosquitos are all bad. Even bats, which have recently been linked to ebola and other devastating killers, even bats serve a beneficial purpose by pollinating. And best of all, they eat mosquitos. But mosquitos stand almost alone as being an animal that causes nothing but harm.
Mosquito-borne illnesses are a King Cong killer on many continents, laying waste to humans and animals alike. Malaria transmitted from mosquitos is still one of the worlds biggest killers. And in the US, the little devils are responsible for transmitting encephalitis to humans and heart worm to our dogs and cats. About the only good news is they can’t transmit AIDS.

Mosquitos are like airborne jellyfish.

Mosquitos are everywhere that isn’t frozen.

Mosquitos need water to breed and we conveniently provide the maternity wards. Every yard has some wet place where a mosquito can lay her eggs. So, we have mosquitos out the yin-yang except, ironically, out on the water. They don’t like to go off shore. And that’s why boating is still the best mosquito repellant I know.

Mosquitos are all about light and they love to eat in the dark. They will hover annoyingly in the air around you as the sun sets, like they are waiting for the dinner bell. You count the minutes until you must flee, casting quick glances at your legs and arms. Do I put bug spray on? Or do I just give up and go inside?

I lived for many years in the Southwest where because of the lack of water, the bugs just get one dance. There is no next generation until the summer rains came again the following year. I camped out several days a week for fifteen years in Southern Utah without a tent and rarely were bugs of any kind an issue. So, this mosquito thing is troublesome to me.

And bug spray is equally sketchy. I put some heavy-duty spray on when I was working in a wildlife refuge many years ago and within two weeks the plastic band on my watch melted. That can’t be good. I have tried to steer clear of that stuff ever since because it goes directly into your blood.

Mosquitos don’t infect you through the transfer of tainted blood. They do it with their spit. They use their spit as the lubricant for drilling into skin. It cools the drill. And that’s what transmits diseases like malaria and West Nile virus.

I have always had lots of fish crows living near my house. A few years back they got nailed by West Nile.

For years, I awoke each morning to find six big crows sitting casually on my fence at the top of our cliff overlooking the Severn. They would chat animatedly, like old men out in front of the general store. Every day. And they really talked. I have no idea what they said but I often heard them laugh.

And then, in a matter of a few short weeks, they were gone.

It’s taken three years and now they are finally making a come back. But they are all young crows. The old boys have passed.

Mosquitos killed my fish crow friends.

Basically, it’s mosquitos against anything else that runs on blood.

That’s creepy. They’re like ravenous little vampires awaiting the night so they can strike. But there’s no eternal life with mosquitos. There’s just a bite or a battle. And many succumb.

So what’s a motha to do?

Well, don’t go outside after eating bananas. People who eat bananas are more likely to get attacked. So are kids. They prefer blondes to brunettes. And just like vampires, they go into a feeding frenzy when there’s a full moon.

Mosquitos hunt by sight, but they don’t see very well. They can’t distinguish a person from a tree except through movement or until they get close and then cue in on the infra-red warmth from our bodies and chemical signals, like maybe carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Scientists still aren’t sure. Citronella won’t prevent you from being bitten, but it will keep a mosquito from coming back because it irritates their feet. And you can usually out run them because they can only fly about one mile per hour.

But don’t despair. There is still hope. Many people make a good living feeding off of the mosquito. A comprehensive list would include the folks who make or sell: mosquito traps; power traps and power-vac systems; bug zappers and no zappers; glue boards and strips; electronic swatters; mosquito guards; mosquito larval killers; and my favorite, the Mosquito Deleto.

Mosquitos will no doubt outlive us all. They have buzzed the earth for over 100 million years.

Maybe they are god’s way of showing us that every paradise comes with a nasty bite.