I got the seed of this story years ago from a bunch of wild tundra swans that had flown here from Alaska to winter along the remote Marshyhope Creek on the Delmarva Peninsula.

It was late afternoon, early March, chill but still and sunny enough to get me pedaling. Near the village of Eldorado in Dorchester County, I began seeing flight after flight of the birds heading across a huge expanse of unbroken forest.

I turned down an old logging road that delved alluringly into the heart of the forest. It was gated, but there were no “keep out” or “private” signs, so I followed the lonesome track — surprisingly firm beneath a carpet of pine needles and leaves — for nearly three miles to the river. There, I was thrilled by the otherworldly choir of several hundred swans. A couple of nearby nesting eagles joined the audience.

I rode back out in starlight, eyes on the narrow opening made by the dirt road in the tops of the trees to guide me.

In my younger days, I cared less about who might have owned the woods where I tramped or cycled with my fat-tire Schwinn. I explored in the spirit of my favorite stanza of Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land”:

“As I went walking, I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said no trespassing
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.”

Nowadays, there are more people in the watershed, more aggressive postings of private lands and more owners fed up with illegal encroachment. But I made a wonderful discovery after my swan moment. For roughly 3,000 acres around where I’d been—about 5 square miles—was a nearly unbroken tract of forest that really is for you and me.

It was part of the Chesapeake Forest, a massive land acquisition Maryland made after a timber company decided to get out of the logging business. Now at about 67,000 acres throughout six Eastern Shore counties, the purchases have put an area equal to more than 1 percent of the entire state largely in public use.

Add to that the Pocomoke State Forest, around 16,000 acres in the same region, and you’ve got an area of more than 120 square miles, riven by hundreds of miles of old logging roads, fire trails and farm lanes that date from decades ago when many of the tracts were in agriculture.

They invite exploration, by foot or by bicycle (only ATVs are banned) and could occupy you for a lifetime of weekends. The bulk of these mostly public forestlands lie in an area that runs roughly southward from Salisbury to around the Pocomoke River, bounded on the west by U.S. Route 13 and on the East by Maryland Route 12, the road from Salisbury to Snow Hill, the Worcester County seat.

A favorite route of mine uses four delightful, all-weather hard-packed dirt county roads as a sort of spine from which one can jump off in dozens of places as it passes through the state forestlands.

I grew up on such a road — since paved into submission — in the piney woods south of Salisbury, and still think sand roads the apotheosis of byways. They hold the imprint of every coon and fox and deer crossing, and seem organic to the landscape rather than intrusive.

Some days, these “main” dirt roads—Old Beech, Forest, Corner House and Camp—are all I want: easy, shade-dappled, nearly car-free rides; tires whispering, rustling through the sand and the leaves. You could do such roads even on a skinny-tire road bike that many serious cyclists prefer, but I’d recommend tires of 32 cm or larger. Mine are 50 cm, maybe overkill, but they work even in soft sand and moderate mud and spin fine on pavement too.

A mountain bike, with knobby tires and shock absorbers and high clearance, opens up even more options. When hiking, I use most any shoe, but knee boots will help with the chiggers and ticks in warmer weather.

Heading off into the forests on either side there are a range of possibilities, from mere trails to virtual highways where cyclists might ride two abreast. Some roads quickly end, whereas others can be followed all the way through to the next county road.

If you want an indicator for whether a road is likely to be good for riding, look at its ditches. Roads that are ditched on both sides usually are best. The soil from the ditches has been put into the road to form a crown, and they drain well, making them fine rides.

There are some beautiful little headwater creeks like Pusey Branch and Corbin Run that one can reach or get close to by logging road. The latter, lined with some fine old cypresses and other big hardwoods as it meanders clear and cool to the east of Camp Road, is worth a little bushwhacking.

Maps of trails through the forest are available online through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Mike Schofield, manager of the Chesapeake and Pocomoke state forests, says more detailed maps are in the works.

New trails are also being laid out specifically for hikers and bikers, he said, under a management plan that accounts for recreation as well as sustainable timber harvest and wildlife habitat. These are still working lands, so you might see some clear cuts or remaining loblolly pine plantations. Don’t be shocked to hear the sounds of logging.

You’ll also encounter deer stands and other signs of hunters, as perhaps half of the forests are leased through an annual lottery to hunters.

