Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Somewhere New: Tangier Island

While flipping through a Coastal Living magazine at Chelsea's house I came across a little article about Tangier Island. There were quaint pictures of locals riding bikes and little yellow rowboats sitting on the shore. When Chelsea invited me to come stay on Gwynn's Island with her I thought it was a perfect opportunity to visit Tangier.

The ferry from Reedsville to Tangier Island is about an hour and half out into the Bay. We passed ruins of great fish canning factories and were followed by a group of 5 bottle-nose dolphins for a short portion of the ride.

During our ferry ride out we stopped and circled around this fishing operation (someone said this was slip fishing?). I did not envy the men doing this work, toiling through the hot sun, pulling the nets out while choking through the thick black smoke that was drifting over from the Mama Boat in clouds.

As we started to pull up towards the island the first thing you notice is all the crabbing piers. Rows and rows of long piers lined with built in bins and tubs for sorting the day's catch. Each pier had a tiny shack of a house perched on stilts where I imagined the men drinking beer after a long day of crabbing or just taking a nap between sorting.

When we landed at Tangier we were told we had two and a half hours. If we were late the next ferry wasn't until the next morning. We strolled off the dock and into the narrow alley that lead to the main street. Contrary to the photos I had seen of picturesque bicycles the locals had shown up with their 6 seater golf carts to meet the incoming tourists. For $10 a person you could get the 15 minute grand tour of the island lead by a local woman. We opted to walk but I was curious what they said about the island on the native-run tours.

The first place we went to was the newly built and opened museum of Tangier Island. A young transplant to the island had recently gathered together several island women to put together and run the museum. While I jokingly talked about this museum later as housing a bunch of news akin to "Timmy lost his tooth on such and such a day" there were some interesting artifacts and images in the museum. Among them were these black and white images by Constance Stuart Larrabee. After her days as a war photographer in South Africa Larrabee retired to the Bay area of Maryland and spent some time on Tangier photographing the watermen.

They had a whole wall of postcards of Tangier but only one that was an old painted photograph like the ones I collect. I would have loved to buy this one.

An interesting fact we learned in the museum is that the lineage of Tangier is mainly comprised of four last names. Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Thomas. Of course it should really not come as a surprise considering how isolated the island has been. The isolation is what has allowed them to preserve their particular dialect of English - of which we did hear a little. The isolation is also what has allowed the island to be overrun with inbred cats.

At first we kept thinking we were seeing the same cat in different places but it quickly became apparent that the cats we were seeing we indeed different cats but shared pretty much everything else in common.

And I'm pretty sure they were evil.

Somehow I didn't get a picture of this but one thing we found strange on the island is that aside from this small cemetery, the deceased of each family were buried in front of their houses. Walking down the tiny, golf-cart width lanes we were confronted with gravestones on both sides. We were told that this was in part to discourage wild animals from digging up bodies (what animals they were talking about we were not sure) and also because the island is quickly eroding, and so space has to be conserved - which means having mini family graveyards in each front yard.

When we got past the houses we came out into the marsh. The whir of the golf-carts were left behind and it was just silent. A silence I hadn't expected. When I think of islands and beaches I think of wind in tall grasses, lapping water or the call of sea birds. There was no noise. The cranes were silent and the water lay flat. It was by far my favorite part about the island.

Our time on the island was quickly over. We walked back down the long lane to the dock. Every few minutes we would have to stop to let a golf cart pass. I couldn't help but feel like I was in a Scooby Doo Mystery. The wild cats, the strange accent, the silence, the graveyards everywhere, and the very real possibility that we could be stuck on the island overnight if we missed the ferry.

In the end I realized that my expectations of the island had been a little unrealistic. Tangier is a working island. The men spend 12 to 14 hours a day crabbing. The women run the 3 restaurants, the museum and the little corner store. The children go to the one room school or go Mud Mucking (this is literally where you run out into the marsh and get muddy up to your knees or deeper). This town isn't a tourist spot. It's a way of life.

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