A bushel of crabs is easier to come by than a wheelbarrow of dirt down at the floody corner of Crocheron Wharf and Phillips Gunning Club roads, where the Bishops Head peninsula dangles between Tedious Creek and the Honga River in lower Dorchester county.
But this is where Mike Draper and his son Dan have decided to make their stand, moving to a century old house amid the marsh that they plan on raising nearly 7 feet in the air.
“Some folks are scared off from places like this, but we like an adventure,” Mike says. It’s 8 a.m. and he’s already sweating as he shovels topsoil he had hauled in onto a small dike, or berm, that will run several hundred feet around his property to keep tides out.
The elder Draper, 60, a successful renter and flipper of homes he rehabs on the western shore, said he went into this venture after a lot of thought and with no illusions.
“I’ve been a pro bass fisherman and I’ve fished every river around Chesapeake Bay, and I know the tides are definitely getting higher and higher. . . erosion and siltation are terrible. I don’t know about global warming, but I know the tides are getting higher.”
His berm, he says, will be “about Isabel height”—referring to the September, 2003, hurricane that caused the highest storm surge ever recorded around much of the Chesapeake, and put water 18 inches deep in the home he has just bought here.
Dorchester County’s recently revised building rules call for elevating new construction well above where Isabel’s surge reached, some 40 inches above the ground here. Draper’s going up 81 inches with the house, hiring Expert House Movers from Sharptown in neighboring Wicomico County.
“They helped move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse back (from an eroding shoreline),” Draper notes.
There’s no time to waste, he says, shoveling. A couple weeks ago a high tide came within about four inches of the house’s first floor. Tides covering the yard in several inches of salt water have happened “six or eight times” since he bought it nine months ago.
But low-lying southern Dorchester’s vulnerability to the rising tide is also its allure—all manner of waterfowl, abundant blue crabs, white tailed and sika deer, all literally in your backyard, the Drapers say.
Dan, 30, recently caught half a bushel of crabs in fifteen minutes by a culvert draining tide beneath the road just off one corner of the front yard. Mike catches big white perch and small rockfish in the tidal ditches along Crocheron Wharf road.
“This is for Dan, really,” Mike Draper says. “He’s going to live and work here until he dies, so it’s worth the effort and expense.”
Dan, a waterman by trade, says he’d had it with seeing his crab pots stolen or run over by boats in the waters he’d been working between the Bay Bridge and North Point in Baltimore county.
He’s peeler potting down here now, catching crabs close to shedding out into valuable soft crabs. The Drapers envision building a two story ‘sloughing’ or shedding house on their property, turning out thousands of soft shells, selling them everywhere from overseas to local retail—“this Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad (now a National Park and visitors center in Dorchester) is bringing more and more folks down here,” Mike says.
He got the modest frame home here for what would seem cheap by western shore standards; $62,000 including 8.5 acres. But it’ll be another sixteen thousand to raise the house, and $22,500 for the foundation that will support it several feet above the high tides.
That elevation will afford million-dollar views in every direction across vast wetlands of needlerush and spartina grasses, looking over Fishing Bay to the east, Hoopers Straits to the south, and out toward Calvert county across the main Chesapeake to the west.
“Those marshes are the nurseries of Chesapeake Bay—a diamondback terrapin came up to nest in the yard the other day—and if the marshes collapse then the Chesapeake Bay collapses,” Mike says.
Climate change scientists are predicting the loss of tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in Dorchester alone by the end of the century, as sea levels rise.
There are efforts here to pump up sediment from river bottoms to help some marshes build faster than the tides rise. Mike says in the short term “it would help a lot” to increase the volume of drainage ditches and culverts that are inadequate to carry the tides off rapidly when they recede.
Looking over at Dan, dipping crabs for a neighbor from the drainage ditch, Mike says: “he’s not made to be in an office 9-5. He loves the woods and this place is made for him.”
From what our little film crew has learned in making our documentary on rising tides in Dorchester, we have to think the Drapers are bucking the odds, trying to make a go of it here in coming decades.
But they are tough, adaptable, resilient folks—all the qualities that are going to be needed as Dorchester county and other low-lying parts of coastlines everywhere struggle with the challenges of rising seas.