October 2021

The day is already hot when my parents, my friend, her son, my dogs and I board the Chesapeake Breeze in Reedville, Va., on a late August morning. The air is still and warm, the sun is strong despite the early hour and my skin is already sticky with perspiration. We settle on the second level, near the front of the vessel, and with a startling blast of the horn, it begins to lumber away from the dock.

After about an hour and a half, we dock at Tangier Island. A stark, white cross standing in the gray, stone seawall welcomes visitors who arrive by ferry with the faded inscription “For God so loved the world.”

Two churches serve the island and seem to knit the community together much the same way the seawalls bind the island, anchoring it in the middle of the wide, wet bay so eager to devour it.

Marlene McCready, who volunteers at the local museum two days a week tells me, “Our church and Danny’s church,” — she gestures towards a fellow volunteer, sitting in a swivel chair a few feet away — “is refuge.” Danny attends the non-denominational New Testament Church, while she attends the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church.

“It’s a spiritual community,” Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge will tell me later, when we meet to talk beside the docks.

RECEDING ISLAND

On a day like today, the bay doesn’t seem that hungry for Tangier’s soil. A day like today is known to the locals as “ugly,” precisely because it’s not. “We have our own language, really, our own accent,” Eskridge says. “We maybe talk backwards. Like, we say, ‘It ain’t hot out today,’ which means it is. We say, ‘Man, this was an ugly day,’ which means it was nice.”

Ugly or nice, it’s difficult to believe this bathtub of a bay, stretched to the horizon as flat as a fitted sheet spread across a bed, is eating away at the island. But as I sit in the shade of a picnic pavilion and wait for Eskridge, eavesdropping on several men speaking a dialect so thick I don’t recognize a word, I remark aloud about the serenity of the water.

A blue-eyed, gray-haired man sitting with his back to the bay says, “It’s a mistake people make, thinking the water is like this all the time.” Some days, the waves have teeth, and gnaw relentlessly away at the island’s edges.

There are many theories as to why Tangier is shrinking: Rising sea levels due to climate change; subsidence, the idea that the land itself is settling; and erosion. Though sea-level rise brought on by climate change is often blamed for Tangier’s shrinking shores, the real cause may be a bit more nuanced. Scott Hardaway, associate research scientist at Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, conducted a study and report on the island in 2004, and focused on The Uppards, the northern part of Tangier.

He explains that the issue now isn’t necessarily sea level rise; it’s the accelerated rate. Fifty years ago, sea levels rose about 1 foot every 100 years. “Now,” Hardaway says, “it’s more like one foot in the next 30 years. The trend was there historically, but the rate has increased.

“Many islanders don’t particularly believe in sea-level rise, but they do believe in shoreline erosion. We can all agree that the land is going away,” he adds.

According to Eskridge, erosion is the main concern. He believes a rock seawall can provide a fix to the erosion problem. “We’re pretty well protected on the west side now. We were losing 25 to 30 feet a year on that side before the seawall. Now we’re focusing on the east side, where we don’t have anything.”

While the water levels are up, Eskridge, a third-generation waterman in addition to his role as mayor, says population is down — the Census Bureau officially puts Tangier at 700 and shrinking — as young people have left for the military or the mainland.

But work at tugboat companies has encouraged some to stay. “We’re still dependent on the water,” he says.

LIFE ON THE ISLAND

The locals I speak to have been on the island their whole lives. Nathan, who declined to give his last name and toured us around the island on his golf cart, hasn’t left Tangier, at least not yet. He has lived here all of his 23 years, and stays because “it’s a nice, quiet life. Even at its busiest time, it’s nothing as busy as New York and other places.”

McCready, the museum volunteer, is 69. She was born, raised and married in Tangier; her two boys went to college and moved away. Her favorite thing about living on Tangier is “I love the community, the closeness. We’re in trouble, we have help. We’re happy, they celebrate with us.”

I mention Nathan’s tour to her and she smiles. The two are good friends. “He comes and visits us every night except Sunday,” she says. He started this practice when he was in third grade. “I told him whenever he’s on this side [of the island] — because he lived on the other side — to come on in if it’s cold and get a cup of hot chocolate.” He took her invitation to heart. “He never stopped coming,” she laughs.

Eskridge echoes McCready’s sentiment. His favorite thing about living on the island is the people and the “close-knit community. I love the seafood and the water. To me, it’s just a nice way of life, working on the water.”

CHASING SHELLFISH

For Eskridge, this “nice way of life” entails being at the crab shanty by 3 a.m. during the warm months, crabbing by daybreak and finishing by lunchtime. From December through February, he oysters. He prefers soft crabbing to the icy work of winter oystering. He advises anyone considering moving to Tangier to “stay here for one winter and then decide.”

While we’re talking, a young boy with a net in one hand and a crab in the other wordlessly walks up to Eskridge. He hands the crab to Eskridge, who gently takes it, lowering it down so my dogs can gingerly sniff it. It gently moves its claws back and forth, but never threatens to pinch. “This is a soft crab,” he explains. “I’ll add it to my tanks.” Then he nods toward the boy, already walking back to the water. “Whenever he catches something, he’ll run it by. They’re like 75 cents apiece.”

While the population has declined and the land mass has decreased, tourism has increased. It seems the less of Tangier we have, the more of us that want to see it. Eskridge said a well-publicized call he received from then-President Donald Trump in 2018 about the future of the island attracted visitors and media representatives from 40 different countries. But tourism “can’t take the place of crabbing or the seafood business,” he notes. “That keeps the ball rolling.”

Eskridge hopes more visitors will continue to find themselves on Tangier. As he tells me this, a ferry from Crisfield, Md., arrives on the side of the dock opposite the Chesapeake Breeze. Dozens of people disembark, flooding the island with voices and excitement. Hardaway corroborates Eskridge’s words of welcome. During his study of The Uppards, he spent a significant amount of time on Tangier. “The people there are friendly. They’re glad you’re there.”

We got three hours on the island before we climbed back onto the Chesapeake Breeze, bound for Reedville. I lean against a wall of the ship, lulled almost to sleep by the rolling waters and the low rumble of the engines. Mindlessly scratching my sleepy dogs’ ears, I make plans for my next visit: Spend more time in the museum, stay the night, visit the beach, explore The Uppards.

I don’t know when I’ll once again set foot on Tangier, but I hope it won’t be long, and I hope the day will be just as “ugly” as this one.