Bernie Fowler in his trademark wade-in outfit of cowboy hat with American flag and overalls. Photo: Bernie Fowler Jr./Facebook

Bay Mourns Patuxent Champion, Former State Sen. Bernie Fowler

Advocates for the Chesapeake Bay are remembering former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler, a lifelong champion for the Patuxent River who boldly fought for clean water.

Clyde Bernard “Bernie” Fowler died Sunday, Dec. 12 at age 97. He was best known for his annual wade-in at Jefferson Patterson Park, during which Fowler wore white sneakers and walked into the water until he could no longer see his shoes. His measurement became known as the “sneaker index”. When Fowler began measuring in 1969, he could still see his shoes in 52 inches of water. He has not reached that measurement since. 2019 saw a high of 47 inches, but as Bay Bulletin reported, 2021 brought a disappointing 34-inch sneaker index.

The wade-in was intended to raise awareness for water restoration, but it also became a beloved tradition. A large crowd usually gathered to accompany Fowler into the water. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fowler did not miss the wade-in, instead conducting his unscientific water clarity test before a live streaming audience on Facebook. While Bay enthusiasts and Fowler fans watched, he recalled Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” paraphrasing them for the goal of Bay restoration.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep
.

Fowler said, “Keep this in mind, for we’ve got miles to go before our Bay is going to be where it was.” He continued, “Please, take this wherever you go: We are not there yet. The Bay is not good yet. The Patuxent River is not good yet. And we want to make sure we get it back to where it was in the 40s and 50s.”

Fowler spent his life and political career pushing for a clean Patuxent River—the largest river fully within Maryland borders. From 1970 to 1982, he was a Calvert County Commissioner, and from 1983 to 1994, he was a member of the Maryland Senate.

As Chesapeake Conservancy President Joel Dunn said in a statement on Fowler’s passing, “Sen. Bernie Fowler was as much a part of the Chesapeake Bay as a person could be. His path to politics … literally began in his beloved Patuxent River when he noticed that seagrass and aquatic life were disappearing from the river.”

Through Fowler’s 11 years in the Senate, he supported legislation to protect the Bay. And his effective actions continued for decades afterwards. Chesapeake Bay Foundation president Will Baker notes, “Sen. Fowler was a co-plaintiff in our 2009 lawsuit to compel EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act which led to the current Clean Water Blueprint for the Bay”.

Baker says Fowler’s “tenacity to restore his beloved Patuxent River” will be sorely missed.

“Like the sands beneath our sneakers during those summer wade-ins into the Patuxent River, Bernie will always be a part of the Bay, and his legacy will continue to inspire and lead us wading into the water,” says Dunn.

-Meg Walburn Viviano