The tip of Broomes Island dips into the Patuxent River like a toe pointing
due south almost halfway across the water’s broad, sparkling back. It
isn’t the only thing dipping into the river today, a bright Sunday in
June. There are feet in flip-flops, feet in surf shoes, feet in old boat shoes
and in holey high-tops, all stepping off the white ribbon of beach on the island’s
eastern edge and into its sandy shallows, wading until they fade from sight.
The people attached to these feet enter the water hand-in-hand led by one man—not
a preacher, exactly, not a politician, necessarily, not an environmental activist,
per se. Just a man who grew up here when you could wade chest-high in water
clear as an ice-cold 7-Up, who has dedicated much of his life to cleaning up
the Patuxent so he can wade up to his shoulders again some day and still see
the toes poking from his scruffy white sneakers. “You’re here today
because you truly love this river,” former Maryland Senator Bernie Fowler
tells the crowd of about a hundred at his fifteenth yearly Senator Bernie Fowler
River Community Wade, as the guest book names it.
Striding into the water in blue overalls and a cowboy hat, Bernie Fowler resembles
a stalk of winter wheat, reedy, tall and deceptively resilient. He’s seventy-eight
years old now, but his passion for his home river burns stronger than ever.
..Though his three terms as a state senator were over in 1994, he remains one
of the Bay’s most articulate and stalwart advocates, always being called
upon by governors and scientists to chair this commission or that task force.
“If all you’ve left behind is dirty water and dirty air for the
generations, then your life has been worthless,” he says in his typically
blunt, heartfelt way.
|This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman
Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
Wading in the water each June—an event that’s part political picnic,
part tent revival and baptism, part local fair—is how he reminds everyone
that the Bay still isn’t out of the cardiac unit. It’s a simple
idea, really, to be able to see one’s feet on the sandy bottom. That’s
the beauty of it. Talk nitrogen loads and submerged aquatic vegetation acreage,
and pretty soon people’s eyes glaze over. Tell them that when you grew
up, you could see a crab wink twelve feet down but now you’re lucky to
spot one at three feet, and it’s all quite clear….
Begun in 1988, the annual wade has attracted governors, congressmen, hundreds
of people and at least one EPA administrator. The wade results in the “sneaker
index,” an annual measurement from Bernie’s old white high-tops
to the high-water mark on his blue overalls. The index reached a shin-high low
point in 1989 at eight inches and a waist-high peak in 1997, at forty-four and
one-half inches. In 2002, forty-two and three-quarters inches of Bernie—and
everyone else—got soaked. The goal is fifty-seven inches.
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