beautiful swimmers

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The first crab caught at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum so far this summer- a papershell sook. This has been a terrible year for crabs, but there’s a lot to admire in this little beauty, with her fire-red “fingernails” and brilliant blue claws. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of these truly “beautiful swimmers” as we enter the dog days of summer.

The first crab caught at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum so far this summer- a papershell sook. This has been a terrible year for crabs, but there’s a lot to admire in this little beauty, with her fire-red “fingernails” and brilliant blue claws. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of these truly “beautiful swimmers” as we enter the dog days of summer.

The Chesapeake’s most recognizable icon, the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), is one of the significant commercially-harvested species on the East Coast, but this summer, the catches have been incredibly, scarily low.
There is a parasite lurking in the depth of the Bay that could be the source of this summer’s empty crab pots and record-breaking low harvests: hematodinium.  At best, hematodinium can make the meat of the infected crab taste like aspirin, but at worst, the parasite spells large scale crab mortality- something that could have enormous consequences for the ecology of the Chesapeake environment and the watermen that rely on a bountiful harvest. Learn more about the parasite that might stop a crab from reaching your picnic table this summer.

The Chesapeake’s most recognizable icon, the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), is one of the significant commercially-harvested species on the East Coast, but this summer, the catches have been incredibly, scarily low.

There is a parasite lurking in the depth of the Bay that could be the source of this summer’s empty crab pots and record-breaking low harvests: hematodinium.  At best, hematodinium can make the meat of the infected crab taste like aspirin, but at worst, the parasite spells large scale crab mortality- something that could have enormous consequences for the ecology of the Chesapeake environment and the watermen that rely on a bountiful harvest. Learn more about the parasite that might stop a crab from reaching your picnic table this summer.

Kayak Scenes

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There has been much written about the magic of sailing the Chesapeake Bay. Wide open water, slightly salty note in the humid air that strokes your face like a silky palm, and fills the sails. Harnessing the elements of the Bay’s brackish tide, bound for Reedville, St Michaels, Annapolis, or destination unknown. But there is another, more intimate way to connect with the engorged tidal coves of the Bay’s thousands of miles of shoreline: by kayak.

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Kayakers are tourists on a surgical scale. They explore the twisting oxbows of shallow Chesapeake tributaries in a precise, minute fashion alien to the racing speeds of sailors and power boaters. They amble. They prog. Their behinds are sodden with the tannin-rich water of the hardwood canopy streams, and they have pollen in their hair from dusting along ripening chaffs of wild rice. They are getting nowhere fast, but somehow, the aimlessness itself is the journey- there is so much to see.

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Sounds, amplified by proximity, make up an essential element of the landscape at the kayak level. It is a noisy place, these Chesapeake marshes. Red-wings blackbirds cry out in a trilling melody as they sway back and forth like a metronome from the tops of frothy cattail.  Osprey chirp, silhouetted by the sun, angling for their supper from a cloud-level vantage point. Bullfrogs belch out some bass notes that will echo as the sun sets and the mosquitoes teem. Every creature, it seems, vies for the spotlight in this backwater stage. It’s supposed to be peaceful, but people think the city can be peaceful, too. In their own way, these creeks are just as bustling, their din just as ceaseless as a metropolitan center. Traffic streams silver down the rivers, raptors substitute for airliners, and insects crowd on tuckahoe leaves like bargain hunters at a flea market.

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Kayakers often liken the landcsape they enjoy to a “John Smith” view. Meaning, as untouched, pristine, and unspoiled as the 1607 Bay that Smith explored on his forays from Jamestown. And though much has changed- the bottom is siltier, the water cloudier, the plants pushed aside by non-natives, the crabs and otter confounded by the blue catfish and the nutria, there is much that feels unchanged. Little development has reached these shallow, isolated creeks and streams of the Bay’s tide line. Heron rookeries aren’t uncommon to discover, or beaver dams as wide as a two-lane dirt road. Abandoned houses, half covered in scuppernong vines with glassless windows, stand sentinel along the shorelines. Their fragrant sweetheart roses still perfume the air, unaware that the scenery has changed since the 1920’s. By kayak, the Chesapeake can feel like the world has ended and you are the only person left in the vast wilderness. It can be eerie, but is is generally a good feeling.

