For the Baltimore boating community, Hart-Miller Island needs no introduction.
Each weekend, hundreds of boats gather near the beach of the 1,100-acre Chesapeake Bay island near the mouth of Middle River. They tie rafts to their boats and float or swim in the often calm waters or lounge on the sandy beach. But until this spring, visitors could not venture past that sandy beach and a few primitive campsites.
A small round field of native grasses is criss-crossed and matted by wildlife trails, surrounded by a forest of oak and hickory. But in wetter seasons, this field is not a field. It’s a pond — a globally rare sinkhole pond at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley.
The National Wildlife Refuge system is a network of public lands set aside specifically for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants. National Wildlife Refuges contain a priceless gift — the heritage of a wild United States. Wild lands and the perpetuation of diverse and abundant wildlife are an essential part of U.S. life.
The system provides habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, more than 1,000 species of fish and countless species of invertebrates and plants. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.
Recently my friend, John Neely, who is also a board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy, took me fly fishing on Savage River.
Savage River is a headwater tributary of the Potomac River, on the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Its watershed occupies more than 74,000 acres of mostly forested land in Garrett County, MD.
When visitors to Dudley Patteson’s hotel claim they don’t like oysters, he wonders if they’ve really tried them. “A true oyster is eaten right out of its shell with the natural juices,” Patteson said, but he often suggests that these guests try a roasted oyster first, swimming in a white-wine-garlic sauce — preferably over dinner at the Hope and Glory Inn, which Patteson runs with his wife, Peggy, in Irvington, on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
The boulders of Hammonds Rocks, in Pennsylvania’s Michaux State Forest, are literally ancient history. But they explain a good bit about the present, too.
Michaux State Forest, and the South Mountain ridges on which it rests, is a landscape first formed by shifting continents, later by the blaze of iron furnaces and then the stewardship of state foresters. It’s an epic chain of custody, linked by the movement of rocks and minerals, that gave birth to a forest, which was in turn pillaged, then restored.
Geologist Sean Cornell, a professor at nearby Shippensburg University, uses Hammonds Rocks as an outdoor classroom of environmental change. “You can go back 540 million years and see that record here on the mountain,” Cornell said.
To get extremely close to geese and ducks of the Chesapeake Bay, hunters of a bygone era had a solution: a sinkbox. The coffin-shaped box, wooden with an open top and wide upper rim, was floated in the marsh.
Specially weighted decoys were placed on the rim to submerge the box so that its opening was nearly flush with the water’s surface. The hunter would lower himself into the sinkbox and wait, well hidden. Passing waterfowl, attracted by the decoys, would land at close range.
Sinkboxes, along with commercial hunting and the infamous punt gun, were banned on the Chesapeake in the early 20th century — but a widespread love for Chesapeake waterfowl has preserved opportunities to view wintering waterfowl, learn about or participate in the region’s hunting heritage, and appreciate an abundance of art that the species have inspired.
From the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, it’s hard to tell that the swath of trees blocking a view of Virginia across the Potomac River is an island. It’s even harder to figure out how to get there, unless you’re leaving the Georgetown waterfront in a kayak — and ready to fight often-swift currents.
That’s because Theodore Roosevelt Island, a national park and fitting memorial to the country’s conservation-minded president, is located off the central tourism hub of Washington’s National Mall. In fact, visitors can only reach the island by foot from the Virginia side of the river.
“Most people don’t even realize this is here. But once they get here — wow,” Jennifer Epolito, a park ranger, said as we walked to the island across a footbridge from a small (but free) parking lot along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Looking out over the Rappahannock River from a new 100-foot fishing pier in Port Royal, VA, Cleo Coleman sees more than a good place to cast a line. She sees the town’s past, present and future. “You are looking at the primary fact that the town is here,” Coleman said.
The Rappahannock River was once essential for commerce and transportation, and Port Royal boomed because of it. Although that’s no longer the case, Coleman said that opportunities for recreation on and near the river are drawing visitors to this sleepy town at the crossroads of VA Route 301 and Route 17.
It was a picture-perfect morning and I was all set to check out a new bike-and-kayak excursion offered by an outfitter along the Susquehanna River. And then I received a surprise: My son, Noah, decided to come with me.
Usually the only opportunity to steal time with my busy 14-year-old is during long trips in the car. This was a treat.
A small flotilla of canoes filled with “junior rangers” and their parents was floating on the gentle, outgoing tide of Virginia’s Taskinas Creek.
The current pulled the canoes past muddy banks, pockmarked by the holes of fiddler crabs and gripped by the roots of small cordgrass. A fish splashed near the opposite bank. The rank smell of the marsh filled the air.
From her canoe, trip leader Ann Hageman called out to the paddlers. “You’ve got two kinds of cordgrass here. Big cordgrass and little cordgrass.”
It was the last day of KidsKamp at York River State Park, and there were still discoveries to make