– By VICTOR BLOCK

Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Talk about hometown pride! When I asked a grizzled waterman who lives on Smith Island, Md., if he’d like to accompany me to one of the other nearby villages, he replied, “Nope, I’ve been there.”

While the twinkle in his eyes suggested he that wasn’t completely serious, the fact is that residents of Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay good-naturedly tout the superiority of their town over the other two.

Along with being chauvinistic about their small island and even tinier towns, Smith Islanders also are hardy, independent and welcoming to visitors — even when they’re poking a bit of fun.

That last trait is no accident. When people share a group of grassy island strands encompassing only about 8,000 acres, of which just 900 are habitable, it helps to develop a friendly attitude.

Despite its name, Smith Island actually consists of three minute islets, each occupied by a village. Ewell and Rhodes Point are connected by a short wooden bridge, while Tylerton stands alone.

Captain John Smith spotted the diminutive archipelago during his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. Some present-day residents can trace their ancestry back as much as 12 generations to the early colonists.

Their unique way of speaking also comes from the original settlers. Most were English and Welsh, and vestiges of their Elizabethan dialect persist, leavened by touches of southern and rural Maryland colloquialisms. I soon realized that “air” means “are,” “why” translates to “way” and “tie-yum” refers to “time.”

Following in the bootsteps of their ancestors, most men eke out their living from the gray waters of the Chesapeake Bay. That means dropping traps or trotlines for crabs during spring and summer, plus some dredging for oysters in fall and winter.

Locally built workboats venture forth often well before daybreak, to return as much as 12 hours later. As overharvesting, pollution and disease depleted the bay’s oyster population in recent decades, the island’s economy has come to depend primarily upon crabbing. Along with hard-shell crabbing, Smith Island has evolved into the center of the country’s soft-shell crab industry.

The waters are thick with multicolored buoys bobbing in the waves, each marking a wire crab “pot.” Male crabs are the usual bait, luring females that enter anticipating a mating ritual, only to end up eventually on someone’s lunch or dinner plate.

Brought back to land, “peeler” crabs — which are about to lose their hard cover and become soft shells — are put in “floats. Water circulates through the large trays to keep the crabs alive. As soon as a crustacean sheds its shell, it’s plucked out and prepared for shipment to restaurant or market.

Hard-shell crabs face a different, if no less ultimate, fate. Some end up, still living, at restaurants not far from the waters where they were born. There they are sprinkled with a peppery mixture of spices, steamed until the shells turn from blue to red, and often washed down with cold beer.

Others have a shorter trip, no farther than the Smith Island Crab Co-op in Tylerton. Mornings (5 to 10 a.m.) and evenings (4 to 10 p.m.) during crab season, women gather in the nondescript little building to pick succulent crabmeat out of the shells with speed and dexterity that are a wonder to behold. The pickers are equally renowned for their voices, as they sometimes sing hymns to help ease the monotony of their task.

Observing the action at the Crab Co-op by no means exhausts opportunities to sample what Smith Island has to offer. Strolling around the three towns, or traveling by bicycle or rental golf cart, introduces a unique way of life. After all, how many places have you visited where two golf carts passing constitutes rush hour?

Another inviting way to get around is by canoe or kayak. A system of marked water trails leads through creeks (called “guts”) that offer panoramic views of the scenery, consisting primarily of tidal marshes and mudflats. They also provide opportunities for close encounters with wildlife, including heron, pelicans, bald eagles and many other resident and migratory birds.

Some visitors hire a boat to fish for striped bass (rockfish), sea trout, flounder and other game fish.

Back on land, each village is built around a Methodist Church, which acts both as a kind of unofficial government and center of community life. While some residents own a vehicle, traffic normally ranges between little and none. As one local explained to me in his drawl, “Traffic signals are not re-quarred.”

Neither, in fact, is any kind of vehicle for visitors. Tylerton, population about 70 at latest count and only two by four blocks in size, hardly calls for any mode of transportation other than feet. A five-minute boat ride brings you to Ewell (223 residents), which is connected to Rhodes Point (home to 90) by a strip of bumpy asphalt about 1.5 miles long which locals euphemistically call “the highway.” Anyone interested in exploring Ewell on wheels may rent a golf cart or bicycle.

The closest thing to a tourist attraction is a small Visitors Center and Cultural Museum in Ewell, where exhibits and an excellent film depict the history, economy and traditions of the island. The 20-minute film tellingly portrays the work of watermen and life on Smith Island, much of it recounted by residents in their own words.

A “must” for visitors is to throw diet to the wind and sample Smith Island Cake. It is a towering delicacy of many thin layers that recently was designated as the official dessert of Maryland. Most common is yellow cake with chocolate icing, but flavors such as coconut, fig and orange also are common.

No matter how delicious that unique treat — and it is — to me the lifestyle of the proud people who choose to live in splendid isolation is reason enough to visit with them.

Victor Block is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and spends summers in Rangeley.