The good news for the rest of us is that firearms deer season runs only for a few weeks in November and December. You can still use the forests then—unless you see a tract marked by blue diamond-shaped signs affixed to trees, a sign marking private hunting leases. But I’d recommend staying away from the state forests while people with high-powered rifles are out there.

Other markings to be aware of include trees with daubs of blue paint — this means private, no trespassing — and yellow paint, which means public land. I’m beginning to see some trails specifically laid out for public use, joint projects of the DNR and the Maryland Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

And Schofield said that in the works is a major trail that will begin in the 5,000-acre Foster Tract of the Chesapeake Forest off the Snow Hill Road (Route 12), and meander for several miles to link with the lovely Milburn Landing State Park that borders the Pocomoke River’s northern shore.

Google Earth, Google Maps or other GPS software are good ways to get the lay of the land to plan your route. These will show most of the dirt roads and waterways and many lesser trails through the forests — public and private. With practice you can even pick out forest types.

But I confess that I often like to go off without a look at any of these. It’s massively inefficient, with much backtracking, dead ends, wandering. It wastes time, I suppose, but it promotes a sense of anticipation, of wondering what’s around the next bend; and time in nature, with proper mindset (and a few nature guidebooks) is never wasted.

One such trip recently took me into a small outlier of the Chesapeake Forest on McGrath Road, an unmarked path that quickly ended. I followed a deer trail a couple of hundred yards farther and found a lookout point onto the huge agricultural drainage ditch that used to be Dividing Creek, a tributary of the Pocomoke.

It was where the 60-foot-wide ditch ended and began devolving back into the braided streamflow of a natural swamp, a study in straight lines versus meanders, in the manmade versus the natural. A nice flock of wood ducks floated beneath a tangle of storm-downed oaks. The sun sparkled on little riffles. The Grand Canyon it wasn’t; but it was all mine.

Exploring these forest roads less traveled has attracted others, like Dave Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. He’s a biker and birder as well as a “herp” guy always on the lookout for snakes and amphibians.

He uses a mountain bike, and favors these routes: the Newark fire road that goes off of Ironshire Station road in Worcester County; a sand track, Davis Branch Road, off Whiton Road in northern Worcester — “there are some big Nature Conservancy tracts in that region too…incredibly beautiful,” Wilson said. “They give you a feel for what the landscape should all be like.”

Wilson says his rides make him grateful “for all that we’ve protected through good stewardship, through good rural zoning” in his home county.

Once you finish all the forest roads, there’s a realm of other possibilities. The Delmarva Peninsula has hundreds of miles of major agricultural drainage ditches; and these often have fair to good roads down one or both sides to permit heavy equipment in for maintenance dredging and mowing.

Along the Pocomoke, whose drainage ranges well up into Delaware, I have taken some interesting jaunts along ditches, passing through the back ends of farms and through woods that would be inaccessible any other way. You’ll see these mixed in among the state forest lands.

Similar adventures await those who like to ride access roads beneath big, high-voltage power lines, which are more common than I like.

This land is your land—more of it than most of us know.

For a map and directions to trails in the Chesapeake Forest lands, visit www.dnr.state.md.us/forests/chesapeakeforests/maps/overview.asp.

Chesapeake Forest’s roots

By Lara Lutz

The public land now called Chesapeake Forest was once owned by the Chesapeake Forest Products Corp. and worked by many local families.

When the company decided to sell its land — about 57,000 acres in Maryland — people were concerned about the fate of the forest as well as the local economy.

Maryland purchased about half of the land directly in 1999. The Conservation Fund, with help from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, purchased the other half and later transferred full ownership to the state.

But this conservation deal was unique. The state was required to allow timber harvest, but only with the highest quality controls for sustainable forest management.

Nearly 15 years later, forest manager Mike Schofield said that most harvesting is for thinning rather than clear cuts, on an average of about 40 acres within the 57,000-acre forest. The work often takes place at sites where growth is choking out diversified habitat for wildlife like the Delmarva fox squirrel.

“We’re doing ecological forestry, not cutting for the sake of cutting,” Schofield said.

As a result, Chesapeake Forest is certified by both the Sustainable Forest Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council.

“Sustainable forestry means that we’re not harming rare, threatened or endangered plants or animals or the future health of the forest, but we also provide goods and services to local communities,” Schofield said. “It’s an awesome project.”

Parcels of land from the Chesapeake Forest Products Corp. were also protected in Delaware and Virginia for a total of 79,000 acres