Fowler's longtime friends and colleagues continued the wade-in tradition he began decades ago. Photo: Michaila Shahan

Pax River Wade-In Continues in Honor of Sen. Bernie Fowler

A time-honored Bay tradition continued this month—the Patuxent River Wade-In went on despite the loss of its founder, former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler, who passed away last December at age 97.

Sunday, June 12, members of the community, elected officials, friends and family of the late Sen. Fowler gathered at Jefferson Patterson Park for the 35th annual Wade-In. Without its founder present for the first time since 1988, they waded into the Patuxent to check the water quality against Fowler’s “Sneaker Index”, a special measure Fowler created to estimate the water clarity of the river each year.

The nonscientific index measures the depth Fowler could wade into the river until he could no longer see his white shoes. In 2020, the index came in at 43 inches, and last year at 34 inches, according to Maryland’s Department of Planning. This year the index fell somewhere in the middle, measuring 39 inches.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, noted that amongst all the other indicators of pollutants, lack of clarity was a special one to the Chesapeake area. “The magic of the Chesapeake Bay is it is shallow. Light penetrates. If you can’t see your sneakers, you don’t have clarity,” she explained.

Teary-eyed, Swanson told the gathered crowd of the importance of Fowler’s advocacy efforts. “We are part of one of the greatest restoration projects on Earth,” she said.

The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, American Chestnut Land Trust, Morgan State University’s Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory, and the late senator’s friends and family hosted this year’s wade-in in his honor.

Before heading down to the river, long-time friends and coworkers of Fowler’s gathered in the grass to both acknowledge the purpose of the event and honor his legacy. Congressman Steny Hoyer, Calvert County commissioner Earl “Buddy” Hance, and Charles County commissioner Reuben Collins, among many others who knew Fowler during his lifetime, were present.

Fowler’s grandson, Cody Fowler, donned Sen. Fowler’s traditional overalls and cowboy hat with an American flag in it. Bernie Fowler Jr. asked the crowd to “put together your best self and clean this river up.” He urged individuals in the community to each do their part in preventing pollution from reaching the river. He added that Sen. Bernie Fowler “was not a perfect man, but every day he was his best self.”

Fowler Jr. acknowledged that, with his own involvement as president in the non-profit organization Farming4Hunger, he wanted to pass on the Wade-In legacy to another. “My father gave me a heartbeat, I gave my son a heartbeat,” he said as he placed a straw hat, complete with red, white and blue flag, atop his own son Cody Fowler’s head.

After this, all that was left to do was walk down to the beach at Jefferson Patterson, link hands, and wade in to the Patuxent River.

-Michaila Shahan