Crabbing on Tangier Island

This post is about a month overdue. To see more pictures from our stay on Tangier see the October 23rd post, Tangier Island, VA.

Milton Parks, owner of the only transient marina on tiny Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, is an institution on the island. Like nearly all of the other male residents he spent his entire career fishing for blue crabs in the Bay. In his more than six decades on the water Milton has watched as the industry and island itself slowly diminish.

Tangier has been eroding steadily with each major storm long before sea level rise was recognized as a threat. Now that storms are larger and the sea level is rising faster, the island may be losing up to 9 acres a year. This map title "The Shrinking Island" at the island's tiny historical center shows the loss of land between 1866 and 2001.

The crabbing industry has waned along with the island's acreage. Monitoring and regulating crab populations is controversial because they are one of the most popular species of shellfish caught both commercially and recreationally on the Eastern seaboard. According to NOAA, "During the last decade, blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay reached some of their lowest numbers ever due to overexploitation and habitat degradation." Tighter restrictions on fishing licenses and length of the blue crab season were applied in response, though Milton and his fellow watermen dispute the scarcity of crabs.

Rockfish or striped bass are another popular species fished in Chesapeake Bay and they consume enormous amounts of juvenile blue crabs as part of their diet. According to Milton, the fishermen pursuing rockfish are more often wealthy sport fisherman than commercial fisherman making a living like the watermen of Tangier. The waterman see new regulations as favoring rockfish survival over that of blue crab and blame wealthy mainlanders who wield more political influence. 

It's hard to verify if Milton's theory is correct, but it's not difficult at all to imagine an uninhabited Tangier Island in just a few decades. Whether the economics of subsistence fishing, the increasing erosion from storms and tides, or the rise in sea level, the days of this beautiful and culturally unique place are very likely numbered.


Friends, Family, Fall

I hope you're enjoying the crisp fall air as much as we are! First, an apology for not posting as regularly on our blog this month as I have in the past. I'm working away on applications for artist residencies so that while Zion is at Quest University in Squamish this February, I can take time in a studio to work on our edition of artists' books. The residencies are all fairly competitive, so there is a chance I won't have a place officially lined up to work for that month. If you know of a studio or a residency that might take me for that month, please give me a shout! I really just need a big flat table in a fairly quiet room. If you're in the South East, even better. Here's a diagram of the update artists' book design that I just finished for my applications: 

I'm also applying to MFA programs this fall which has a way of soaking up my free time. Between finding a place for February and working on those applications, sometimes it takes a little prodding from Zion for me to leave my computer and actually enjoy the places we've stopped. Today we passed through a canal in the Dismal Swamp (proving to be less exciting than the Fire Swamp from the Princess Bride) and stopped to take advantage of a free dock and internet for the day. Well, actually I used the internet to do some work, Zion made some sailor man friends and spent the afternoon having beers with them instead! Smart move. 

Above are a few pictures from the past few weeks, including a visit from our friends Z, Sarah, and Una and a stop to visit my sister Clara and niece Teagan in Virginia Beach. It was so fun to catch up with Clara, especially because she's adding a new niece or nephew to the Holtsnider clan next May! We can't wait to meet him or her! We also got to carve pumpkins and stock up on dry goods. Thanks Clara! 

Tangier Island, Virginia

We spent the last week soaking up tiny Tangier Island. Tangier was one of the last territories held by the British in the 1700's and residents speak with a unique accent that is rooted in the Cornish accents of those British settlers. The Island has a population of just a few hundred people, many of whom are fifth generation crab fishermen, called watermen. Residents move around town on golf carts and mopeds, and only one restaurant is open in the off season.

To learn more about the challenges Tangier faces, including erosion and sea level rise, as well as changes in fishing regulations, check out the other post about Tangier, Crabbing on Tangier Island. 

Phillips Creek Estuary

Yesterday we anchored the boat in the evening and took the dingy up into an estuary fed by Phillips Creek. 

Interior of the Wildcat

We've had some requests to share pictures of the inside of the boat so I thought I'd post some pictures. The slide shows have captions, so you can click on a picture to read more. Any wall space that is painted white now spent 30+ years covered in the hideous carpet to the left. I spent countless hours ripping it down and sanding away the toxic glue that held it in place, but I think you'll agree it was worth it! Below you can see the transformation of the kitchen: 

Beach Combing in New Jersey

We anchored near Jersey City, New Jersey for two nights to do laundry and catch up on work after NYC.  We took the dingy into a little reclaimed marsh nearby and saw an incredible variety of wild birds and native plants, all framed by the glittering sky scrapers of New York and the Statue of Liberty. That red marsh plant is called pickleweed, and I found a neat blog post about it here

Taking a Train to the City: Finding a Sense of Place in the Lower Hudson Valley

A few weeks ago we used our best parallel parking skills to dock up with Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Science Barge in Yonkers, NY. The science barge is aptly named, it’s an old barge that’s been converted into hydroponic greenhouses and is used to teach kids about sustainable living. Groundwork Hudson also hosts a farmers market on the riverfront.

