Sea-level rise is swallowing Fox Island in Chesapeake Bay
BALTIMORE — Larry Laird remembers the first time he set foot on Great Fox Island. It was a summer Sunday in the early 1990s. The Smith Island native was curious to get a closer look at the lodge on stilts that rises dramatically above its marsh, surrounded by open water.
The 51-year-old has gotten to know the place intimately over the past seven years, staffing educational programs the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has operated from the century-old former hunting lodge since the late 1970s. He’s taken kids crabbing, mucked through marsh with them and fished right out of his bedroom window.
But soon, he’ll make what could be his last visit. The bay foundation welcomed its last group of students to the island in October, started packing up the lodge, and put Fox Island up for sale.
At least, what’s left of Fox Island.
“I can’t believe how much is gone,” he said.
Disappearing: The collection of islands known as Great Fox Island, a mile from Maryland’s Dorchester County but in Virginia waters, has been shrinking gradually for decades, if not centuries. The land is sinking, still reacting to the collapse of glaciers thousands of years ago, and waters are rising, as the greenhouse effect from emissions warms oceans and melts polar ice.
Those gradual changes can be hard to see in many places, but they appear in sharp relief on Fox Island, which has lost 70% of its area over the past half a century. The archipelago gets its name from a vivid resemblance it once bore to a fox in full stride, its tail wagging north and nose pointed south. That hasn’t been apparent from a bird’s-eye view for a long time.
Once tucked in a protective cove, the foundation’s lodge is now totally exposed to the elements on two sides. That means on a windy day or at unusually low tides, it’s too difficult and dangerous to keep bringing groups of students there, bay foundation leaders decided.
“It’s hard to even keep a boat here with a south wind,” said Paul Willey, director of education operations and administration.
For a generation, the lodge served as the closest link to the Chesapeake most students could ever experience. The foundation aimed to strengthen that connection so that when students went back home they had a better understanding of how their actions upstream affect the bay and places like Fox Island, said Jeff Vardon, who has led outings at the lodge the past two years.
Students will no longer learn those lessons on Fox Island, though they will at three other education centers the foundation runs on the bay. But, Vardon suggested, perhaps that’s the most powerful lesson of all. Sea-level rise has claimed a place that he and so many others have loved.
That loss calls attention to climate change like maybe nothing else can, he said.
“My home is gone,” Vardon said. “It makes people stop and think, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’”
The history: Hundreds of years ago, Fox Island probably wasn’t so isolated, as part of a peninsula stretching from around Crisfield toward the mouth of the bay. Now, the only other remnants are a clump of islands known as Clump Island to the north, and to the south Watts Island, known for being a hiding spot for pirates.
In 1929, someone saw fit to build a hunting lodge there, and 50 years after that, the bay foundation bought it. What happened in the decades that followed, many visitors describe with the same word: magic.
From March through October, Vardon, Laird and many staff members before them brought groups as young as fifth graders and as old as college students. The lodge sleeps about 20, including their teachers.
No two trips were the same. Depending on what students were learning in their environmental science classes or after-school clubs, foundation staff would take them to test water quality or check on patches of underwater grasses. They might visit Smith Island and meet the famous cake baker Mary Ada Marshall, or go to Tangier Island to meet Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. It just depended on what students were learning about, or what the winds and the waves might allow.
The students left their mark, too. Graffiti covering the walls inside the lodge declare, “I’m on Island Time,” or quote Captain John Smith: “Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”
There are signs of fun, but also of focus on learning. In the cabin’s living room, dubbed the “Limbo Lounge” on one sign, a small disco ball hangs from the ceiling, near a map of the bay tacked up horizontally. Next to games of Jenga and Scrabble, shelves are filled with field guides to Chesapeake creatures. A buoy sticks up through the floor, rattling and knocking with the waves, a measure of the tidal stage.
“If we have them for three days, we’re really going to try to live and breathe that resource ethic,” said Norah Carlos, the foundation’s education outreach manager.
Lifelong lessons: The lessons stuck with many visitors. One teacher told foundation staff that her former students have continued to share memories of trips to Fox Island, decades later. Trips have prompted students like Anthony Okonkwo, a senior at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County, to get more involved in environmentalism.
“Pulling multiple eels, pufferfish, rays, and rockfish out of the water reminded me of how healthy the Bay can be and the future I’m fighting for,” Okonkwo wrote in a post to the bay foundation’s website.
The future could be short for Fox Island, which now totals less than three dozen acres, much of it only inches above sea level. Islands like it have been losing ground to what is known as subsidence, the sinking of the land, at a rate of about 1 millimeter a year, said Donald Boesch, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Sea level has been rising at close to 2 millimeters a year.
The result has been about a foot of sea level rise in the Chesapeake since the beginning of the 20th century. It’s expected to rise perhaps twice as fast, or faster, over this century, he said.
“What took a few hundred years in the past is now going to be played out in less than 100 years,” Boesch said.
While it came as no surprise that trips to Fox Island would one day end, the changes have, at times, still been alarming to see for those who have been visiting the lodge the longest. Tom Horton, a former Baltimore Sun environmental writer who worked as an educator for the bay foundation in the 1980s and 1990s, recalled seeing underwater land where he once pitched a tent.
“It’s a little bit of a jolt,” he said. “You kind of see it happen over decades, but it’s still a shock when you come back and remember what your first impressions were.”
It’s most concerning not because of love for Fox Island and the lodge there, but for what it means for the bay ecosystem, said Karen Mullin, the foundation’s director of professional learning. Smaller islands in the Fox Island chain were once home to thriving colonies of black skimmers and royal terns, seabirds for whom the Chesapeake is a key stopping ground on the Atlantic Flyway.
“What we’re really talking about is the loss of habitat and the loss of land,” she said. “Every season you’re coming back and seeing large swaths of marsh disappearing. We see the bay rebounding. We see the land disappearing.”
Even laughing gulls, a bird Mullin equated to a squirrel for its ubiquity, have seen declines. The birds’ distinctive calls were common background noise to life in the lodge, she said. But in its last few years as an outpost for nature lovers, Fox Island has been silent.