In calm weather, Smith Island rises almost imperceptibly from the featureless waterscape of Chesapeake Bay. The island ferry churns up the surface and ospreys perched on channel markers size us up.
For miles, a pale ripple of marsh grass, bedded in rich mud is all that separates sea and sky. Then a distant gathering of trees, followed by the glint of a steeple, signals we are about to arrive.
On a map of Maryland, Smith Island looks like a net tossed on the water. Only 900 of the 8,000 acres of marsh and hummock are habitable.
British settlers first came here in the 1600s, arriving from Cornwall and Wales via Virginia, to farm soil that, even then, barely poked through the surface of the water.
Their descendents – Marshes, Evans, Marshalls, Bradfords and Tylers – turned to the bay for their living as time and tides changed the land to waterlogged marsh.
About 300 year-round residents, most of them members of the original families, live in three hamlets. Ewell and Rhodes Point share one landmass. Picket-fenced Tylerton sits on its own islet.
Another chunk of Smith, separated from the rest by a channel called Big Thoroughfare, is a wildlife refuge, home to a nesting pair of peregrine falcons, hundreds of varieties of resident and migrating shore birds, muskrats, otters, terrapin and rare swimming foxes.
The islanders are traditional Chesapeake watermen. Working with tools that haven’t changed much in a hundred years, they harvest crab in summer and oysters in winter.
We’d heard they spoke a unique Elizabethan dialect and that their lifestyle had not changed much in a hundred years, either. The “Elizabethan” is probably a bit of a stretch, though a distinctly West-Country twang colours their accent, along with the occasional archaic turn of phrase.
What is unique, however, at least for a community only a couple of hours from Washington DC, is the way island life is tied to the cycles and rhythms of nature.
From May to September, mating instincts and prevailing currents draw millions of blue crabs to the Chesapeake. The females shed their shells and for about five hours – until they harden again – become Maryland’s valuable delicacy, softshell crabs.
Artist Pauli Zmolek, our hostess at the Chesapeake Sunrise guesthouse, greets us at the dock of the Smith Island Marina and sets the tone – relaxed, casual and friendly.
She introduces us to her huge, always open, “help-yourself” kitchen, an important asset on an island with only one restaurant and a couple of general stores.
Later, Tim Marshall ferries us to the wildlife refuge to hunt for ancient arrowheads. Basking terrapin scuttle away as we splash across the tide-washed mud.
“Nothing much seems for sale here except fat, juicy crab cakes so good that we agree to search no further for meals while we’re on the island.”
Marshall knows everything about the island and its history. In his private museum, hundreds of arrow and spearheads, left by Native Americans, are arranged and identified – some more than 13,000 years old.
Within about 10 minutes, he’s found us three more. At sunset we stuff ourselves silly at Rukes, a sort of general store and crab shack.
Nothing much seems for sale here except fat, juicy crab cakes so good that we agree to search no further for meals while we’re on the island.
Next day, I wake to a dawn chorus of watermen stacking crab pots into a wide-beamed, shallow-draught boat outside my window.
Following the sound of running water, I find Big Eddie Evans preparing “floats” in his shanty, waiting for the “peelers” that he says are running late this year.
Peelers are female crabs ready to shed. The whole Evans family pitches in, checking the floats for softshells every three to five hours, round the clock.
A Smith Island softshell will be on a New York restaurant table less than 24 hours after it has peeled, Evans brags. A 13th-generation Smith-Island waterman himself, Evans says his son and grandson have followed him into the trade.
But he sees the end in sight. Stricter regulations and declining catches are taking their toll. “It’s getting harder and harder to make a living on the water,” he says. “I figure it won’t last more than another generation.”
It’s possible the island itself won’t last much longer. The Chesapeake has taken more than 1,200 acres in the past 100 years. In the meantime, though, the Smith Islanders welcome visitors with old-fashioned dignity and grace.
Smith Island basics
British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Philadelphia, Washington-Dulles and Baltimore .
The drive to Crisfield takes three hours; ferries leave at 12.30 daily.
Chesapeake Sunrise (001 410 425 4220; www.smith island.us) has cosy rooms . Charters and fishing parties can be arranged. The Inn of Silent Music in Tylerton (425 3541; www.innofsilentmusic.com) is more sedate and formal.