The Sneaker Index (from Window on the Chesapeake)
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

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Image from Window on the Chesapeake
Hear Sound Clip
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.

Cover from Window on the Chesapeake
This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
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.

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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