Bernie Fowler, the former Calvert County commissioner and Maryland state senator, told his father as a young man that he had no desire to go into politics or to sell whiskey for a living. He did the former, didn’t do the latter. He also didn’t say he ever wanted to go into public relations, but you had to marvel at his ability as a pitchman Sunday when he attracted 250 people in mid-90 degree weather to St. Leonard to pay tribute to a … river. Senator Fowler has championed the restoration of the Patuxent River for at least four decades. Twenty-five years ago, a friend suggested that he wade into the river to see how far he could go before he couldn’t see his feet any longer. The idea evolved from stories the senator told of wading into a clearer Patuxent as a young man and plucking crabs from its sea grasses. His wade-ins became an annual touchstone and spawned similar events elsewhere.
This past Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the Patuxent Wade-In. It was less homespun than the initial affairs with a big yellow tent, sound system and guitar accompaniment on the site of Jefferson Patterson Park, the state’s jewel of an archeological lab and museum. But the latest version must have felt no less sincere than the earlier ones. Love of faith, country and the river were invoked often. Senator Fowler’s voice cracked while praising the support for his life’s crusade from Betty, his wife of “62 years and 9 months.” Governor Martin O’Malley, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, state Senator Roy Dyson, state Planning Secretary Richard Eberhart Hall and state Environmental Secretary Robert Summers and many other officials took part.
After about an hour of speeches under the big tent, the audience paraded down a hill to the beach. On Senator Fowler’s cue, the throng began surging into the river. Senator Fowler went several feet in, then walked back out. Congressman Hoyer, the minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, measured the waterline on the senator’s overalls with a metal yardstick. The result was 35 inches, better than the 31.25 inches last year and the best result in a decade. Senator Fowler then exhorted everyone to turn and face the river, a few boats bobbing far off in the distance, and to give it a round of applause. Remarkably, giving a standing ovation to a body of water somehow didn’t seem peculiar or contrived in this setting.
The Patuxent itself is a worthy measuring stick. The largest river with a watershed wholly in Maryland, it makes a pretty compelling gauge of the efforts to protect the natural resources that define Maryland. The wade-in is far from scientific –Senator Fowler himself would be the first to acknowledge that. And, in fact, the more scientific assessments of the river’s health haven’t been any more heartening: Due to declines in levels of dissolved oxygen, the Patuxent was one of only two rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (along with the Elizabeth in Virginia) to receive an F-grade in a 2011 examination of the bay watershed by EcoCheck. The Patuxent Wade-In, and its spinoff cousins, have brought attention to the issue in an indelible, translatable way.
Before departing, Senator Fowler reminded the crowd of his eight-word motto for protecting the Patuxent. “Never give up,” he said.
Before anyone was impolite enough to correct him on his count, Senator Fowler finished the rest of his maxim, “Never, never, never give up.”