Image from Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum/Facebook Live

Bernie Fowler “Sneaker Index” Streams Live for 1st Time

Hundreds of Chesapeake Bay enthusiasts, who’d never witnessed former Sen. Bernie Fowler’s traditional Patuxent River wade-in, got to see it unfold on Facebook Live this year.

96-year-old Fowler is a passionate champion of Bay environmental issues with no plans of slowing down in his fight for clean water.

The former Maryland Senator has been wading into the Patuxent in a pair of white sneakers since at least 1969, measuring to see how deep he can go before his sneakers disappear into murkiness. Back then, he could see clear to the bottom in 57 inches of water, a measurement he hasn’t seen since.

The unscientific water clarity test is held at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum on the second Sunday of June, marking the end of Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week. Usually a large group turns out to support Fowler and they all wade in together, arm in arm.

Because of social distancing concerns, this year the group of onlookers was small. Fowler spoke from a podium wearing his signature overalls and cowboy hat (with an American flag sticking out of the top like a plume).

He waded into the water hand-in-hand with U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, who was wearing a t-shirt with a photo of Fowler on it that read “Fowler’s Followers.” The pair stepped deeper and deeper until the water was about at their waists. Then, they both stumbled backwards into the water. Rep. Hoyer says the muck made it hard to stay upright.

“We got stuck in the mud! We’re not sticks in the mud, but we got stuck in the mud,” Hoyer quipped.

Safely back on land, a tape measure stretched from the ground to Fowler’s waist read 43 inches–the final figure for the 2020 Sneaker Index. Hoyer says the number probably would have been higher except they lost sight of their feet because of the mud rather than the water.

43 inches is a little lower than last year’s Sneaker Index of 47 inches, but still notably higher than 2018’s measly 36 inches of visibility.

Addressing the people watching via Facebook Live, Fowler recited lines from 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
.

Said Fowler, “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.”

Rep. Hoyer likened the decline of the Bay’s health to a virus, not unlike COVID-19. While people are able to protect from the coronavirus with social distancing, Hoyer said, “This river can’t distance itself from us.”

Fowler says unchecked population growth and development always gnaws at him, calling it “one of the frightening things for the demise of this river and the entire Chesapeake Bay, the greatest estuary in the world.”

He urges everyone to keep pushing for a restored Bay. “We have tried, but we haven’t tried hard enough. It’s not too late!”

-Meg Walburn Viviano