Island Communities

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During our last part of Journey 4, we traveled to Deal Island in Somerset County, MD to help with a restoration project on the national historic skipjack, Kathryn, with Mark Wiest and Zach Hall. It was neat to visit another island community similar to Smith Island with the exception that Deal Island does have a bridge that connects to the main land. This place isn’t very big with a population of 500 people, only half of them are considered permanent residence while the others live off the island and come in for work. Methodism was strongly rooted there after Joshua Thomas, a waterman, had visited and help convert the Presbyterian chapel there. Today the chapel is named after him with his gravestone resting next to it, he had fundamentally changed the island’s culture by bringing Methodism to the community. We had spent a few days on Deal Island working on the skipjack but also having a chance to explore the island and meet some of the locals.

I remembered earlier in the semester we had gone to the Maritime Museum at St. Michaels where they were working on a similar restoration with a skipjack named Rosie Parks. Getting the opportunity though to actually work on Kathryn was a lot of fun and interesting because I got to experience new things. Wiest and Zach were very helpful when teaching us different techniques and allowing us to use machines such as the planing and the bung with a drill press. Other chores that I did were screwing in nails and tightening them with a washer and bolt, painting, and clamping into place the boards. All of it was hard work and at times it was a bit scary that they were letting us do such important things. We had the opportunity to meet Mike Vlahovich and Captain Stoney (owner of Kathryn) both of whom had a great sense of humor and a dedication to their job. The one thing I loved the most out of all of it was the team work that we shared and the joy in our tiny contributions to this restoration project. We even got to sign our names and Chesapeake Semester ’13 on the back of a board that was then drilled onto the front of the skipjack.

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On our last day we got to explore more of the island and visited a number of places, two of which were the convenience store and their local pub. Arby’s and Lucky’s were great places to meet with some of the locals and hear about their time on Deal Island. Some of them were born and raised there and would never consider moving away because they love the close-knit community and culture there. However when asked if they would continue to stay if there wasn’t a bridge, a few of them said they would leave. It’s because they don’t like being cut off and isolated from everyone, also, that form of transportation is too important for them. At different points of our visits we met watermen and got to see them dump a whole boat full of oysters into a truck. During some interviews we learned that most of them believe that the watermen culture is a dying one because it’s not common for the younger generation to take part in the family business. This is mostly because of the very expensive permits that they must have but also there is simply no other work on Deal Island which is why they move away to find other jobs. It’s a bit odd because right now the oyster population there is the highest in any part of the Bay and the watermen are able to “catch their limit.” They fear though that the oyster bars that are protected and not harvested will die because of diseases or suffocation due to sediment. What I’ve heard repeatedly was that if the watermen could go into these sanctuaries and use power dredges to clean the oysters, then the health of the oyster bars will be much better. The last evening was extraordinary because they served excellent food and we heard more wonderful stories from the residences – a lot about how Deal Island has changed in the coming years.

My time on Deal Island was amazing in all the ways that I had never thought of because the people there were so welcoming and I learned so much from the watermen community. I was surprised that this place was very similar to Smith Island, even some of the locals mentioned visiting it or having friends and family living there. It’s clear that even with the isolation that they experience, their culture is very rich and surrounds itself with their religion and oysters. I believe after visiting both island communities that each one and others like them must have distinguishable traits that are unique and special. Though I wouldn’t consider living on such islands as these, I must admit that seeing them was a wonderful experience for me.

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