Photographs by Vince Lupo and Wendy Mitman Clarke
"Them crabs are gonna be running all around your feet, you know," says Weezer Allen. "You sure you wanna come with me?" The 75-year-old self-proclaimed mayor of Carvel Beach looks worried that I might go all girlie on him once we get out into Nabbs Creek.
"I'll just perch up here on this seat," I tell him, "if that works for you." And so, off we go on Weezer's daily rounds in a 14-foot open skiff. He usually has his buddy Miles with him, but Miles had a doctor's appointment this morning. Too bad for him. Last night a thunderstorm ripped through here, ushering in a cold front and kicking the heat and humidity out to sea. This morning the sky is as bright blue as spring, with a fresh northwest breeze riffling the water. It's a perfect day for doing just about anything on the water, and from the looks of things we have the creek all to ourselves.
I've driven over here via land yacht, though if I'd had more coffee (and maybe a Red Bull or two), I could have made the trip in a kayak from Oak Harbor Marina on neighboring Rock Creek, where we're keeping our sailboat Osprey for the summer. Driving here is okay, though; a short jog north and west and across the bridge over Stoney Creek. And on this clear day the massive erector set of Sparrows Point, across the broad lower Patapsco River, seems close enough to touch.
Whether by water or land, you can't go too far around here without knowing that Bawlmer (which is as close as you can get, on paper, to how the word is said hereabouts) is right around the corner. Flowing into the southern side of the Patapsco, these three creeks--Stoney, its tributary Nabbs, and its neighbor Rock--have for generations been the playful little kids to Baltimore's brawny big brother. (On the charts, by the way, Stoney is spelled without the "e" but everybody around here knows it as Stoney.) Situated between the Patapsco's mouth and the Key Bridge, and joined navigationally by the landmark of the White Rocks just off their entrances, the creeks are about a mile-and-a-half apart. Like three neighborhoods on one side of town, they're similar in flavor but each is subtly distinct in character.
Along their crowded shores families have grown up with each other every summer, eatin' crabs, going boatin', shootin' off fireworks, rootin' for them O's and the Ravens (and, in another era, the Colts) and generally horsing around. And while times have changed--more full-time residents than summer people and far more posh homes than anyone ever would have thought back in the day--these neighborhoods and creeks still ring of a particular era. The names themselves--Carvel Beach, Sunset Beach, Lombardi Beach, Riviera Beach--conjure up images of hot summer days and hangin' in the creek, hon. In most of these neighborhoods, people still look after one another, and everybody knows everybody. It's not difficult to imagine, here among cottages and ranchers, shoulder to shoulder, with garden gnomes peering from the yards, windchimes tinkling and screen doors, that you've somehow worm-holed right back to the fifties.
Of the three creeks, Stoney is the longest at about three miles, but its tributary, Nabbs, is a mile long itself--and both are deep and wide with a smattering of nooks and coves made for exploring. Rock Creek, just to the southeast, is about two miles long, narrower than the others but equally deep. Not surprisingly given the proximity to Baltimore, all of the shores are heavily developed, and on a bright summer weekend you can expect to share the creeks with scores of other people engaged in just about every type of water activity in the book: wakeboarding, water-skiing, jet-skiing, sailing, swimming, fishing, you name it. On weekdays, though, it's possible to slide in here with a deep-keeled sailboat, drop the hook in plenty of water, and be treated to unexpected quiet, and avian delights of enormous variety--ospreys, bald eagles, hawks of all kinds, egrets, herons, and in the fall, even great-horned owns and migrating loons.
Our boat Osprey isn't in the Bay too much anymore, but when we do return we base her at Oak Harbor Marina on Rock Creek, which is an entertaining and diverse neighborhood in its own right. And, as we learned this past July Fourth, you don't have to go any farther than the back of your boat to see truly prolific displays of fireworks. For three nights running, starting at sunset each night, the folks along all three creeks celebrated the land of the free and the home of the brave with boisterous, seemingly endless backyard displays that must have given the State Fire Marshal raging heartburn. We loved watching them, even if they were, most likely, blatantly illegal. I suppose it's possible that each and every one of those people had applied for a permit from said fire marshal, but I'm thinking . . . not. And the pyrotechnics aren't limited to the Fourth of July. No, not at all. Pretty much every weekend, somebody's shooting something off of some lawn or dock. It's just how they do it up here.
