By morning, the wind has swung around 180 degrees out of the north, and blowing hard. Within hours it goes from almost still to gusting over 40mph. Wind driven tides rush in through the northern inlet and pile up against the now closed southern end, submerging the dock again.
Breaking waves roll down the Bay, and we see more sand moving southward in the surf.
The temperature drops as quickly as the wind rose. I retreat to shelter along the inside of the island, behind what remains of the treeline windbreak. There are signs of the previous shorelines, old dunes, former marshes. The bleached bones of old cedar trees in what once was forest.
And artifacts of human history, too. A date carved in a picnic table still standing, somehow, for nearly 40 years.
We retreat to the house to stay warm. The sunshine of the morning is by afternoon replaced with wind driven rain. We read, do jigsaw puzzles, arrange shells and artifacts on the mantle, make soup, nap.
Just before sunset, the clouds begin to clear. A small waterspout is kicked up by the wind in the fast moving front, twisting and dancing over the water. It briefly catches the last bit of sun, and blooms into a brilliant golden rainbow before dissipating moments later.
The slick ca’m carries through sunset, moonrise, and late into the evening. Perfect for a bonfire on the beach to welcome the lunar eclipse.
The boardwalk over the marsh points almost due west like a compass rose. From the end, there’s a broad view over the marsh in every direction – the setting sun tips spartina grass with hot copper, followed by the full moon rising in the east over the treeline.
The evening meal is dispatched quickly. We head to the beach with chairs, and gather driftwood on the way.
While still low on the horizon, the moon is draped with an eerie shroud from the mist on the water. It grows bluer and brighter as it climbs the sky, bathing the whole scene in cold astral light.
We build a fire below the high tide line to keep the chill off. It catches quickly and feels good, makes a nimbus of warmth and warm light in the clear cool night.
We won’t wait up for the eclipse, which doesn’t begin until 4am, but we know it’s coming. One of those astronomical events, like a solstice or equinox, that adds gravitas to the evening, even when you can’t actually see it.
Hours later, the last of the wood is used, and people start to wander off by ones and twos. Some will wake before dawn to watch our shadow pass over the moon, wrapped in blankets on the dock. Tom and I stay up past midnight until the fire is just a bed of glowing embers, then bury it in wet sand.
In a few hours, it will be erased by the tide, along with our footprints.
In the dialect of a Tidewater waterman, a “slick c’am” is a slick calm, when the air and water are so still the Bay lays slick as glass. It’s a strange effect on a body of water so large that you can’t see across it. The whole world feels close and quiet.
Late fall is the transition season, when winter works up courage and summer grows weary. Cold wind from the North > then calm > warm wind from the South > then calm. We will have it all, twice, in the span of a week. Every day is different.
With the air so still, a mist gathers over the water like smoke on the horizon. That and the high clouds mean a change in weather is come; but for now, it’s shirtsleeves and sunshine.
We saw where the sand ended up; we want to see where it came from – the North end.
The dock is wet and slippery. Tonight is the fullest of Full Moons, the night of an eclipse, so tides are especially high. Water lapped the bottoms of the kayakson top of the pier where I tied them down to pylons.
By early afternoon, we can walk the deck without wading, but the wet parts are slick as greasy ice.
Following oxbow creeks, it’s about two miles to the north inlet. At least it was last year, where inlet was.
It’s an easy paddle on a calm day, riding the outgoing tide. We pass a couple of new duck blinds, the remains of an old one – storm battered, bent down on one knee – another repaired and ready for the coming season.
One by one, the creeks converge on the way to the bay, growing wider and deeper, the current stronger. We round a curve and I have a hard time making sense of what I see. Where before was island and sand and marsh grass, I see an unbroken horizon of blue water.
We paddle beyond the break to what’s left of the sandbar, beach the boats to look around.
Amazing. Last time I paddled to this spot, there was ¾ mile of more creek before reaching the inlet. The island was narrow in places, mostly sand, but very much land. Most of that is gone. This last bend in the creek exits right into the bay.
The former island tip remains apart, a small islet of sand and grass surrounded by water. Clearly won’t be there much longer. The new wider north inlet now extends more than a mile to the mainland. Much of the sand here is washing out in shoals, or sifting into the marsh. Root stubble pokes up through waves of the Bay now, what had been all marsh behind the barrier island, for now still gripping marsh mud.
You can see the dramatic change in recent satellite images. Here is the whole island shot ten years ago, with the north and south inlets still deep and navigable by large boats.
