I learned about hemlocks before I knew their name. I was a kid, and it was a practical relationship.
If I was in the woods and it started to rain, I’d head for a hemlock. The umbrella of branches kept me dry. If my boots grew heavy from a snowy forest floor, I’d find a hemlock with ponderous boughs —the ground below was shielded from the snow. When I played in the creek, I’d avoid them. The water was warmer in spots that escaped the shade of those thick green arms.
Hiking in the mountains of Maryland is a great way to spend an afternoon. Hiking with children? Well, choose your route carefully.
Between tired toddlers who want to be carried and teens who can’t bear to tear themselves away from their phone for a couple of hours, a walk in the woods can quickly become unpleasant, even when surrounded by beautiful scenery.
If George Washington actually did chop down a cherry tree and refuse to lie about it, the incident probably happened at Ferry Farm, his boyhood home along the Rappahannock River.
Many people who visit the site today arrive with this famous story in mind. They’ll find a few cherry-related items for sale in the visitor center and step into a vibrant garden with two cherry trees at the center.
If you want to paddle where few have paddled on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Monie Bay with its three marked water trails — and potential for freelance exploring — is worth a day trip.
The paddler sign-in log where we put in near Deal Island, about 20 miles south and west of Salisbury, had one other name, from more than a year before us.
Lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay region were designed to serve people who travel by water. In September, 12 lighthouses — and one lightship — can instead guide you to land-based adventures on the popular Maryland Lighthouse Challenge.
The Maryland Lighthouse Challenge takes place every two years, with this year’s event slated for Sept. 18–20. Organized by the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, it’s both a blitz-tour for lighthouse enthusiasts and an easy way for curious visitors to sample a few of these historic maritime structures.
“Everybody loves lighthouses,” said Karen Rosage, the event’s organizer. “They have a kind of mystique about them and sit in some of the most gorgeous waterside locations in the state.”
Chesapeake Bay cognoscenti would recognize most of the estuary’s charming waterfront villages — the islands of Smith, Tangier, Hooper, Tilghman, Deal; also the Rock Halls, Cape Charles, Solomons, Reedvilles.
Far fewer would summon to mind Saxis, VA, population “200 on a busy July weekend, 100 on a cold January day,” according to Moody “M. K.” Miles III, the town’s historian, and “local” enough that his family’s name adorns now- collectible oyster cans.
It’s hard to grasp, looking out from Saxis with its spectacular, 270-degree views of Pocomoke Sound and the unpeopled marshy shorelines of Accomack and Somerset counties — but for the first two centuries of its history, the place was never all that water-oriented.
When people think about nature in the Chesapeake region, I would bet that most people don’t automatically conjure up images of downtown Baltimore and city life.
But nature is abundant in the Chesapeake’s cities. Leaving the city is not required to connect to our natural environment and experience the great outdoors, especially in Baltimore.
Baltimore has been judged by the National Wildlife Federation to be one of America’s Top 10 Cities for Wildlife. Baltimore’s Leakin Park is the second largest urban wilderness in the United States. In addition to Leakin Park and its connected Gwynns Falls trail, the city features other large parks for a total of 5,700 acres of parklands, 73 eco-schools and a number three national ranking in schoolyard habitats per capita. It also has urban gardens and pocket parks in many neighborhoods.
It’s been called the “wild, wooded heart of Washington, DC,” and in its 125th year, Rock Creek Park is as beloved by Washingtonians as it has ever been.
Its green mass of nearly 3,000 acres in the center of an otherwise concrete sea provides plenty of natural escapes to offset the frenetic pace of the capital. It is the backyard playground for thousands of residents and a treasure often undiscovered by visitors sticking to the National Mall.
“Presidents and residents, we like to say, have always enjoyed the park,” said Nate Adams, a spokesman for the National Park Service who specializes in Rock Creek Park.
The dark, tannic water of Dragon Run slides downstream in an ever-tighter channel, taking us deeper into the tupelo and bald cypress swamp on a cloudy April morning. The dark water adds to my foreboding.
After all, this is a swamp where for centuries people have gotten lost — some purposefully, others unintentionally — never to be heard from again.
Our group of 15 paddlers works to keep up with Teta Kain, paddle master for Friends of Dragon Run, who has asked us to stay within sight of each other on this guided 3.5-mile paddle through one of Virginia’s most pristine waterways.
There is a little-known museum and park in Maryland where you can learn about a man whose story deserves telling.
Benjamin Banneker, an African-American astronomer who helped survey the boundaries of Washington, DC, and once implored Thomas Jefferson to change his views on race, made his home at this Baltimore County site near present-day Catonsville on the Patuxent River. Today, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum celebrates his accomplishments. What’s more, it’s a great site for hikers and nature lovers.
I learned about Benjamin Banneker when my children and I discovered his biography during African-American History Month at the library. I do not recall being taught anything about him in the 1970s and 1980s, even though I grew up not far from his home and was aware of a few schools that bore his name.
Jeri Jones stood on a hill a couple of hundred feet above the Susquehanna River and explained how, at one time, he would have been underwater at this very spot.
“Imagine the river was at least as high as those hills that you see right there,” he said, pointing to hills across the river that overshadowed Safe Harbor Dam and rose above the hill where he stood in Apollo County Park. “So 125 feet above our heads is where the river would have been at some stage at the end of the ice age,” said Jones, a geologist and program coordinator with the York County Department of Parks and Recreation who has given many talks about the river’s geological history.
“That is what made the Susquehanna, really, what it is today.”
If shorter days and cooler weather make you restless for a different kind of nature experience, head to Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia to witness the migration of hawks, falcons and eagles on their long and often extraordinary journeys from Canada and Alaska to Central and South America.
The Delmarva Peninsula funnels down to a small spit of land at its southern tip, creating a resting spot for raptors, songbirds, water birds and even butterflies before they cross the 19-mile-wide mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
That’s a major reason for the creation of the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, as well the protection of nearby land and coastal barrier islands. It’s also why the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, a nonprofit based in Virginia Beach, has set up shop on a large elevated platform at Kiptopeke State Park, where volunteers join a trained biologist in counting migrating raptors.
Few people walk the foot-bridge across the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV, without stopping midway, entranced by the view.
Even historian Dennis Frye, who has spent more than 30 years working at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, is no exception. It’s one of his favorite views.
Here, looking downstream, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers collide in rocky swirls, with steep, forested slopes on either side. To the east, the face of Maryland Heights looms over the bridge as a wall of gray rock. At its base is the arched black mouth of a railway tunnel, built through the mountain in the 1890s. To the west, a cluster of historic buildings — the oldest preserved portion of the town — is perched on the hillside.
The Fallingwater Cascades Trail on this day could aptly have been named the Falling Timber Trail. There were, after all, signs of a tough winter all around. Fallen trees — and parts of trees — were lying everywhere. Most, now in late April, had been cleared from the trail, though some still remained to be clambered over and ducked under.
Then there was the matter of the bridge. One of the crossings over Fallingwater Creek was altogether gone, leaving hikers to carefully step across its icy water on stones.
Still, every step of the 1.5 mile loop trail — which drops almost 400 feet from the crest of the Blue Ridge Parkway — was worth the effort, especially after a prolonged bout of cabin fever that had built up during the long, harsh winter that had felled so many trees along the trail.