Just down the street the Center for Urban Renewal at Beczak, or CURB, continues the environmental education mission but with a waterfront theme. They restored the only speck of green on the waterfront in Yonkers that we could see, and they take kids out into the river each day to scoop up fish and plants and show them that that muddy river is actually teeming with life. They also have a little garden out front and, like the Science Barge, are committed to helping Yonkers residents connect to the Hudson River and to their local food system.

Facilitating this connection is no small task in a bedroom community like Yonkers where most of the wealthier residents get on the Metro-North train each day for work in New York City. Groundwork Hudson Valley recently daylighted the Saw Mill river, meaning they dug up the parking lot above the pipe that the rived had been diverted into and created an open flowing river in the middle of a city block. The open river is complimented by a beautiful waterfront area and helped fix the combined sewer and storm water problem common to this region. 

We chatted with leaders from both groups about what impacts and adaptations are on their minds. 



Like every New Yorker we said the words “climate change” to, hurricanes Sandy and Irene were top of the list of impacts. One Vicky Garufi from CURB showed us how the Hudson River had advanced some 30 feet closer to the building than it normally lies during the storm surge that accompanied Sandy. Jennifer of the Science Barge was working as a farmer during Irene and watched many small farmers around her lose entire harvests when their fields flooded. 

Water Availability

Jennifer’s take was simple, under climate change “It’s either feast or famine with water”. She’s right, according to the most recent IPCC assessment of climate change both extreme rain events and extreme droughts are projected to increase in frequency. 


Local Food

The Science Barge teaches students about growing food hydroponically and sells their produce at a weekly farmer’s market. They believe that food justice, or each person having access to affordable and healthy produce, is a key element to social justice. Like the small farmers we heard about in Beacon, they're making Yonkers more resilient in the event of major storm by establishing a local food system. 


Both of these groups are committed to helping residents build a connection to the Hudson River and the food they eat. Their missions converge on a fact I think about all the time when I’m making my environmentally themed art: a person won’t be motivated to care for a location unless they feel like they experience a sense of place there. If a city or a river doesn’t feel like your home, why take the time to keep it healthy? CURB and the Science Barge are creating environmental stewards by reminding people about the natural environment that surrounds them through environmental education lessons but also by bringing the river to the people through the day-lighting project.  

Water Quality

The river daylighting project separated the sewage pipes from the storm water pipes in that area, meaning that unlike many other towns on the Hudson, sewage doesn't flow into the Hudson River during a large storm. Solving this problem is incredibly expensive and complicated, and the daylighted river is such an elegant example of a solution. 


All along the Hudson Valley we saw environmental groups collaborating to work towards a common goal: an estuary and population more prepared for climate change impacts. The level of cooperation is truly impressive, and is one of the things I observed in the Valley that made me the most hopeful for their future. Both groups are part of a project that just recently received funding from NOAA called “Global, Local, Coastal: Preparing the Next Generation for a Changing Planet”. They’ll be adding climate change material to the science curriculum in Yonkers public schools and updating exhibits on the Science Barge to add climate change material. We’ll definitely check back in to hear how this is going in a year or two!

Keeping an Eye on Impacts from the Clearwater

Caitlin Zinsley (not pictured) and Isaac Santner (above right) have seen more of the Hudson River than the average New Yorker. They work for an environmental organization called Clearwater, meaning they get paid to sail up and down the river on a replica of a Hudson River sloop from the 1700’s. The sloop, also called the Clearwater, was built in the 70’s with funds raised by Pete Seeger and given the mission to connect residents of the valley to the then terribly polluted Hudson River. Today more than 10,000 people sail on the Hudson every year either on the Clearwater or it’s sister ship the Mystic Whaler. We were lucky enough to take a ride on the Clearwater upon reaching NYC, but first we sat down with Caitlin and Isaac to talk about climate change impacts they see each day in their work.


