The Chesapeake Bay is a coastal feature of America's east coast fed by the Susquehanna River (among others). It forms the western side of the Delmarva Peninsula and is the sole body of water that makes Norfolk, VA, Baltimore, MD, and Annapolis, MD viable port cities. Crossing onto the Delmarva peninsula can only be accomplished by the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Bridge-Tunnel, and overland through northern Delaware.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel connects Virginia Beach to the peninsula down by Cape Charles, and comprises 17.6 miles of US 13 from shore to shore. Because the Bay Bridge-Tunnel is a trestle and causeway fo the bulk of its length, and has several piers (at the tunnel openings), it is much more stable than a suspension bridge of similar length. Besides serving as a land link, the point of the Bridge-Tunnel is not to restrict US Navy and commercial shipping from Norfolk and Baltimore. A suspension bridge might have accomplished this goal, but the Bridge-Tunnel is a cheaper and more elegant solution. It's made up of 12 miles of low-level trestle, 2 one-mile-long tunnels, 2 bridges, 2 miles of causeway, 4 manmade islands and 5-1/2 miles of approach roads. Ships can get through in four places: under the bridges, and over both tunnels. The causeway takes the bridge overland across Fisherman Island, a barrier island which includes the Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Each of the manmade islands is about 10 acres each and sits about 30 feet above the waterline, and at the southernmost island there is a restaurant, fishing pier, gift shop (complete with fridge magnets), and coin-operated binoculars. On occasion, you'll see submarines and the occasional aircraft carrier from Atlantic Fleet Headquarters at Norfolk, VA--great fun for the kids and any military buffs. Even more interesting is to approach a tunnel and see a ship which appears to be driving "through" the road ahead due to the curvature of the earth. Birders and ornithophiles may write to the Bridge & Tunnel Commission for permission to stop briefly on each of the islands for bird-watching purposes. I imagine that permission isn't hard to come by.

Some miscellaneous facts and figures, courtesy of the Bridge-Tunnel official website:

During several trips to Ocean City during my childhood, I would notice the signs on US 501 pointing the way to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. An exchange would invariably follow:

"That's the way to the Bay Bridge, Mommy(/Daddy)!"

"No, it isn't, that's a different bridge."

"Can we go see it?"

"No, honey(/buddy), that's way down in Virginia; it's too far out of the way."

Later, duing my adolescence, I would spot the bridge on fishing maps of the Bay, all the way down at the mouth, and wonder what it would be like to drive across it. It was clearly marked as being a good fishing spot.

As it turned out, a few years back I had occasion to visit the Norfolk Area, and I jumped at the oppostunity to return to Baltimore using this structure that had so long intrigued me.

Driving up US 13 in Virginia Beach, I came upon the toll plaza; there was a low caueway stretching from the booths out into the water past the horizon. I handed my $10 to the toll taker; as she handed me the receipt, she said, in that unmistakable south Virginia accent,

"Hello, darlin', they're workin' on some of the pilins three miles out; speed limit'll be 35. Keep your lights on and yore eyes peeled, an' have a safe trip!"

Definitely the friendliest toll taker I have ever met, but for $10 one expects customer service!

Driving down onto the causeway, the shoreline rapidly receded. Pretty soon it was just me and the bridge, and cars coming the other way in the other lane. I'd never been out of sight of land on a boat before; I was astonished to be out of sight of land on a bridge!.

Up ahead, a blue-gray thing was looming up on the horizon off to the right. "Pretty dense fog", thought I. At this point I encountered a temporary SPEED LIMIT 35 sign and stopped traffic up ahead. The workmen, of course. More to the point, Virginia highway trucks parked in my lane, and a guy standing in the middle of the bridge with a STOP/GO sign letting traffic come the other way. At this point it began to rain. Miserable, but I was certainly glad not to be the guy with the sign.

Eventually waved on by the the sign man, and back in my own lane, the fog bank kept getting bigger and bigger off to the side of the bridge. Staring at the only feature in sight, I nearly missed the bridge's abrupt bend to the right. We were going straight at the "fog bank". At this point I noticed a little red building, and realized it was really the first of the artificial islands.

It was a bit anticlimactic as I approached the island; the restaruant was closed for repairs; and so I drove straight into the tunnel under the southern shipping channel. Emerging on the second island, the wind had picked up and there was now spray coming over the side of the bridge, making my wipers necessary, and pushing me across the yellow line from time to time. Another grey mound appeared on the horizon but I wasn't fooled this time, oh, and the fuel gauge was on "E".

I was certainly glad to reach dry land, even a tiny speck of dry land like the third island. Unfortunately, everything there was closed too, so it was with some anxiety that I entered the tunnel under the north shipping channel, wondering what could await me on the other side.

Well. On the other side, the rain had stopped, the sun had come out, and it was a dead calm. Several miles further along, this absurd metallic structure rose out of the horizon, a two-lane bridge rising up out of the water near the horizon. I soon realized I would have to go over that thing. This, combined with my previous sensory deprivation, triggered an episode of deja vu. I imagined that I had been this way several years before with my father and gone through the same experience, this time with someone to discuss those expreiences with. Intellectually I knew that out of all the miles he had driven with me as a passenger, we had never come this way.

Coming down off the narrow metal bridge, another sign greeted me: Fisherman's Island National Wildlife Refuge/STAY ON ROAD. "Fisherman's Island" was a mile-wide patch of marsh one to three feet above sea level; the causeway rose five or six feet above it. My sense of deja vu intensified; my subconscious had probably been triggered by the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, through wich the route of many a fishing trip had passed. Past the island was another metal bridge connecting the road to Cape Charles, the lowest tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, like the caboose at the end of a train. I eagerly drove off the last stretch of the bridge onto the mainland, looking for a gas station.

I was certainly glad to have "done the bridge-tunnel" but I wasn't about to repeat the experience.
1The turnoff for US 13 in Salisbury.

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