Originally published in the Capital Gazette on January 6th, 2018
Written by Selene San Felice
Annapolis photographer Jay Fleming thought he’d get a few shots on Tangier Island and be on his way back home. Instead, he found himself stuck on the ice-locked 1.2-square-mile Tangier in the middle of a National Guard emergency supply drop and the island’s old ice tradition.
Fleming said he took a charter plane on Jan. 3 into the island 12 miles off the coast of Virginia to see the icy Chesapeake Bay surrounding it. Upon landing, he learned ice had locked the island off from land, making it inaccessible to boats. With no charter planes heading out until the next week, Fleming was stuck with only two things to do: point and shoot.
On Saturday, Fleming captured the Virginia National Guard picking up and delivering food, mail and medicine to the island via two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Six aviation crew soldiers picked up supplies from Crisfield, Maryland, two times to make deliveries to the island, according to National Guard spokesman A.A. “Cotton” Puryear.
The last time the National Guard had to send Black Hawks with supplies to Tangier was February 2015 after the island became ice-locked in the wake of Winter Storm Octavia, according to Puryear.
Fleming captured the silhouette of Tangier Island Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge being handed supplies from a National Guard officer as the sun set over the ice behind them. He also shot tugboat captain and Tangier native Jeff Crockett unloading supplies from the Black Hawks. Fleming said Crockett came back to the island specifically to be iced-in and hunt waterfowl.
Fleming also witnessed the revival of a Tangier tradition he says islanders hadn’t seen for at least 40 years. More than 100 people ice skated, sledded and socialized as old boat parts burned in a bonfire atop the ice at Jobs Cove Sunday night.
Fleming reported winds more than 60 miles per hour on Thursday, and shot drifts of dry snow blanketing cars. He also said that watermen’s work boats were “locked in” and unable to get out to dredge oysters, putting those who make Tangier’s main source of income out of work for more than a week. Fellow photographer Carol Pruitt Moore, who housed Fleming, said she remembers the freeze of 2015 that brought in the National Guard, but says the 2018 freeze has been much more intense. She said she walked half a mile on the ice on Monday.
“I don’t think it (2015) was to this extent. The ice is very thick and hard. It’s pretty solid,” Moore said. “I’m ready for this party to end. My grandchildren got to experience something they may never experience again, and they had a blast. But I’m over the snow. I’m over the ice. I’m over it.”
Moore said that while the ice surrounding the island is thick, so is the skin of its people.
“This is not a crisis. There’s plenty of food in Tangier,” she said. “The grocery store was running out of milk, bread and eggs, but we learn to prepare for such times like this. Neighbors help each other out. I have three freezers full of food.”
Fleming said that while he was initially stuck, he decided to spend a couple more days on the island after charters started flying out on Sunday.
“I was here without a way of leaving, but I didn’t really want to leave,” he said. “I wouldn’t say ‘stranded’ would be a good word to describe my situation. I’ve been staying with my friends here and probably eating better than I do at home.”
He’ll fly out on Tuesday, and says boats are expected to get out of their slips on Wednesday. He says the shots from his stay will be part of his new book, “Island Life,” which is set to release in 2020. The second printing of his first book, Working the Water, is nearly sold out, according to Fleming.
“Island Life” will be a photographic illustration of life on Smith and Tangier Islands. Both of the Chesapeake Bay’s inhabited offshore islands are only accessible by boat or plane.
“As the crow flies, Tangier and Smith Island aren’t really that far from Annapolis, but they maintain different ways of life as offshore islands,” Fleming said. “People really have to plan ahead to get through times like this. These islands have been inhabited for hundreds of years and the residents have unique ways of life that do not exist anywhere else.”