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Secluded Smith Island Is Living at Its Best

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By Victor Block

Talk about hometown pride! When I asked a grizzled waterman who lives on Smith Island, Maryland, if he'd like to accompany me to one of the community's other nearby villages, he replied "Nope, I've already been there."

While the twinkle in his eyes suggested he wasn't completely serious, the fact is that residents of Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay good-naturedly tout the superiority of their tiny town over the other two. Along with being loyal to the little village where they live, Smith Islanders are hardy, independent and welcoming to visitors.

That last trait is no accident. When folks share a group of island strands encompassing about 8,000 acres -- of which only 900 are habitable -- it helps to develop a friendly attitude.

Smith Island actually consists of three minute islets, each occupied by a village. Ewell and Rhodes Point are connected by a short wooden bridge while Tylerton stands alone.

Capt. John Smith spotted the diminutive archipelago in 1608. Some present-day residents trace their ancestry back as much as 12 generations to the early colonists. Most of the original settlers were English and Welsh, and vestiges of their Elizabethan dialect persist. I soon learned that "air" means "are," and "tie-yum" translates to "time."

 

Following in the bootsteps of their ancestors, many men eke out their living from the gray waters of the Chesapeake Bay. That means dropping traps or trotlines for crabs during spring and summer and dredging for oysters in fall and winter. Because overharvesting and pollution have depleted the bay's oyster population in recent decades, the island's economy has come to depend primarily upon crabbing. Along with hard-shell crabs, Smith Island is the center of the country's soft-shell crab industry.

The waters are thick with multicolored buoys bobbing in the waves, each marking a wire crab "pot." Male crabs often are the bait, luring females that enter anticipating a mating ritual. Instead, they end up on someone's lunch or dinner plate.

Brought back to land, "peeler" crabs -- those about to lose their protective hard cover and become soft shells -- are put into water-filled floats. As soon as a crustacean sheds its shell, it is plucked out and prepared for shipment to a restaurant or market before a new firm outer cover can form.

Hard-shell crabs face a different fate. Some end up at restaurants in Washington, Baltimore and other cities not far from the waters where they grew up. There they are sprinkled with a peppery mixture of spices and steamed until the shells turned from blue to red.

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