I'm guessing that Weezer has set off his share of pyrotechnics in his day, but I don't ask; rather I keep my feet out of the bilge and enjoy the fine morning. With a ball cap pulled firmly over his head, Weezer drives the little skiff over to a dock and carefully pulls alongside. There, hand over hand, he slowly hauls up a line covered in brown slime and finally pulls a crab pot up over the gunwhale, spraying me slightly with mud.
"Maybe one keeper in there," he says. Methodically he cleans the old bait out of the trap, flings it overboard and places a frozen perch in the bait pouch. Next, he flips the trap over (more mud spraying) and bangs it on the middle seat of the johnboat (a mud shower here) until all the crabs, keepers and smalls, have tumbled into the boat's bilge, where they skitter and snap at one another. Then he tips the pot over the side. Once he's emptied all the traps he'll toss the small ones and females. "I see [females] at the store, they sell 'em cheap," he says. "But the female is how you get more crabs, so I don't know why they catch 'em."
Weezer and Miles's operation is not like most crabbers, but rather a sort of recreational crab co-op. The participating Nabbs Creek property owners keep two pots apiece (the recreational limit) at their piers, and Weezer and Miles work them--and then share the bounty. When they get enough for a few bushels, they'll keep a couple dozen for themselves and their wives, steam the rest and divvy them up among the pot owners. "We just do it for somethin' to do," says Weezer, who was a longshoreman and "worked the waterfront" for 43 years. They do it the old-fashioned way, catching grass shrimp, then using the shrimp to catch perch, which they then bag and freeze to use as bait all summer.
"Here's the first big one we've got," he says, pulling up another pot. "He ain't fat though. He's awful white. Not much meat on 'im." Weezer attributes today's poor showing to two possible factors: (1) I am bad luck, or (2), more likely, the creek's gotten too warm for the big crabs to hang around, and they've moved to deeper, cooler water. July was one of the steamiest on record, and the water temperature is up. Still he remembers a time not too long ago when he couldn't catch anything--crabs, perch or shrimp--in the Patapsco's creeks. That was back in the 1970s and '80s, when the creek's water got so foul that nothing was swimming in it. Heavy industries nearby were killing it, he says; he remembers one day, when a Glidden Paint plant operated nearby, when a spill from the plant turned the creek bright yellow. It got so bad in those days that he sold his family's waterfront cottage--figuring nobody would ever want to live on the water anymore--and moved back a block, to the house where he and his wife live now.
"Guess I should've waited a little longer," he says philosophically. Nowadays, not a summer weekend goes by that isn't full of kids swimming and fishing off the piers in Nabbs and Stoney creeks and boats towing water-skiers around. Still, it's nothing like it was before the bad days. Back in the 1940s, he remembers, you could see the bottom in chest-deep water. "You could throw a quarter overboard and I could tell you the date," he says. When he was a boy, his dad kept a 1,000-foot trotline, and there were enough crabs in the creek to fill it. "My dad used to say, ‘We got so many people comin' this weekend we need three bushel.' And I could just lay down here and get three bushels in three hours. That's how plentiful they were in them days."
Once he's finished checking the pots, Weezer pilots the skiff around the corner into Back Cove. Looming over the trees are the stacks of Constellation Energy's Brandon Shores Generating Station, though it's not as close as it seems. It's easily half a mile away, across Fort Smallwood Road and a short Patapsco tributary called Cox Creek. As we chug toward the cove's end he shows me what he has nicknamed the "submarine base," because of all the sunken boats. It's what remains of a old marina--now just a few pilings jutting from the water and the tops of sunken boats. Then we head out of Nabb's Creek, skimming along on the flat water, six-horse Johnson purring, waves pat-pat-patting under the bow. Nabbs flows into Stoney Creek, just upstream from the Fort Smallwood Road bridge, and off to port, just this side of the bridge we can see Stoney Creek Bridge Marina. Just beyond that, across the little road that hairpins near the marina entrance, is the famous Stoney Creek Inn--a terrific place for local seafood and just plain good eats. The inn serves it all up on a deck overlooking the creek or in its cozy dining room, which, with its plastic tablecloths and cute curtains, makes you feel right at home--perhaps because it was somebody's home before the restaurant came along. Guy Fieri, host of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show, featured the inn on his show. "Wow, that is some killer crab!" he concluded. Not news to anybody around here.
