In the summer of 1608, Capt. John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay with a crew of a dozen men in an open boat called a shallop. The Bay country was already well inhabited — nothing like today, of course, but there were American Indian towns along the shores nearly everywhere he went.
In early August, as Smith and his crew entered the Tockwogh River (our modern day Sassafras), a flotilla of Tockwogh people met him. They escorted the English to their main town where, to quote Smith, “the men women, and children with dances, songs, fruits, furs, and what they had, kindly welcomed us, spreading mats for us to sit on, stretching their best abilities to express their loves.”
A modern-day explorer in the Chesapeake would have a hard time finding a better welcome, and perhaps a harder time still finding a place to land. Today, most of the Chesapeake Bay’s shores and the shores of its rivers are private property with no trespassing allowed.
Other than marinas and widely separated public boat launches and parks, there are few public beaches where the traveler can stop, fewer still where the adventurer might pitch a tent for the night. And even where the federal government owns some large tracts of land on the water’s edge, most of it is off-limits to the outdoor enthusiast.
My friends and I have spent years exploring the Bay, traveling routes along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail that Smith once traveled. We are paddlers and campers and, traveling light, we leave no trace. We try to stop in publicly owned spots where an evening’s camp is allowed as much as possible, but we find we need more options.
At the Chesapeake Conservancy, part of our mission is to create more public access to the Chesapeake so more people have an opportunity to experience the beauty of the Bay and her rivers. People who know the Bay tend to love the Bay. They have a better grasp of the problems and understand more clearly what has to be done to restore resources and protect water quality. While there’s no guarantee, we think people like this will be better stewards and advocates for the Bay.
We also work to conserve the landscapes that give the Bay and the rivers their distinctive character. These places often have historic, cultural and ecological value.
They are places like a stretch of marsh along the Nanticoke River that we helped to add to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge last year. Smith described this section of river and the people he met here in June of 1608.
In addition, the land protects the views as one approaches the historic town of Vienna by river on the Captain John Smith trail. And, it provides much needed habitat for waterfowl.
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is the nation’s first all-water national historic trail. It stretches from the Virginia Capes all the way to the Susquehanna Flats and up and down most of the Bay’s major rivers. Newly designated historic component-connecting trails, including the Susquehanna, the Chester, the upper Nanticoke and the upper James rivers add about 850 miles to the trail’s system, bringing its total length to more than 3,000 miles.
The trail can provide a framework for experiencing the Bay and conserving our history and the ecologically and culturally significant places around the Chesapeake. It can also provide the framework for more places for people to touch the Bay and its rivers, from land and from the water. The National Park Service is developing plans and partnerships that will create more access to make the trail easier to explore.
As you’ll find in the pages of this issue of Bay Journeys, which we at the Chesapeake Conservancy are pleased to help support, there are untold many things to discover and experience in the Chesapeake region. The important thing is to get out there and enjoy them.