How's that for click bait? Truth be told, while this story does touch on tragedy, it's not a Death on the Nile, Susquehanna style. My visit to Conowingo is more of a story about how we rely on the watershed in different ways. Not just for its broad public importance, but also a deep personal need.
When I met Anne (name changed), she asked me if I could help her adjust a stuck knob on her camera tripod (I couldn't, it was really stuck...). I'd made my way up to the base of the Conowingo Dam to get a water sample, and I was admittedly admiring the incredibly expensive camera equipment all around me as much as the architecture of the dam. I'd forgotten the rather modest Sony SLR I shoot on when I left St. Mary's County early that morning, and I was shooting pictures on my busted camera phone. I think doing so made it made it clear I was in no competition with these serious photographers. Anne and I quickly hit it off in a conversation about what we were both doing here, with her doing most of the talking and me doing most of the questioning. I think that's how interviews work, right? She had a lot to talk about, and I got the sense that this was a place she liked to come to let off pressure.
We talked about our affinity for wildlife and her top places to visit for "charismatic megafauna" (I need to go find some Pennsylvania elk). She was at Conowingo for the bald eagles. I had vaguely remembered hearing about the abundance of bald eagles at Conowingo but it wasn't why I had shown up. The bald eagles were there for the fish. The fish were there for the water. The water was there for a 100 Shores sample.
We were far from the only ones there though. The amount of camera equipment in use would have easily added up to more than the cost of my truck, most likely many times over. Some massive telephoto lenses were all pointed out at a scant few bald eagles which looked to have been settling in on nearby Rowland Island.
Anne filled me in on her history with the eagles. She'd been coming each spring from her nearby home for almost 20 years, by her measure. The dam is almost 100 years old, so for an entire generation of this dam's life, and for an entire generation of eagles, she's been here taking photographs. The water below the dam never freezes, so a lot of the same eagles will return to hunt the same water year after year. It's not hard to imagine that these creatures of habit have been coming here every winter almost their entire lives. I asked her if she'd tried to name any of them. She chuckled and waved off the idea. Anne wasn't into sentiment.
Anne ran through a list of a few other places in the region which she targets each year, including the search for the annual snow geese swarm which she had just been in Pennsylvania to target. At some point in that discussion, our conversation took a hard turn in a way I've never had a conversation turn. Everywhere Anne went to take pictures was a place where she could go to find a different reality.
I've never been a big fan of the crime show genre, so it would be hard for me to really describe her story to be honest. On top of that, she made it unmistakably clear that she has no love for any news or media in general due to how her family was treated as her tragedy played out years ago (she had a real and understandable distrust of news which was born well before the "fake news" tagline). So I have no desire to make this a story about that tragedy, or connect it back to her in any way. I made an off the cuff comment on how the whole thing was one of those "ripped from the headlines" sorts of stories and she waved off the idea again. This time without a chuckle. It already was (I checked). When the events unfolded, her story was out there everywhere she went or looked. In no uncertain terms, Anne made it clear she hated her town, the area and a lot of the people around it. The reasons she gave were hard to argue with. She couldn't leave due to how things played out, and she still can't. But she also couldn't stand being reminded of it everywhere she looked. She's spend the past 25 years confronting a harsh outlook of society while trying to re-right an upended life. She's also been taking wildlife photographs for the past 20 years now to shift her perspective away from her surroundings. She travels extensively, and showed me a lot of her highlights. It sounded like a lot of it is based in the Chesapeake region.
She told one of those stories and told it in one of those ways that made you uncertain about when it would end. The more she recounted, the more it was clear that the story was still unfolding, even decades later. Some of her wounds still felt very fresh, but it sounded like she's managed to find some solace at this point. It seemed like the photography helped with that. Conowingo is an awesome site, eagles or not. I can't say if there's something special about the place for her beyond the eagles, but she was not making any moves to start shooting when I finally left her to keep on my way.
Her hometown wasn't "on the shore" as we think of it, but there's a small stream that puts it in the watershed. I think for a lot of us, we head out onto the Chesapeake for reasons similar to Anne- albeit on a much less tragic level. We've had enough of our surroundings, and we need a change of scenery. But it's not our every day scene. It's there when we need it, and recharges us before sending us back to whatever we're forced to confront during the week. In fact, the last story I told on Newtowne Neck touched a lot on that need for me.
Anne's story didn't have to take place at Conowingo. I'm sure she's told it to countless other people. We could have happened on each other anywhere, and I certainly had no idea what kind of conversation I was walking into on the shore there. And while I'm sure I wasn't the first person to hear her story at the base of Conowingo Dam, I'm also sure she'd told the story at other haunts. I left Anne- mind fully blown, and heart fully wrenched- thinking about how she needed places like Conowingo. Her story isn't about the shore, but it's about why she needs the shore.