Storm Surges

Most New Yorkers who take a ride on the Clearwater are painfully aware of the power of storm surges after surviving hurricane Sandy in 2012. I had to be reminded that a storm surge isn’t exactly a big wave coming onto shore, it’s more like an extra high tide that causes flooding in low lying areas. Sea level rise makes storm surges worse since the water level is already higher. The level of the Hudson River has already risen one foot in the last century, and continues to rise faster than the global average. 


The tracks for the Metro-North train that carries more than 200,000 passengers to and from NYC each day lie just a few feet above sea level. But three years after super storm Sandy, Metro-North is still working to repair damaged train lines so it’s clear they have their hands full. The cost of moving or elevating tracks seems prohibitively high, particularly when compared to the short term cost of reacting storm by storm. However this reactive approach to climate change impacts will add up eventually

The Metro-North train just a few feet above sea level form Ossining, NY

Old Pipes

Much of the water piping systems in towns like Beacon, Ossining, and New Paltz, NY date back to the 1800’s. Pipes that burst or leak pose expensive problems to fix in normal circumstances and have been out of sight and out of mind for many residents for some time. However larger storms made more common under climate change create a huge strain on storm drains and other water piping meaning repairs to pipes will demand more of a city’s budget. Larger storms also threaten water quality in these towns because of the outdated design of the storm and waste water systems. The two share many of the same pipes, meaning that a large amount of rain will flush not just storm water but also untreated sewage right into the Hudson! 



One of the best ways to protect waterfront property from storm surges is to restore a marsh in front of it. Caitlin mentioned an awesome group called Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project that works to restore marshes and educate cities on how to do so. We took a field trip to a marsh under their jurisdiction called Piermont Marsh. The town of Piermont has a substantial buffer against flooding thanks to the marsh, but invasive phragmites reeds (below) have choked out most native plants.

Local Food

Beacon NY, along with a few other small towns near by, hosts a young farmers initiative to encourage local food production. You can see the results just walking down the street in Beacon – every other restaurant boasts of some local dish. Growing food locally is not just good for the environment and farmers market shoppers, it’s also helpful in case of a major storm that could cause damage to the system that delivers food to the area. More food grown locally means a town is more prepared for big disruptions to transportation that could occur under climate change.

The Clearwater on the Hudson

Surviving the Stormy Hudson while Pretending to be Normal Tourists

I have a serious backlog of posts to write, but for now I'll share some photos from our non - climate related adventures. The Wildcat spent a week anchored in the Hudson River while we stayed with our friends Kira and Dan on the Upper West Side. Our tourist accomplishments include seeing the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, eating some out-of-this-world ramen, and watching the super moon eclipse from the nets of our boat on the Hudson. Here are a few photo highlights!

The super moon and large storm that rolled in late in the week resulted in some ripping currents and winds, making our return to the boat and that night on the river a bit of an ordeal.

September Newsletter

Greetings from Manhattan!

We spent almost the entire month of September in the Empire State. We began in Buffalo and then snaked along a very historic (and muggy!) 338 miles of the Erie Canal through small towns and farmland. In Waterford, NY we set off into the strong tidal currents of the Hudson River and down to the salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  

The most exciting part of September was finally starting the primary phase of our Climate Odyssey project! We began by profiling our first community, the Lower Hudson Valley, and quickly learned that we had stumbled upon the starting point of much of the environmental movement in the US. In short the Hudson was a polluted and toxic mess and several groups formed in the 60’s and 70’s to help clean it up. One of these, Clearwater, even sailed from the Hudson to DC to rally support for the Clean Water Act! Sailing and environmental awareness turn out to not be such a new combination.

In total we interviewed four non-profits and two artists and spent a day teaching middle schoolers in Manhattan. We learned about climate change impacts in the region including threats to New York’s elaborate and delicate water system, the devastation that followed hurricanes Lee, Irene, and Sandy, and how invasive species pose a variety of challenges. We learned about adaptation strategies like restoring marshes and starting flood buyout programs to move people and property out of the way of floods. We’ve gathered thousands of pictures and now many personal stories too that we are excited to share in the form of blog posts and the interactive map! 

As I shared in a recent post, the computer programming required to build the map remains challenging. But I still hope to have some sort of artistic resource to share with you soon. I also have a lot of new posts coming out in the next week as we gather up our notes from the past few days and hunker down to wait out hurricane Joaquin.

Thank you as always for your support! We’ll keep you posted as the storm approaches,

Lucy and Zion

We hope you dig our monthly photo essay. You can scroll through the images here on this page, or click the button below to see it full screen. If you want to receive this update each month, subscribe at the bottom of this page! 


