Bernie Fowler doesn’t give up easily when it comes to cleaning up the Patuxent River. The former Maryland state senator spent most of his political life advocating for the health of this Chesapeake Bay tributary, and at age ninety-seven, he isn’t slowing down. On Sunday, June 13, at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard, he’ll don a pair of white sneakers and a cowboy hat with a jaunty American flag for the thirty-fourth annual Patuxent River Wade-In, when he enters the river to take a “sneaker index,” an unofficial measure of the river’s health.
“I have seen the river change through these old eyes,” says Fowler; he remembers when soft-shell crabs sold for a cent apiece and the Patuxent water was so clear he could see shrimp on the bottom when he was in up to his shoulders. “That river was good to me and my family, and gracious enough to feed a lot of hungry tummies in the Great Depression.” Now, along with the rest of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Patuxent is struggling against water pollution and development.
This year, Fowler hopes his sneaker index will top last year’s tally of forty-three inches of visibility; he wades in until he loses sight of his white shoes. Steny Hoyer, the current representative for Maryland’s fifth congressional district (and the House majority leader) will also wade in. “Each year, I’m proud to join Bernie Fowler,” Hoyer says. “He has dedicated his life to fighting for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and watershed, and everyone in Southern Maryland knows about his white sneakers.”
In the 1960s, Fowler measured fifty-seven inches before he lost sight of his shoes—a number he’d like to see again. “You never give up hope, but we have a long way to go,” Fowler says. “Nature gives and gives and gives, and sometimes we’ve got to put something back in the basket.” And, as he puts it, “A clean Chesapeake is the heart of Maryland.”