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.

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