Saturday, October 29, 2011


This weekend certainly did not turn out as I had planned. Yesterday afternoon I crossed the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland’s Eastern Shore fully intending to get up early the following morning and set off from Tilghman Island for a day in search of some trophy rockfish. Unfortunately, the forecast was not in my favor with the prediction of a strong nor’easter arriving overnight and bringing an early winter storm extending from the Mid-Atlantic states through New England. Snow in October! Who’d a thunk it?

The earliest measurable snowfall in both Baltimore and Washington, DC was 0.3 inches on October 10, 1979, during the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburg Pirates. Trace amounts also fell in Baltimore on October 9, 1895, and again in 1903. A trace was also noted in Washington on October 5, 1892. The earliest recorded major snowfall in our area of Maryland was almost 6 inches recorded in Baltimore on November 6-7, 1953. Snow before Halloween is a rare occurrence. If the forecasters were correct, the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area could expect a modest accumulation from this storm. Another one for the record books perhaps?

By the time I arrived on Tilghman Island last night, the forecast had turned positively grim. A light rain had already begun to fall and the winds were picking up. A captain will normally wait until the morning of an outing before pulling the plug on a day on the Bay, but it was hard to ignore the fact that we were in for quite a blow and the good captain had to accept the fact it made no sense to challenge the stormy bay unnecessarily. The trip was cancelled. Yet all was not lost. I spent a wonderful evening with friends on the island - a great meal with some fine wines and an evening topped off with some exquisite bourbons as we watched the St. Louis Cardinals win what was probably the best World Series in recent history. And a good night’s sleep as the storm began to brew outside.

This morning we wandered down to the local island store to pick up the papers and to check out the waterfront. A cold, raw rainfall fell and bands of gusting winds raked across the island. All the boats were still at their moorings; none of the captains had chosen to wander out onto the Bay today. We also drove down to Black Walnut Point, at the southern end of Tilghman Island, and found the Bay to be remarkably calm despite the winds. Still, the heavy wind-blown rain virtually obscured Sharps Island Light three miles to our southwest at the mouth of the Choptank River. Clearly this was not a day to be fishing on Chesapeake Bay. We returned to the warmth of home and hearth for a nice breakfast and a relaxing morning reading the paper.

This afternoon I departed Tilghman Island for the drive back to Washington. The storm continued to lash the Eastern Shore where local communities were cancelling Halloween parades and other outdoor activities. Listening to the car radio, the reports kept coming in of significant snows accumulating most of the day north and west of Washington and Baltimore. To make matters worse, the snow was slowly moving into the two cities and their suburbs. Strong wind warnings were posted on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as I crossed over and fallen power lines closed the main Eastern Shore highway not far behind me. Winter has come early to Maryland this year! As I crossed over the bridge I looked down at the Bay which was now churned to a froth . Blowing rain became blowing snow and it seemed I was driving into the worst of it.

Certainly the Chesapeake Bay has seen worse storms than this. One would expect hurricanes this time of year, not a winter nor’easter. Traveling across the Bay Bridge is always a challenge when the winds are gusting regardless of the season. As the first snow of the approaching winter ticks against my windshield, I am reminded of other memorable trips across this bridge. One of the first was during the so-called "Bicentennial Winter" of 1976-1977, my first in Maryland and the coldest on record on the East Coast since the winter of 1779-1780. Back then ice on the Bay was so thick that carriages could cross from Annapolis to Kent Island, the same spot where the Bay Bridge is now situated. It is rare indeed for ice to stretch from shore to shore, yet in 1976-1977 the tidal Potomac, from the Chesapeake Bay to Washington, froze solid as did much of the upper Bay, and strong pack ice was responsible for tilting the Sharps Island Light fifteen degrees off perpendicular. As we crossed the bridge in that late December the ice reached up and down the Bay as far as the eye could see. It has never done that since then, but those of us who remember that winter take nothing for granted when contemplating what that season might offer up. Today’s storm reminds us of that.

This morning, as I stood on Black Walnut Point, I could barely make out Sharps Island Light on the horizon, its now familiar cant peaking through the misty tempest. I wonder what this winter will bring us. It is getting off to a rather early start.

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