Issue: August 2002
Wade in the Water

At Bernie Fowler’s annual wade into the Patuxent River, you get a little politics, a little religion and a lot of love for a beautiful river.


     Like a big toe wiggling out of a scruffy sneaker, the tip of Broomes Island pokes into the Patuxent, pointing nearly due south almost halfway across the river. There were plenty of toes doing the same thing on a bright Sunday in June-toes in flip-flops, toes in surf shoes, toes in old boat shoes and in holey high-tops, all stepping off the white ribbon of beach on the island’s eastern edge and into its sandy shallows, wading until they faded from sight. The people attached to those toes walked hand-in-hand into the water led by one man-not a preacher, exactly, not a tree-hugger, per se, not a politician, necessarily, not an environmental activist, altogether. Just a man who grew up here when you could wade chest-high in water clear as an ice-cold 7-Up and who has dedicated much of his life to cleaning up the Patuxent, so he can wade up to his shoulders again and see the toes poking from his old white sneaks. “You’re here today because you truly love this river,” former Maryland state senator Bernie Fowler, 78, told the crowd of about 100 at his 15th Yearly Senator Bernie Fowler River Community Wade, as the guest book named it. “Until the day we can truly wade out shoulder-high and see our feet in the water, nothing less will be acceptable.”

     As a waterman and the owner of a boat rental business who made his living here, Fowler saw his beloved river start going downhill in the 1960s, but no one could tell him why. When he ran for Calvert County Commissioner in 1970, he had a burning desire to learn more and do something about it. And he did. Data from scientists at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Md., and others showed that excessive nitrogen and phosphorus-much of it from upstream sewage treatment plants-was causing the problem. Fowler and officials from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties sued the state and the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce Clean Water Act rules limiting those discharges. As the long, bitter fight dragged on, the river got worse. By the late 1980s, Fowler could barely get past his lanky shins before his toes vanished into the murk. Finally, a judge ordered the agencies to clean up the sewage plants.

     It was a great start, but it didn’t really make people see how sick the river and the Bay were-and still are. So in 1988 Fowler and his friend, folk singer Tom Wisner, began the annual wade, which over the years has attracted governors, congressmen, hundreds of people and, in a sweet piece of irony, at least one EPA administrator. A bit of a baptism, political picnic and local fair rolled into one event, the wade results in the “sneaker index,” an annual measurement from Fowler’s old white sneakers to the high-water mark on his blue overalls. The index reached a low point in 1989 at eight inches and a high in 1997, at 44.5 inches. This year was 42.75 inches. The goal is 57 inches.

     As part of this year’s ceremony, Fowler offered a tribute to the late Don Heinle of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, placing a wreath in the water to commemorate the scientist’s dedication to the difficult cause. Heinle died last year, at only 63 years old. “He was first and foremost a gentleman, he was a great scientist and he stuck to his guns,” Fowler said. “Because of his tenacity and courage this Patuxent River is the better for it today.” No doubt, the same can be said of the tall fellow from Broomes Island who has always loved wading in the river.