The Enduring Legacy of the Bernie Fowler Wade-In
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The headline above appeared on a Bay Weekly story from 2019, one of the many years that the newspaper staffed and publicized the annual Patuxent River event hosted by Bernie Fowler, who died on Sunday, Dec. 12, at age 97. (See Chesapeake Bay Magazine this week.)
Clyde Bernard "Bernie" Fowler was many things — a state senator; a county councilman, a businessman and an environmental crusader. He was a character from a bygone era, when public discourse was civil and political leaders respected.
He also was a beacon for those who love rivers and understand their significance in our lives. Nearly every river has multiple problems, typically a combination of development, point-source pollution and fertilizers from farm and lawn that steal away lifeblood oxygen with algal blooms
There's an existential problem, too — the disconnection between people and the rivers that have sustained us over the years. Too many people have become estranged from their rivers and seldom do they get in one. All the other problems fester in that void, which Bernie Fowler, who embraced the Patuxent with all his heart, understood.
Former Bay Weeky editor and publisher Sandra Olivetti Martin (pictured with Fowler below) interviewed Fowler many times through the years and got her feet wet more than once.
Martin wrote: "We first caught up with Bernie in 1993, when 30 people joined hands on the beach at Broomes Island and walked into the water. That year, Fowler — joined by the bard Tom Wisner, the much shorter U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) and, as usual, Betty Brady's fifth-grade class from Hollywood, Md. — could spot a glimmer of his white tennis shoes while water lapped around his thighs.
In the cool, mushy sand, aquatic grass waved. A walker bent down to pluck a piece and give it to Fowler, who held it aloft triumphantly.
Said Fowler: "The grass that the old red-headed ducks feed on is coming back. The year before last when we saw that, that's the first that we'd seen in over 25 years. We're beginning to see signs of it coming back. That's very encouraging. Aquatic species like that, you can use as a measure that is a little more effective than me looking at my feet."
Following are excerpts from what Sandra, now publisher of New Bay Books, wrote every June, when Fowler, friends and fellow river-aficionados waded into the Patuxent to symbolically gauge the water's clarity by gazing in the water toward their feet.
What's in Bernie Fowler's heart is a river unlike any you or I have ever seen.
He wades for the “dear, generous” river that fed his family — his whole county — during the Great Depression. When banks closed their doors, locking people’s money inside, the Patuxent “in its goodness and kindness,” gave them fish, crab and oysters, he says.
“You stood on the sand and could look in the river and see big jumbo crabs 20 feet away hidden in the grass or behind an old tin can,” he says. Crabs were the family’s food and income.
He remembers Dixie Buck, his neighbor and a champion crabber, catching “24 dozen soft-shell crabs. She crabbed two tides to get them, morning and evening. She sold them for a penny apiece, 12 cents a dozen, to our father who huckstered them at Chesapeake Beach.”
And the oysters: “In winter, the river froze up in ice this thick,” he recalls, holding his age-speckled right hand a good 18 inches above his left. “I remember ice so thick in places that the men put their oyster tongers on sleighs and pulled them across the river. They cut holes in the ice to tong, and that’s how they survived. They had to do some chopping to get through that ice. My brother Howard, then 13 or 14, was one of those men, and he brought home some crisp one-dollar bills.
“One of the men drove the truck from Denton’s Oyster House on Broomes Island — that used to be one of the biggest on the East Coast — out on that ice day after day to pick up those oysters harvested from Gatton’s bar on the St Mary’s side. It’s God’s truth.
“You’d almost have to have gone through it to know how valuable that river was,” Fowler says.
Always before, Fowler entered the river at Broomes Island, where he knew the waters like he knew his own feet, which the six-footer could see even when he waded in up to his chest. Bernie’s Boats, a rowboat business he started at Broomes Island with a $4,000 G.I. Bill loan after his service in World War II, often had the young Fowler that deep in the water. There, too, he met Betty Lou, his wife of 60 years.
This year, however, the Annual Patuxent River Wade-In moved across the river and a bit south to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.
“I can’t stop the aging process,” Fowler said of the move. “There will come a time when I won’t be able to do this. I want it to go on in perpetuity. I wanted to get it institutionalized, and there’s no better place than Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.”
With the move comes a view. “You can look right over to where Bernie’s Boats used to be,” Fowler told Bay Weekly.
Bernie Fowler can fill a tent as enthusiastically as a revival preacher.
Several hundred men, women, children and dogs gathered under the yellow-striped tent to hear speeches, songs and promises. Then a long line of them waded into the murky Patuxent River at Broomes Island on the traditional second Sunday in June.
Gov. Martin O’Malley came as he promised, walking on crutches — as he will for six weeks, after suffering a stress fracture to his left shin bone while running. He waded in, alongside Fowler, to a depth of 21 inches and called for “41 inches next year!”
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the powerful Maryland congressman who is the majority leader of the U.S. House, kept his pants dry this year, though he did his annual job of taking the measure of Fowler’s wet coverall leg. Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, whose Calvert district covers the lower Patuxent, waded in for the first time, along with new Attorney General Doug Gansler. Sen. Roy Dyson, from lower Calvert and St. Mary’s, waded in for the umpteenth time, linked arm in arm to Del. Sue Kullen (pictured with Fowler above) and Calvert Commissioner Wilson Parran. Commissioner Susan Shaw kept her feet dry...
Politicians and dignitaries who brought good wishes and moral support bring funds.
Fowler had made no secret of his hope that this 20th anniversary would be his river’s year. He lobbied the governor hard and long, even as Patuxent water dripped from wet pants legs into wet shoes.
“I was looking for Lady Patuxent to get her accolades,” Fowler acknowledged. “And that didn’t happen.”
You just wade out in the river,
give it all you got
Right up to your chest.
And then you pick your spot.
-Tom Wisner (left, with Fowler) "Bernie Fowler Day: A Guide to Wading in the Southern Maryland Waters"
Back in 1988, a state senator donned coveralls, broad-brimmed farm hat and a pair of white sneakers. Thus clothed, he walked into the river. Now, a full decade later, Bernie Fowler has the most famous feet in Maryland.
Next you take your peepers
And cast them slowly down
On the day we see our feet again
There'll be celebration in this town.
They could have called Bernie Fowler a madman. Instead, they called him a visionary. His wade-in has gained attention far and wide as the clearest measure of the health of Chesapeake Bay. In 1990, The University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Studies honored him with its first Truitt Environmental Award. In 1993, Tom Horton introduced National Geographic readers to Bernie in his cover story on the Chesapeake. In 1994, the Maryland General Assembly designated the traditional wade-in day, the second Sunday in June, as Bernie Fowler Day.
"It's a wonderful way to bring people together and increase and hold attention on water quality," said Kent Mountford, senior scientist at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Bay Office, himself an observer of the lower Bay and Patuxent River for over 28 years.
This year, as its 10th anniversary rolls around, Bernie's sneaker test is spreading from the wide, southern Patuxent River to the whitewater of the upper Potomac River, from shallow, central Herring Bay to northerly Otter Point Creek at the Bush River in Harford County.
It's Bernie's measure!
It's simple - yet profound.
We got a treasure!
You can't buy it by the pound.