Don Shomette was about 10 years old in when he first encountered the “ghost fleet” of Mallows Bay.
He was aboard a jon boat with his father and brother, coming down the Potomac River from a shoreline campsite in the mid-1950s. It was a gray morning. The water was churning and visibility was poor. On the river, they met an old waterman setting out crab pots who asked if they were trying to find the ghost fleet.
Kevin Monroe is mid-sentence, describing how the “teenage,” swamp-like forest surrounding used to be a dairy farm with just a few shade trees, when something catches his eye.
At the edge of the gravel trail, a small, dark-brown salamander with mustard spots is limping off the footpath. It’s a spotted salamander, a member of the mole salamander family, and its tail looks as if a predator took a bite and didn’t like what it tasted (which, in this case, would be poisonous). The salamander is one symbol of the unique ecosystem that Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA, has helped preserve for the last 40 years.
Perched on the eastern rim of the Chesapeake’s watershed, closer to Atlantic beaches than to the Bay, Delaware’s Trap Pond State Park offers the standard recreational amenities, from ballfields and nature walks, to tenting, cabins and picnic tables shaded by tall pines.
But it’s Taxiodium distichum, the lordly bald cypress, that defines this nearly 4,000-acre park that guards the headwaters of the Delmarva Peninsula’s Nanticoke River. It is the nation’s northernmost natural occurrence of a species whose range extends south to Florida and west into Texas.
In the center of an enclosure filled with tall oaks, a bobcat strolls nonchalantly toward what looks like a large rock, wagging his characteristic shortened tail in full view of visitors 20 feet away on an elevated boardwalk. On this sunny late autumn day, the cat opts for a bed of leaves in dappled sunlight nearby.
“That ‘rock’ is actually made of concrete and has a heating element, which makes for a nice dozing spot in the winter,” said George Mathews, Jr., curatorial director at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, VA.
Wind was tugging at a red, white and blue flag hitched to a dock in Somerset County, on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. Mike Hinman, whose wisps of gray hair were also dancing in the wind, caught the flag and pulled it taut.
“Want to see who we are?” said Hinman. “I’ll show you.”
The Appomattox River valley in central Virginia’s Piedmont has two relatively new — but very different — state parks that are forever linked by the battles fought at each during the days before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park marks the site where the last major battle between Federal and Confederate forces took place on April 6, 1865.
I was one of five people trekking through the woods at Robinson Neck Preserve, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a sunny, shoulder-season day that put all of us in a good mood — bright enough for sunglasses and cool enough for fleece.
About halfway into the hike, the forest around our narrow trail suddenly gave way on both sides to reveal long, lush views of the Slaughter Creek marsh. While each member of our group spends a fair amount of time in lovely outdoor places, we still gave a collective gasp at the sight.
Cattails and grasses, tucked close to the trail, gave way in random clumps to winding swaths of flat water, which glinted silver in the high sun and carved a seemingly endless path between the pines on its shores.
In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island stands defiant. Its community remains strong and proud while all the other island towns in Maryland have faded away, their populations fleeing for the mainland.
Smith Island clings to a way of life that is centuries old: hard work on the water all week and then a day of rest to worship the Lord on Sunday. Many of its residents refuse to evacuate, even in the strongest of storms, even when county emergency officials beg them to go.
Visit once, and it won’t be enough. It’s not just the pull of the people, as solid and kind as you’ll find anywhere. It’s the distinct beauty of the place: the white clapboard homes, the serpentine belt of swaying marsh, the egrets standing in the road as though they understand no one’s coming.
The Nansemond River is a paddler’s paradise sitting on the edge of Norfolk’s westward sprawl. Here, the adventuresome will find more than 4,000 acres of wetlands, national wildlife refuge lands and a water trail that is steadily gaining new canoe and kayak launch sites. Plus, centuries of history enliven the river’s banks.
The Nansemond enters the lower James River just below Ragged Island Creek Wildlife Management Area, near where the James hooks east to join the Chesapeake Bay. It is 3 miles wide at its mouth and fringed by marsh and shoals that reach out nearly a mile from the shores. Ducks rest in rafts, cormorants skim the surface, and workboats and pleasure craft ply the deeper channels. Even under the leaden skies of early spring, it feels spacious here.
The Chesapeake Bay has drawn travel and trade for thousands of years, its tidal rivers and natural harbors connecting people with others across the region and across the world. But, farther upstream, the waters that feed the Bay are less cooperative.
As the Coastal Plain gives ways to valleys and mountains, rivers narrow into a tangle of streams and creeks. Like the Bay, these beautiful waterways have sustained human and aquatic life for ages, but many are also rocky, shallow and flood-prone.
Historically, people in these areas have been less interested in traveling by water. They mostly just wanted to cross it. During the 1800s, covered bridges were a popular solution.
Lost River State Park was almost lost, a near casualty of Colonial era land speculation and Depression era hard times. Thankfully, West Virginia stepped in and bought this beauty in 1934, making it available for all to enjoy.
Today, the 3,712-acre state park in Mathias features 19 trails, including one that reaches Cranny Crow overlook and offers a stunning mountain view. The park also has an outdoor pool, tennis and volleyball courts, and riding stables.
This spring, re-enter a more elemental time. Rising moon, May or June, a third of a billion years ago. Sunset gleams in the lap of saltwater on sandy shore. Today’s continents have not formed. Birds and trees, even dinosaurs are 100 million years or more in the future.
The tide swells, stars emerge, and just offshore a dark spike of a tail punctures the surface, followed by dozens, thousands. It’s a scene set since the oldest mountains were forming: horseshoe crabs, an impossibly ancient species, each spring emerging from the deeps, massing by the millions, bulldozing their way onto beaches to lay their eggs.
Some people’s default position is active-outdoors mode. They have kayaks strapped to the roofs of their cars and paddles in their backseats. They know all of the Chesapeake’s put-in points. They have maps, optimized Smartphones and an eye for identifying birds. They are the people for whom the Subaru commercials are made.
Then there are people who like being outside, but are a bit intimidated to paddle the Bay and its tributaries without a leader. They fear getting lost, or dehydrated or just tired. They want someone to tell them what is that pretty plant over here, what is the name of that bird over there. And, if at all possible, at some point during the outdoors-filled day, they would like to have a glass of wine and take a nap.
As river trail maps and smartphone apps continue to pop up around the Chesapeake, the river atlases produced by the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society at first glance seem anachronistic.
But what makes these atlases special is their devotion to the era when the craft of choice to move tobacco, grain and flour down Piedmont rivers was a long, narrow wooden boat called a batteau.
Stand on Mount Vernon’s back porch and look out across the Potomac River. The nearly unbroken sweep of woods and farm fields is very similar to that which George and Martha Washington would have seen any spring day in the 18th century.
That this beautiful and historic view is nearly intact is no accident. Protecting it required the foresight to recognize the threat that the fast growth in the suburban DC area posed to the view from Mount Vernon, and it took hard work by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and an act of Congress to address it. The solution was Piscataway Park, created specifically to preserve the view from George Washington’s house.
Events and Activitys around the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Mark Mendelsohn has fond memories of visiting his grandparents on the West River in Annapolis. The family would pile in a skiff and run out to the banks of Poplar Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. There, his grandmother would catch so many bluefish that her arms would be sore.
But the past half-century was not kind to Poplar and the cluster of islands that surround it about three miles north of Tilghman Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Erosion and sea level rise had whittled away the islands. In 1847, Poplar Island covered more than 1,100 acres. By the early 1990s, when Mendelsohn and his Army Corps of Engineers colleague Justin Callahan went to survey the island, it was fewer than five acres.