Paddling Through Time

Commentary by Tom Horton

I once read in a canoe magazine of a famously difficult passage in New England across 50 miles of open water. Most modern paddlers who tried it failed; yet Native Americans had done it routinely.

Most likely, it was neither skill nor endurance we moderns lacked. It was time we were short of. Less obliged to clocks and back-to-work deadlines, “primitive” paddlers just hung out, hunted and told stories until conditions were ideal for crossing.

Their lifespans were perhaps half of ours, as we measure such things. But I suspect, having experienced days evaporate while staring at a computer and rabidly multi-tasking, that they moved more slowly through time.

Perhaps they moved more richly, too. Paddling the long and mostly lovely edges of Delmarva this September and October with the nonprofit Upstream Alliance, we were seldom more than yards from marsh and bluff and dune and beach, even as we floated with the whole Atlantic or the 25-mile broad lower Chesapeake on the other side. Moving at walking speed, amid dolphins and hawks migrating and ospreys diving, became at times a meditation, an appreciation.

A tide of just a couple of miles an hour pushing your little craft along, a breeze at your back, a mile of lee in the shore’s curve affording escape from relentless headwinds — these became gifts to savor. Likewise, a chance encounter with aquaculturists harvesting oysters from a cove, who for a few bucks poured half a bushel into the hatch of one kayak. We slurped them, fat and salty, at camp a few hours later.

“We live in the age of estuaries.” I read that in Arthur Sherwood’s 1974 book, “Understanding the Chesapeake,” at a bayside home where we took refuge from an approaching nor’easter. The speaker was the late Donald Pritchard, the eminent Johns Hopkins University oceanographer.

Pritchard meant that in geologic time, coastal estuaries like the Chesapeake are ephemeral creatures, rare flowers blossoming only during that 10 percent of time between ice ages when the ice melts and the seas swell to inspire the world’s coastlines to come to life.

The Holocene, as this interglacial period is known, is increasingly called the Anthropocene, as humans come to dominate natural processes. Indeed, Pritchard ventured that without the human intervention of dredging channels for shipping, the Chesapeake’s fate would be to fill in with sediment coming down its rivers, and become a marsh.

But times have changed since the Hopkins scientist said that. Human-caused climate change is raising sea level, perhaps extending the life and scope of estuaries everywhere in a way unanticipated until very recently.

So we paddle: through time both intimate and geologic, through the marsh guts and past the mouths of creeks, through the Age of Estuaries.

At kayak speed, the Bay’s edges quickly become either welcoming or hostile, because you are always looking for places to rest, to stretch, to lunch, to take respite from heat and headwinds. “Hostile” are the shorelines that property owners, from individuals to the Army at Aberdeen and NASA at Wallops Island, have armored with wood and steel and rock.

That trend has increased by the dozens, more likely the hundreds of miles since I last circumnavigated Delmarva a decade ago. It is the final stage of attempting to stay put in the face of climate change and sea level rise and the increased shoreline erosion that is resulting.

Later will come acceptance, adaptation, retreat; but before that, we’ll spend billions more dollars trying to hold the (shore)line, armoring, diking and pumping up sand.

Fight or retreat, deny or accept? Speed up or go more slowly?

David Orr of Oberlin College wrote a memorable essay called “Speed.” He drew a common thread among water running too fast off a paved landscape, destroying streams; money leaving local economies too fast, eroding communities in an age of global banking; information flooding us via the Internet faster than the human mind can process, the volume of knowledge becoming the enemy of wisdom.

This increasing speed, Orr concluded, is driven by minds “unaware of the irony that the race has never been to the swift.”

As I wrote this, we were recalculating our paddle, mindful that to honor everyone’s schedules we needed to make it back to the Bay Bridges, where we started, in another week, and still I was savoring slowness, now rapidly coming to an end.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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