You'll want to visit this tiny Eastern Shore town before it slips through your fingers.
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
If you can't think of any other reason to visit Saxis, Va., go for the soda machine. Seriously. Yes, the reasons for not going to this tiny Eastern Shore fishing village are legion: It's not close to anything; it's at the far edge of a very shallow sound; it's not easy to get into; and when you do finally drop anchor, there is virtually nothing to do . . . except perhaps buy a soda from the machine, which sits improbably--like the time-traveling Doctor Who's police call box--near the municipal fishing pier. And yet, having been to Saxis and, yes, having bought a soda from the Doctor Who machine, I have decided to put the town back on my cruising schedule for this spring. Why? Because it's my favorite soda machine? Well, yes, in a way.
I put Saxis on my schedule a couple of years ago because I was planning to travel up the Pocomoke River to visit Pocomoke City anyway. And, as long as I was there, I reasoned, I might as well throw in a trip to Saxis too, since it's only about four miles as the herring gull flies from the Pocomoke River to the Saxis channel into Starling Creek.
So that summer, I made my visit to Pocomoke City aboard Snipp, my four-foot-draft Vega 27 sloop, and a few days afterwards reemerged into Pocomoke Sound. As I navigated carefully from marker to marker across that part of the sound, which is known appropriately as the Muds, I hunted up Saxis and Starling Creek on the chart. An unfortunate, Hitchcockian choice of name, I thought, Starling Creek. I shuddered slightly in the bright blue heat of mid-morning as an image right out of The Birds took shape before me: hundreds of the white-spotted, purple-sheened black birds gathering by the hundreds along the creek banks, presumably waiting for a naive sightseer such as myself to come along. For that reason--and because the chart showed only two and a half feet in the channel--I decided to park the Snipp just off the channel entrance and take the dink into the creek.
So, just off the Starling Creek Light "1S", I dropped the anchor into eight feet of water and pulled the inflatable up against the stern. I decided to row rather than use the outboard. It was less than half a mile in--and maybe the birds wouldn't notice if I came in quietly. I pulled through the still water toward the creek entrance. Reaching the bulkhead, I glided silently by a handful of old crab-shedding shacks, then past a silent row of oyster plants. Beyond great pyramids of oyster shells I reached the harbor, which I was relieved to find was lined with workboat slips rather than agitated starlings bent on world domination. I pulled into an unoccupied slip and clambered ashore.
I hadn't walked more than a 100 yards when I met the real enemy: a mighty phalanx of kamikaze biting flies! Take that, Tippy Hedron! In a frantic effort to escape them, I propelled myself, arms akimbo, past the foothills of oyster shells, past the idle processing plants, past the empty crab shacks, until I reached Saxis Road, the town's main street. The kamikaze squadron was still hot on my heels. As far as I could tell, no curious faces appeared in windows to watch my eccentric progress up the street. Finally, exhausted, I slowed to a walk. The bitey flies, now bored with the chase, peeled off to look for a new victim, and I turned to examine the town around me. It consisted of a single road and a couple of sidestreets laid down over a narrow spit of solid ground. To the left was Pocomoke Sound; to the right sprawled an apparently endless expanse of marsh. Within a mile, the solid ground would give way to marsh and Saxis Road would become a causeway, shooting across the swamp until it struck solid land again, some two miles to the southeast. It's a wonder, I thought, that anyone ever found enough dry dirt here to put a town on.
In the beginning, though, there had been plenty of land, at least considerably more of it than there is now. But thanks to the usual suspects--erosion and rising sea levels--Saxis has been losing ground for years, currently at the alarming rate of five feet a year. When you add those evil twins--loss of habitat and diminished seafood populations--you have the makings of a town just barely able to keep its head above water . . . so to speak.
And yet, in its stark, hardscrabble way, I've seen few places more beautiful: simple homes, defiantly ordinary, in an extraordinary landscape. Thousands of acres of marsh--hummocks of spongy land amid a dazzlingly complex labyrinth of streams--alive with birds, aquatic life of all sorts, small furry critters and . . . yes, bitey flies. And all that separated from Pocomoke Sound by a spit of land as tenuous as the sand in an hourglass. I was mesmerized. I was also apparently alone. Either I had frightened off all of the town's 300 residents (a not entirely unlikely scenario), or they were all busy elsewhere--jobs on the mainland, perhaps, or working the water.
Whichever, I saw not a soul that afternoon. I walked up the street past houses for sale, homes anchored in a sea of lawn ornaments, properties still wrecked by storms. I walked and looked until I had reached Free School Road, about half-a-mile up the road, and then turned back. It was getting pretty lonely out here.
Remote as it now seems, Saxis wasn't always a lonely place. Founded in 1666, it was known first as Sykes Island, named for English colonist Robert Sykes. (It has been postulated that the name Saxis is a corruption of "Sykes's.") People moved in, built homes, established farms and raised cattle. In the 19th century, the town became a thriving center for seafood, with a super-abundance of oysters, crabs and fish just outside the front door. Ships came and went. The ferry paid regular visits. These days, however, business is pretty much down to peeler crabs and a residual amount of oystering--most recently oyster farming. There's not much to keep Saxis folk home anymore, and indeed there's less and less of Saxis to call home. In 2003, the Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan to prevent further loss of land--a series of eight 300-foot-long breakwaters paralleling the shore--but with a $3.2 million price tag, the project has yet to find funding.
There are a few bright spots. Not long ago, the town constructed a 200-foot fishing pier with a 100-foot T-head. The facility has found a good number of anglers seeking gray trout, croaker, spot, whiting, red drum and rockfish. Another project is the Saxis Water Trail, which gives visitors a chance to paddle through some of the 5,800 acres of the Saxis Wildlife Management Area. A little ominously, first-time visitors are advised to take along a guide--with place names like Man-Trap Gut, it's easy to get the hint.
Back at the end of Saxis Road, I had nearly reached the scene of the bitey fly attack, and now I approached it warily. By this time, the afternoon heat had built to a low broil and I had yet to find anything that resembled a store. I was decidedly thirsty. I had water on the boat, of course, but the boat was riding quietly off the Saxis Light. I was still trying to decide whether I had enough energy left for a short visit to the crabbing shacks before returning to the dinghy, when I spotted it. There, completely unrelated to the rest of the landscape, like a six-foot monolith from a BBC television series, was the soda machine! Holding my breath, I dug frantically through my pockets for change. Yes! It was almost too good to be true. I poked the coins into the slot, punched a button and . . . thud! . . . as if beamed in from another dimension, an ice-cold sugar-besotted soda dropped into the slot.
A pouilly fuissé never tasted so good! Sipping my soda, I strolled to the end of the point to see the old peeler shacks, their entrances decorated like the uniforms of so many brigadier generals with 30 years of crabbing-license plates. Finally, I turned for the harbor and my dinghy. A few minutes later, I was back on Snipp and hauling up the anchor.
No, a visit to Saxis is definitely not your typical stopover. But it's one I highly recommend. Go to Saxis . . . now, while you still can. And when you do, have a cold one--for me.