Tag Archives: nature

Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

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One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

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Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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Science for Big Kids—The Koshland Science Museum

Not only does D.C. play host to many museums about uncommon topics (think the National Museum of American Jewish Military History or the National Postal Museum), many organizations located here also offer contributions of the museum variety. Take, for example, the Koshland Science Museum, which is the official museum of the National Academy of Sciences.

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One thing right off the bat—although “science museum” may conjure up happy moments of your youth where you played with magnets and looked at cells under microscopes, this museum is decidedly not for kids.  Which in my opinion actually makes it more unique, worthwhile, and interesting.  It also is a welcome refresher to the fact that many adults don’t feel comfortable in museums designed for kids, prompting one writer to allege (with statistics and other evidence) that “science museums are failing grown-ups.”

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Which brings us to the Koshland, whose mission is to “use science to solve problems.”  It is quite small, in that it just has a few exhibits.  But these exhibits are on big topics and also use super snazzy technology to pull you in.

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The biggest exhibit featured at the Koshland is on global climate change.  “Earth Lab:  Degrees of Change” focuses on the causes of climate change, environmental issues, and solutions to them.  Other exhibits include those that focus on the human body and immunology.  One of my favorite things to do at the Koshland was play around with the high-tech and flashy interactive exhibits, especially those that included videos about light pollution and dark matter.

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It’s quite notable that the Koshland is backed by and based upon the research of the National Academies.  The National Academy of Sciences (whose sisters organizations are the National Research Council, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) was created by Congressional charter in 1863 to be an independent science advisor to the government.  This is all to say that the topics and research put forward that are presented at the museum are of some of the most rigorous and cutting-edge out there.

The Koshland is designed to expose the public to scientific research, which is useful, considering that these topics are often mired in ivory tower jargon and are fairly unapproachable.  And in an era where science is becoming increasingly politicized, it seems like this kind of place has never been more necessary.

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To visit:  525 E Street NW, (202) 334-1201, hours are 10am-6pm every day but Tuesday, adults $7.  Gallery Place/Judiciary Square/Archives metro stops, or lots of buses.

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A Bit of Nature Within the City: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Washington, DC is a surprisingly good spot for green spaces.  From Rock Creek Park to the Capital Crescent Trail, our city has many natural havens.  But one of the best and least known of these spots is hidden in Anacostia—Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

Kenilworth, located on the banks of the Anacostia River, is a 14-acre set of gardens adjacent to 77 acres of marshland.  The park is best known for its unique water lilies, lotuses, and other flowering plants on the garden ponds.

It also has a restored tidal marsh, one of the city’s last tidal wetlands.  A boardwalk out into the marsh provides a glimpse into the unique habitat—on my visit, I saw an osprey with a large fish in its talons alight on a branch across the marsh.

Kenilworth in managed by the National Park Service and therefore has excellent visitor outreach such as a small visitor’s center and binoculars available for loan.  It also provides garden tours and opens early every morning at 7am for birders.  And you’ll be sure to see some interesting avians—I caught a glimpse of a brilliant orchard oriole on my walk.

The history of the gardens dates back to 1882, when Civil War veteran W.B. Shaw decided to use his farmland to create a series of water ponds and gardens.  After his death in 1921, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatened to dredge the gardens to deal with the silt that had filled the Anacostia River, but Shaw’s daughter formed a citizen’s activist group that saved the site. She also convinced Congress to buy the gardens for $15,000, which the National Park Service acquired in 1938.  Since then, it has been essentially unchanged.

Kenilworth has different attractions for the different seasons.  As its website says:  “Spring is the best season for wildflowers in the marsh that borders the athletic fields and gardens.  Summer is the season for the Aquatic Gardens.  Winter, when leaves are off the trees, is the best time for birding at any of the sites. “

One of the best things about Kenilworth is that it is metro accessible.  From the Deanwood metro station, it’s about a 10 minute walk to the park entrance.  It’s a special place in our city that is definitely worth losing yourself in for a few hours.  Bring your horticulture knowledge and a birding guide and you’ll forget that the city and highway 295 are less than a mile away.

To visit:  1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20019.  Hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.  Metro accessible via the Deanwood station.  The park is also accessible from the back on the river with a canoe or kayak.  Free to visit.

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