Weezer and I double back into Nabbs Creek. To our left, on the south side, is Lombardi Beach. These houses are far taller, narrower, more modern and closer together than those across the creek in Carvel Beach. We buzz past a boat ramp and small marina on the north side, which serves Chestnut Cove--the townhouse community where the late Governor William Donald Schaefer lived with his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops. Just across the creek from there is Nabbs Creek Dock Bar & Grille--a popular and lively music venue. Farther upstream are two marinas, Maurgale and Hand Brothers, and across from them, on the north side . . . a surprise. It's a long stretch of unbroken woods thick with oaks and pines. On a deadfall along the shore I can see a blue heron balancing like a Tai Chi master, stalking his prey. In 2004, Constellation Energy put this land--97 acres--into a conservation easement with the North County Land Trust. It's the only stretch of this creek that's not developed, a remnant of a time even farther back than Weezer's memory.
"This is where we perch," he says, turning the noun into a verb in a way that makes perfect sense. I didn't think I'd ever feel warm and fuzzy about Constellation Energy, but I'm happy for the creek that the company did this.
Our morning of crabbing over, Weezer drops me back at a neighbor's dock, and in a few minutes I'm in a car, crossing the Stoney Creek bridge and wishing I were on the water.
One gray summer afternoon I climb into my kayak and paddle across Rock Creek. It rained hard last night and this morning, and the water is the color of Rustoleum. It occurs to me I don't want to fall in, but across the way I see three kids with a johnboat, having a ball knee-boarding up and down the creek. Ahead of me, the water starts to bubble in an unnatural fashion, a long line of bubbles extending up towards the creek's headwaters. This is an aeration system Anne Arundel County installed in the creek in the early 1990s after low oxygen levels caused fish kills, rank odors and dangerous water quality. Even today, three coves in this creek are closed to human contact, two of them right up here near the headwaters. The aeration system runs all summer to keep more oxygen in the water column.
My destination this morning is the home of Caryn Canfield, watershed steward of the creek and founder of an organization called Restore Rock Creek. Like so many houses here, hers is perched on a steep hillside near the water. It's clearly a new house, towering over the smaller cottages nearby, and a passerby might easily conclude that it's just another case of a come-here leveling an old place and building something fancy. Right away, though, it's clear there's more to it. I climb up the dock, tie off the kayak to a piling, and the first thing I notice as I walk towards the house is a Secci disc (a device used to measure water clarity) lying on the stone patio. The patio itself is terraced into the hillside, planted all around with native grasses and flowers, rather than lawn. A couple of butterflies flutter over the pale white blooms. The grasses grow down to a rip-rapped shoreline, and around the house itself, rain barrels are positioned under the downspouts to minimize runoff--because runoff, says Canfield, is this creek's worst enemy.
"Every creek that feeds this creek starts with a stormwater runoff drain," she says. "So we have that, plus [backwash] from the Patapsco, which is high in nutrients. Nutrients tend to get in here, and they tend to stay in here." Nutrients start the downward spiral of algae blooms (the Rustoleum water I'm seeing), which leads to anoxia when the algae die and sink to the bottom to decompose, eating oxygen all the way. Canfield started coming to Rock Creek in 2006 when she and her family took up sailing and kept their boat at Oak Harbor Marina. Eventually they moved here from Catonsville, Md., and she decided the creek needed an advocate. She took Anne Arundel County's certification program to become the creek's watershed steward. And she put together Restore Rock Creek (www.restorerockcreek.org), a volunteer citizens' group working to do just what its title says.
"I try to help people understand the impact they have on water quality. I primarily focus on non-point sources, like fertilizer, dog waste," she says. Replacing old bulkheads with natural shorelines, using rain barrels, planting native grasses and flowers rather than mowing and fertilizing a lawn, cleaning up dog poop--all are positive moves people can make to minimize how much bad stuff flows into the creek. And she tries to take her message to people throughout the creek's watershed: "It's the watershed that matters, not just the waterfront." By the very nature of being here, she says, people affect the creek's water quality, "so it's incumbent on the homeowners to control the runoff." It's a responsibility, she says, that's part of the privilege of living here.
These creeks have always been high-density, with houses cheek to cheek. Add to that the population boom in the watershed itself, and you have a recipe for bad runoff from fertilized lawns, driveways, parking lots, and human waste. Canfield shows me a map--a printout from a county survey, showing the combined watershed of the creeks. All of the land on Rock Creek's southeastern side--with the exception of Fort Smallwood Park at its mouth and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Park just to the south of Fort Smallwood--is covered with pink dots, like some out-of-control rash. Each dot indicates a septic system. On the opposite side, and along Stoney and Nabbs creeks, there are only a few dots. That's because those areas are on a public sewage system. And it has a lot to do with why Rock Creek has the worst reputation of the three for water quality.