Nine Million Thirsty New Yorkers and Climate Change

Nine Million Thirsty New Yorkers and Climate Change

The River Keeper is an environmental watch dog group with a long history of cleaning up polluted areas of the estuary and keeping those who pollute accountable. Like many watchdog groups, River Keeper uses lawsuits to enforce rules regarding the estuary’s protection. They even deploy an actual keeper of the river, an amazing guy named John Lipscomb, who surveys the entire estuary in 21 day circuits looking out for potential contamination, cleaning up trash, and monitoring water quality with the help of citizen scientists. We sat down with several River Keeper employees, including the organization’s president Paul Gallay, to discuss how climate change is affecting the estuary.

Read More

The River that Flows Both Ways

The fresh water of the Hudson River ebbs and flows with the tides of the Atlantic, meaning that it’s actually a tidal estuary. The direction of the current changes four times in a 24 hour period – a fact we were reminded of our first day off the Erie Canal. We worked on our computers until 11 and then set off to the south right into strong north flowing current. After fighting the flow for a few miles and guzzling a bit of gas (our mast wasn’t back up at this point) we found a place to anchor and wait out the tide.

The Hudson’s tributaries funnel fresh water into salty ocean water, meaning the currents we’re navigating as I type are made up of saltier and saltier water as we make our way south. This boundary between brackish and fresh slowly makes its way northwards as sea level rises. I hadn’t noticed any signs that we’d left freshwater behind until our visit to the River Keeper where we learned that a nearby town recently proposed building a desalination plant on the Hudson in part to adapt to the threat of rising saltiness of the river at their location. So there you have it, we’re not on the Great Lakes anymore!

The waters of the Hudson carry kayakers and feed bald eagles while also cooling nuclear reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center (power plant) and ferrying massive barges full of crude oil. The estuary was a vibrantly productive multi-use area long before the first Western settlers arrived in the 1600’s, but its use in the last few hundred years has been characterized by a legacy of pollution. From coal tar to radioactive isotopes to PCBs to raw sewage, a lot of nasty things have been dumped in this river. The good news is that many residents of the valley are wholly invested in balancing the needs of industry and infrastructure with the estuary’s rehabilitation.

Numerous environmental groups work to protect the area, and we have met with four of them: Clearwater, Hudson River Keeper, the Center for Urban Renewal at Beczak at Sarah Lawrence, and Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Science Barge. Conservation efforts on the Hudson in the last 40 years have been a model for other groups around the nation and world, and landmark legislation like the Clean Water and Air acts of the 1970’s gained much of their early grassroots support thanks to some of the groups I just listed.

 We're excited to share the wealth of insight we've gained through a week of interviews, so check back over the next week for several posts on the Lower Hudson Valley! 

Beacon, NY

Yesterday we sailed to Beacon, NY on a stunning and crisp fall day. The wind and current kept us humming along at 7 knots (our normal speed is 5 knots) down the Hudson. We spent Monday at the DIA: Beacon, a sculpture museum built inside of a former Nabisco packaging factory. The museum is awash with soft natural light and vast oceans of weathered oak floor from the original factory.

I first saw the museum in 2010 with my class of art majors from Colorado College. Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses completely swept me off my feet during that visit - I had never experienced such a pleasantly overpowering work of art. Walking amongst the three-inch thick arcs of steel feels quiet and sacred, like being in a church sanctuary all by yourself. I also thought about these pieces each time we passed through a lock on the Erie canal. The locks are often lined with rusted steel and rise to a similar height as these pieces.

I want to share a quick update about our interactive map. I planned to use the months of August and September to build the map, hoping it would be functional before we hit the coast and got started with our interviews and classroom visits. I've spent countless hours learning how to use Adobe Flash and code in Javascript but unfortunately I don't have an interactive map to share at this point. Zion has pointed out that this phase of the trip where we are collecting the data that will go into the map, and that it makes more sense to analyze and compile it once we're done. So for rest of the East Coast I'll continue writing blog posts, making contacts, taking photos, and writing grants (in addition to doing all of my other work... like trying to get into grad school!). Next spring I'll put my programmer hat back on and we'll have an engaging and beautiful interactive map to share! 

Hudson River

We made it to the Hudson and got our mast put back up this morning! We also underestimated the current on Friday, then the wind today, so we've been moving much slower than we hoped. Tomorrow we should have winds from the north to help us out. 

The Hudson is streaked with dramatic ribbons of bright green duckweed, highlighting the familiar three-lined tracks we always trail behind us.