For the 46th year, Mid-Atlantic pilots flew into Kent Island’s Bay Bridge Airport on Saturday morning to load up bags of holly and good cheer for the 470 some residents of Tangier Island. A hearty breakfast served by the jolly elves of event sponsor Chesapeake Sport Pilot followed, then one by one, 28 small aircraft took off in a row – as reindeers indeed, with Santa, an elf and gifts in tow. Generous donations of extra school supplies for the remote islanders were packed into tight spaces, and lifted into the air.
The marshy islands that make up Tangier look remote and fragile from the air, and they certainly are. Located some 12 miles off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Tangier Island shrinks each day as its mushy land sinks into the Bay and the rising tide erodes from all sides, as much as ten feet each year. A proud and rugged community of independent watermen and women created a culture and a life on this island in the late 1600s. Their descendants live there today, in very much the same way as they always have. Yet today’s seafood industry isn’t as robust as it was, and one by one, families are leaving the island, some due to the rising sea, others for economic opportunity on the mainland. Today, some 60 Tangier families rely on the tugboat industry for jobs, as the changing watermen’s lifestyle erodes with the shrinking land it relies upon.
The 25 minute flight to Tangier Island was sunny and hazy this year, and although 29 of the island’s 60 students were out sick with the flu, islanders of all ages came out to greet the visitors and accept the holly boughs and greens to decorate their homes and businesses. One small girl shyly handed Santa her wish list on the tarmac. He carefully read it, then folded it up into his pocket for safekeeping.
Santa and his elf were whisked off to town in a golf cart where Tangier’s mayor and Methodist pastor gave a welcome and a brief service. Informally, islanders told their stories and outlined the stark realities that their community faces in the future. “It’s home. I’d love to stay here, but…” is commonly heard. The pilots and their passengers strolled the island, talking with locals, visiting the island’s museum and small grocery, sightseeing before lining up for crabcakes at Lorraine’s Sandwich Shop, a Holly Run tradition.
The annual Holly Run was started in 1968 by Ed Nabb, a Cambridge lawyer and pilot who delivered holly from the mainland to friends on the Island without greenery for Christmas decorations. The salty island marshlands support precious little in the way of evergreens. It quickly became a December ritual for Nabb and his friends, and his son Ed Nabb, Jr. has continued the tradition ever since.
Tangier Islanders sought state and federal assistance for years to get the seawall on the western side of the southern part of the island that protects the airport and sewage treatment plant. After Hurricane Sandy, officials announced a 4.2 million Corps of Engineers project to build a jetty that will protect the Island’s harbor. Construction of that jetty is scheduled to begin in 2016.
As we moved back toward the small airport, Tangier History Museum’s Gail Smith called out heartfelt appreciation “Thank you! This is always the start of our Christmas every year – it means so much!”
The planes flew off, one by one, heading up and away to the rest of the world, and the island disappeared from view as marshy wetlands took over. Bright sun sparkled upon the Chesapeake Bay and it was as if we were time travelers, shooting off from the past into the rushed lifestyles of the rest of the world. Looking down on that little flat spit and that tough, resilient community, it’s obvious that this is a place worth protecting and cherishing. Tangier Island and its people are a national treasure, isolated yet together, out there taking care of their own in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
For more information about the Island’s history and to plan a trip to Tangier Island: