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As a tradition that has rooted itself in the hearts of Southern Maryland’s environmental enthusiasts for the past 25 years, the Patuxent River Wade-In made its 26th appearance Sunday at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard.

The event’s creator and spearhead, former Maryland senator Bernie Fowler, first came up with the idea to inspire awareness of the river’s declining water quality.

“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, I could wade out into the water and see all the little crabs on the bottom, and that began to disappear,” Fowler said. “It’s unbelievable the transition it’s made throughout the years.”

At every annual wade-in, Fowler suits up in his blue overalls along with his straw hat — complete with a miniature American flag — and his famous white tennis shoes that have stood through years of submersion into the river.

Using what is known as the “Bernie Fowler Sneaker Index,” which is not meant to be as scientific as it is understandable by the Southern Maryland community, the former senator wades out into the river until he can no longer see his white shoes through the water. After making his way back to shore, the level of water apparent on his overalls is measured and recorded.

“Unification fosters influence,” Fowler said. “If you wade out in the river where you used to be able to see your feet crystal clear, but you can’t see them anymore, people understand that. It helps keep people plugged in.”

This year, as attendees made their way down to the shores of the King’s Reach Waterfront, everyone locked hands in preparation for their march into the water. After the wade-in, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) measured the water depth on Fowler’s pants to be 34 inches, an inch down from last year’s mark, just as Fowler had predicted. Due to the unusual climatic conditions this past spring, “it might be a little less,” he stated beforehand.

Although the Patuxent River received an “F” grade in terms of its health by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration and Application Network last year, Fowler and many other Southern Maryland residents remain optimistic about improving the river’s condition, evident by the sign “Never, Never, Never Give Up,” which was displayed above the speaking podium at the event.

Dale Shaner, a member of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association who was present for the event, noted that the oyster population this year was the highest recorded number since 1985.

“Bernie doing this draws light on the situation,” he said.

Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) said she was excited to be in attendance at the event.

“The [Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum] is the best gift the state of Maryland has ever given us,” she said. Shaw said she continues to be an advocate for Fowler’s mission of restoring the health of the river. “The biggest challenge is the sewage treatment plants up in Howard and Anne Arundel counties. We’re trying to do our part down river.”

Beyond this yearly wade-in, Fowler has dedicated the majority of his life to raising awareness on environmental preservation and renewal.

“It all comes back to us. If you just take a look at the Susquehanna River, the waste has deformed the fish, and we consume the fish,” Fowler said.

Various environmental groups were present at the wade-in, including the Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center, along with their tub of fish and horseshoe crabs for the kids in attendance.

In addition, several local dignitaries spoke before the wade-in. Mark Thompson, executive director of JPPM, said, “We can’t accomplish a whole lot if we don’t have the support from our elected officials.”

Those in attendance seemed to agree on one thing: Bernie Fowler is a valuable voice for the Patuxent River. Former delegate Sue Kullen, representing Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-Md.) office, said, “I love Bernie’s vision. I love the fact that he keeps us focused.”

Hoyer said, “If we are birds of a feather and we are flocking together, Bernie Fowler is our Big Bird,” afterwards unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his “Fowler Follower” T-shirt underneath.

This year’s wade-in took an unexpected turn when Fowler invited his grandson, Steve Forrester, a minister at Life Church, out into the water and announced his grandson would be baptizing him in the Patuxent. It’s something, he said, he’s always wanted to do. This also coincided with his efforts to incorporate God into his environmental mission.

“The important thing is that we are staying informed and injecting into the hearts of people that this is an issue,” Fowler said. “I want to stay with this as long as I’ve got breath in my body.”

As long as there are improvements to be made to the Patuxent River, this community awareness event will continue to occur, according to Fowler, whose family and friends will continue their efforts to clean what he dubs a historic and vital part of the ecosystem.

“I’ve been going with this since 1973,” he said, “and just as that sign says, we will never, never give up.”