"It's probably not unheard of that some of these septic tanks are cesspits designed in the twenties, thirties and forties," Canfield says, "and they were not designed for as densely a populated area as this has become." The county is working to upgrade septic systems, but there's no question that these affect the water quality too. Residents have also blamed the county itself for sewage spills that have happened at the Rock Creek pumping station that feeds into Cox Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Canfield is careful not to point fingers--something she says has been done for too long here, to little benefit. In an ideal world, she says, the county would have enough money to carefully monitor the pumping station and the creek itself, to see whether the creek's health is improving. But it still comes down to everyone doing their part. "We've all got to contribute," she says.
The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee are still soaking the Bay the September morning I meet with two men named Chris and 70 cages of spat-laden oyster shell at Maryland Yacht Club near the mouth of Rock Creek. Chris Wallis has lived on Rock Creek for 22 years, and before that on nearby Bodkin and Back creeks. He's director of Oysters Rock, the creek's brand-new oyster-growing project. The other Chris--Chris Judy--is manager of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Marylanders Grow Oysters program, which encourages people who live on the water to grow oysters under their docks and then plant the young bivalves on local reefs. It's all part of the Bay-wide effort to restore the Bay's oysters, both for their powerful ability to filter water, and perhaps, ultimately, for harvest. Decimated by decades of the diseases MSX and Dermo, the Bay's oyster population is a shadow of its historic self. People like Wallis figure that anything to restore it has to help, and thousands of oysters filtering Rock Creek's waters can't hurt it, either.
This morning, Judy is delivering 70 cages that will hang out here off a dock at the yacht club until Saturday, when local property and waterfront business owners will take them to their individual docks. They'll grow them there for about nine months, and next year, if all goes well and the oysters survive and thrive, the DNR will come back and distribute them either on a historic reef around Fort Carroll (near the Key Bridge over the Patapsco) or a new reef to be established around the base of the White Rocks. Then they'll deliver more oysters to the creek. Already, though, there's an issue. "Salinity," Wallis says. "Certainly there's low salinity everywhere up in this region this year. There's been lots of fresh water."
Wallis had commitments from people and businesses along the creek for 375 cages. But recently, DNR found high mortality rates in cages on nearby Bodkin Creek, which they believed was due to the low salinity levels. "So DNR said they were only going to give us twenty-four cages," Wallis says. He did a little research on salinity levels nearby, and also noted that already homeowners on Rock Creek were successfully growing oysters (including Canfield, who says she's had oysters growing steadily under her dock for three years and they're now about three inches long). So they worked out an agreement with DNR to start with 70 cages, one per dock. "They'll see what kind of success we have, and if it's good they'll add more," Wallis says.
Under a gray but drying sky, I help Wallis and Judy offload the cages from a flatbed trailer and then drop them into the water off the dock at the end of the piers. They tie each cage to a single line running the length of the dock, so that by the end it resembles some kind of strange macramé. Wallis says when he first tried to drum up support for Oysters Rock he got little response from local residents. But gradually, word of mouth and steady grassroots efforts generated more and more interest. "It's always a challenge to figure out how to get more people engaged," Wallis says. "We'd like to develop a group of people who have a core level of interest. Hopefully this will develop more enthusiasm."
There's also interest on Stoney Creek, where an organization called Chesapeake Home Oyster Growing Program--C.H.O.P.--is setting up a similar program. They had the same salinity issues as Rock Creek, says C.H.O.P. marketing representative Joyce Covert, but they were able to dunk 24 DNR-supplied cages for the first time in September 2011. "People are really taking this to heart," Covert says. "They're acting like they're the parents of these oysters. It's just very heartfelt." C.H.O.P. hopes to keep interest high so that by summer of 2012, if the salinity levels are back to normal, they can place hundreds of cages in Stoney Creek.
It's a far cry from Weezer's day, but you have to start somewhere. Back on Osprey's deck late in the day overlooking Rock Creek, I watch as two kayakers paddle by on the glassy calm water. It's Wednesday evening, and the Rock Creek Sailing Association's weekly racing series is in full swing. Sailboats are pulling out of Oak Harbor Marina and making for the starting line out in the river. A few hours from now they'll return, their crews full of stories to share up on the marina's deck while grilling dinner, more stories for these three creeks that have been making them for generations.