And these are the south and north inlets last year, before the winter storms.
And here is the island now, showing both inlets. I’ve edited this to show the current conditions on the satellite image from last year. There’s a new break in the last bend of the creek. The bar just beyond is now water. And the south inlet is a wide sand beach.
You can see the change best if the two images are overlaid and animated. If the animation below is not playing automatically, click on the image to open it.
I knew this was coming, and said so to T. But did not expect it my lifetime; certainly not in the span of a year.
Not sure what we’ll see if we come back next year. A lot less, if the trend continues, and no doubt it will.
Gear and groceries stowed, we headed south to see what weather hath wrought in our absence. It’s a short paddle to follow the old channel around to the inlet, or at least what used to be the inlet.
Amazing to think that within my lifetime, steamers could enter through this inlet and anchor in a protected deepwater harbor. Now a broad beach runs from what last year was the southern tip of the island to the mainland, with a dry sandbar three feet high. I knew this was the way it would end up eventually. It’s a process ongoing since the north inlet was formed, cutting the long spit off from the shore and forming the island a century ago. But I did not think it would happen so soon, let alone a single year.
The skin-on-frame kayaks will float in just two inches of water, which came in handy. At low tide, that’s all the water in some places inside the bar and the inlet.
Later, we walked down the beach, and across the bar over what last year had been crashing waves, to the marsh on the mainland at the far end.
Nothing is amiss, all looks as it should.
And yet not at all like it was.
The wind died down with the sunset, replaced by calm, a gibbous moon and sky full of stars.
From the docks, it doesn’t look like much has changed in a year. One or two boats absent from the little harbor here in Mathews, notably Wesley’s buy boat. Not that unusual. But, as we would soon learn, a lot has changed.
Some big storms came through in 2022. A “bomb cyclone” hit the Mid-Atlantic just days into the new year. That was followed by a series of nor’easters and winter storms all the way through April, several back to back. Then come fall, remnants of hurricanes lingered over the area for weeks. Several of these brought coastal flooding and strong winds that lasted days on end. We saw photos from friends of this whole harbor area under a couple of feet of water, more than once. The last time was only a month ago.
Aside from some missing boats, little sign of all that; but I heard from friends that much had indeed changed – the marshes were filling in, channels had shifted, etc.. The canal that leads up to the house on the island has silted in, no longer passible by boat for hauling supplies. That’s the same canal T and I sailed up a few years ago. Now everything would have to be carted up the long boardwalk in wheelbarrows and wagons. So, not knowing what else we would find, the Melonseeds stayed home this time, and we brought the skin-on-frame kayaks instead.
The ferry skiff arrived and we piled in gear and bodies, then daisy-chained the kayaks together for a tow behind, through the marsh to the island.
First obvious change was a changing of the guard. The island has passed from Wesley to the next generation, to his daughter. We caught up on news at the dock, while her husband helped us load, and then he fired up the skiff and we motored out into the marsh. On the ride, slow and winding to avoid new shoals, he filled me in on what had changed. Storms had eroded away a quarter mile from the north end of the island and deposited it at the south end, completely filling in the south channel. It was now connected there to the mainland – the island was now a peninsula, no longer an island.
He told how they take the kids and live in the old hotel out on the island all winter. The kids go to school, and every day begins with ferrying them across the marsh to catch the bus, then back again in the afternoon. Every normal day, that is. But when the storms came, and kept coming, they turned a normally pleasant journey into an impossible task.
During one storm, wind driven tides raised the water so high that it was shoulder deep on the dock, and he’s a big man over six feet tall. No way to get to school those days.
When the wind swung around to the South, it blew all the water out of the marshes, leaving only mud flats and exposed oyster bars. No school those days, either.
Apparently the teachers did not believe the kids when they tried to explain the absence, that they could only get to school by boat. So one day, when there was again no water, the whole family walked to the south of the island, across the new sandbar to the mainland, through the woods, to their grandmother’s house, and caught a ride from there to school. Once there, the parents had to explain the situation. At the end of the day, they all walked back.
So that explains why the bigger boats are missing from the marina. The south inlet is closed. While the north inlet is now much wider, it’s also more shallow – only 10″ deep at mean tide, and only if you know the way. With no reliable route to get out into the Bay, the big boats had to move to deeper sheltered water to the south, at Horn Harbor.
At the bus stop dock at the end of the pier, we unloaded the gear and started the long portage. The skiff went back for rest of our crew.