St. George Island
Below mean high tide on St. George Island the Potomac River shore belongs to the people of Maryland. Getting there from landward is tricky. For one thing, it is illegal, requiring trespass.
The trick is to gain standing before having to assert the right. The challenge is to stay seaward of that invisible but definable line running erratically parallel to a coastline in flux. Above mean high tide is private property.
Along a south-facing beach I consider the widest band of shells as benchmark. It is a notion that the greatest debris marks the most frequent high tide mark. It is a vague notion.
I believe I once saw the actual line on that beach. It was the last really cold winter. The Potomac’s waves froze into jagged slabs of ice that scaled up the beach nearly reaching the mini-cliff of clay that marked fast land. I call them cliffs. The land simply rises a couple yards from the sand beach. In some spots the land is merely a few feet above the river. But nowhere is it a simple step down onto the sand.
The waves were solid trough to froth and there was no pliancy to the sand. But the river still visibly shuddered beneath the scales of frozen waves. The water broke free in a gap between two waves near the river’s edge, there a narrow strand of the briny river trembled like a ribbon laced through teeth of ice. There, where the froth trembled nearly silently in the frozen trough, there, I think, is part of the line around St. George Island.
St. George Island dangles from Maryland into the mouth of the Potomac River like a crescent wrench wedged across the compass rose.
From the tip of its under bite a slice of the southern horizon peeks through the funneling mouths of Island Creek into St. George Creek into St. Mary’s River into the Potomac River into the Chesapeake Bay and finally, out of sight, into the Atlantic Ocean.
The wrench’s overbite obscures all but this funneled horizon from the under bite’s tip, but that is what makes safe harbor of Island Creek: a shallow gut of water fortuitously, some would say, cut from the last deep water of the Potomac.
This safe harbor grew even safer when the government extended the overbite’s lip with a massive stone jetty jutting a quarter mile into the Potomac, fencing the vista and holding back storms.
The jetty is supposed to block silt and bring enhanced prosperity for St. George Island. My husband, a St. George Island waterman, invests in this notion although he also suspects what I more firmly believe, the jetty will bring trouble as well.
Trouble already struck the creek’s minion bottom dwellers, sucked with tons of oily, black creek bottom and pumped to the Potomac side of the island. That was to be the last dredging. Henceforth, declares the paperwork, the jetty will prevent silting of the channel.
These last black spoils and their sewage smell were pumped out and spewed upon the southern beach of the overbite onto the beach that requires my tricky trespass. The spoils dried to a fine, glistening black sand mounded so high the three-foot clay mini-cliff was bridged. The odor vanished. My trespass hastened. I brought my husband to see.
It would not last the year, he predicted.
Indeed, that cold winter’s spring with its flooding thaw erased the ramp of spoils and cut deeper into the clay cliffs. Prominent among the newly exposed layers of muddy brown and reddish gold clay glistened bands of black as dark as the vanished sand, but a black as shiny as fresh asphalt in deep summer.
In shocking contrast tree roots white to transparency floated crazily in the air, wrenched from the soil when the band of 40-year-old pines at the shore toppled into the river from the erosion and wind.
Like the black clay the colorless roots seemed pulled from a sunless other world. Some dangled in the surf and grew tangled with the dark water roots unearthed from the river bottom. It felt an improper mingling and spoiled the beach with a sense of foreboding which did not lift until a full summer and fall cloaked the disarray with a fresh patina of familiarity; golden sand buried the water roots, the white roots turned to rot, shore weeds drew topsoil over the exposed clay.
Though all looked righted, the surveyed truth is that the spoils, the roots, the streaks of clay announced a new high tide, as does the jetty. Someone will lose a foot of property. Someone will gain a beach. A route to skirt private property will be found and toy boats, if not workboats, will find safe harbor here.
I do not welcome the change. Nor do I protest. My silence reflects how it will help my husband’s business and a desire to keep this place, this piece here, as my own; as truly mine as my neighboring ospreys’ nest is unequivocally theirs.
I wrench these conflicts from myself to watch what happens when they are exposed. I walk in the morning to ponder the exposures. I scurry across lines of property division to reach mean high tide at the southern shore where the spoils were piled. I pause and consider: from here I can watch the sunrise upon the river and, within but one tide and a mere turn of my head, watch the sunset upon the river as well.
just before its gone archives