Good-bye, Fox Island


July 13-26, 1986

Those dates were hands down, the very best days of my teenage life. This is not hyperbole. This is true.

And this will be raw. I’m not interested in creating anything cohesive, not interested in editing or caring about flow or format right now. Above all I’m not interested in trying to tell a story with a happy ending or a valuable lesson. I suspect if there is one, I won’t be able to see it until much later. But what I really suspect is that there is no happy ending or valuable lesson. So you can stop reading now if that’s what you’re here for.

During the summer of 1986, I was thirteen years old. I was well on my way to fourteen, but not until the middle of August. And that was the best summer. A summer when, though I was far from mature, I started to grow up. A summer when, though I was a huge nerd, I found acceptance from a small group of people. A summer when I had one of the most formative experiences of my life.

I was lucky, oh so very lucky, to go on a great adventure, a two-week field trip to various educational centers around the Chesapeake Bay. It was something I dreamed of doing, something I applied to do, and after applying, waited, and waited to find out if I would be accepted. The day I received my acceptance letter in the mail, I leaped up and hugged my older brother, and believe me, the hugging of older brothers was not something my thirteen-year-old self ever did.

The first week of camp involved traveling around the bay: by canoe, by rowboat, in a workboat called The Osprey, on foot, and in a van. We baited our own trot-lines with salted eel and went crabbing. We had canoe races. We built osprey towers and wood duck boxes. We conducted experiments on water samples from the bay to determine water quality, dissolved oxygen content, salinity, and more. We searched for and recorded the locations of SAVs-submerged aquatic vegetation.

The second week was spent on Great Fox Island on the Tangier Sound. A century before our arrival, a hunting lodge was built on pilings next to a marshy island. The only solid ground-the floors of the lodge and the wooden boardwalks-were manmade. There was no electricity, just kerosene lanterns for light. The running water was supplied by a stationary bike in the kitchen. By pedaling the bike, water was pumped for washing dishes or taking short showers. The toilet, one that composted waste, used no water.

During our two-week bay odyssey, we got a first-class, hands-on, up-close-and-personal lesson in conservation and ecology. We did other things, too. We had ice cream in Annapolis. We swam at Sandy Point State Park where we also took our first hot showers in five or six days. We christened the van that drove us around “the party van” because we got to listen to “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins and “The Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera on the radio and because we were thirteen and fourteen and we were just that cool. We rescued a raccoon that got stuck in a trash container. We listened to ghost stories and told jokes and played Trivial Pursuit: What part of an airplane gives the bumpiest ride? Uh, the john? Hilarity.

During that trip, which I have always referred to since as “Fox Island,” I became friends with a boy named David. When the trip was over, I exchanged a few letters with three or four kids. But David and I wrote to each other for years. And years. This was when you still had to sit down with a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper and then put a stamp on an envelope. And we did. I have seen David three or four times since Fox Island ended. Our correspondence has dropped off in recent years, but we are Facebook friends.

That trip was the topic of many of my high school essays. What is your favorite place, and why? What is the most exciting thing you have ever done?

Why am I sharing all of this? Because just last night, I was thinking about Fox Island, fondly, as I always do, and wishing that my kids could experience this wonderful place. So today, I went to Google to see what I could find out. And what I discovered was devastating. Fox Island, for all intents and purposes, is gone. Last fall, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation made the heart-wrenching decision to suspend operations there. Due to rising sea levels brought about by climate change, the island is gone. The lodge and its boardwalks are still there, but it is no longer safe to take students there. It was the end of an era. I didn’t know.

Now I do know, and part of me wishes I didn’t. Fox Island will always exist in my memories and in my mind, but I never thought it would only exist there. It is terribly ironic and desperately sad that the very place that strove to teach generations of students about the dangers of climate change and the importance of conservation has succumbed. I can’t find a message of hope in its loss, all I can find is sadness.

I immediately contacted the one person who could understand and share my sadness. David. He responded to my Facebook message right away, as if he had been sitting there in front of his computer, waiting for me.

That’s so sad.

I’m really sad.

Those were good times.

They were great times.

I’m no stranger to loss. The older I get, the more things change and disappear. My elementary school is gone and so is the public library visited I growing up. Shops and restaurants in my hometown have closed. Places I took for granted and thought would always be there are gone. It reminds me of a poignant exchange between Armand and Lestat in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. About how hard it is to go on when everything that you love “slowly rots, or fades away.” I wasn’t expecting the world to change so quickly. I don’t know what the answer is.

I only know that I am sad tonight and I am weeping. Not only for the thirteen-year-old girl I once was, a girl who loved, and still loves nature, the outdoors, the water, and adventure, but for all the thirteen-year-olds who will never know what it’s like to step onto an island, step off the grid, and find yourself.