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But even better are the paddles shared with others, where you raft together and point out all the incredible things to see with too many legs, scuttling away in the sand. You share the sunset like a heaping plate of food until you paddle back home, satisfied and kingly. To paddle around in a low vessel is a slow moving method of exploration, as John Smith well knew, but its also a way to observe and savor the Bay’s heartbreaking beauty both intimately and together.

When you need a reminder that the Bay isn’t done for, and those dead zones they keep talking about on the news aren’t the last word, put some bug spray on and find some shorts that can see a little mud. We’re going for a paddle tonight.

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Blackwater Refuge

The Blackwater National Wildlife refuge looks, from google earth, like the arteries of a great, mossy giant- the low forest and marshes drained and refreshed by thin, branching veins of tidal tributaries. As your eyes adjust, attempting to discern the difference between green canopy and greyish water, you feel disoriented- how can so much water and so little land still make up a destination? So extensive and switchbacked are Blackwater’s myriad tributaries, that within its 27,000 acres is 1/3 of Maryland’s tidal wetlands. This is alpha and omega of Chesapeake marshes- a place where land and water overlap, interconnected and symbiotic.

The guts, coves, and marshes that stitch together the damp high ground reflect the wild, backwoods nature of the place- “Otter Pond,” “Snarepole Gut,” “Wolfpit Pond,” “Hog Rooting Pond.” Blackwater, the names suggest, is not a refuge for humans, but an untamed relic from the Chesapeake’s less civilized past. A walk along the numerous nature trails is an immediate reminder that you are, indeed, the interloper from the tamed modern world. Bleached, rasping marsh grasses barely part above you as your sodden shoes squelch through cake batter mud. Cicadas scream in loblollies and, far above, eagles wheel in funnel shapes, following the warm drafts up, up.

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Winter sunset at Blackwater.

The refuge is fed by the tannin-rich water of the Blackwater River and the Little Blackwater, which derive their distinctive tea-colored tint from the ancient peaty soils of the region’s pine woods. Once a haven for Nanticoke Indians and a hiding place for Harriet Tubman and other runaway slaves as they journeyed north to freedom, Blackwater is now a sanctuary for the wildlife that teems within its verdant 25,00 acres of brackish tidal wetlands and evergreen and deciduous forests. Over 250 different species of wildlife are concealed within rustling treetops and the flattened dunes of salt meadow hay: eagles, falcons, hawks and osprey, the meaty silver bulk of the Delmarva Fox squirrel, and in the mud-baked tidal flats, the spiked fur and distinctive tail drag-marks of the omnipresent muskrat.

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Where land and water intertwine at Blackwater.

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Muskrat tracks at low tide.

Seasonally Blackwater is visited by fluttering flocks of migratory waterfowl in the tens of thousands, which feast on the refuge’s thick underwater grasses and paddle contentedly in its icy shallows. Birdwatchers and photographers are drawn to the spectacle, documenting the mouth-dropping ascendance of snow geese in flickering white drifts, the glossy chestnut plumage of the dapper canvasback, the aloof red-tailed hawk winking across the path of the sun.  Countless photographs in galleries, posted on Flickr and Instagram, are visual testimony of the feathered eye candy so brilliantly on display at every Blackwater creek and cove. 

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Migratory waterfowl overwintering on a Blackwater inlet.

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A nest of spring-hatched osprey.

Established in 1933, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was created during a period when the enormous flocks of migratory waterfowl that had once visited the Chesapeake along the Atlantic Flyway were recovering from a deep decline, due to overzealous harvesting. Now protected from most forms of market hunting after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, refuges like Blackwater provided rich habitat for waterfowl while restricting access to the still-legal sport hunting.

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 Photo by Chris Koontz/Flickr

Today, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has been referred to by the Nature Conservancy as the “Everglades of the North” -a protected, jewel-like place that has produced a dynamic, deeply interconnected Chesapeake environment seething with biodiversity. But even as the refuge shelters hundreds of species within in its drowned forests and slow, quiet inlets, it is also threatened by sea level rise and erosion. The Chesapeake Bay reclaims more than 300 acres of Blackwater’s low land each year. Through the efforts of the Conservation Fund, higher land surrounding the refuge has been purchased and added on to the original acreage, creating a cushion for the inevitable slow creep of the water level. 

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A songbird clings to a reed of marsh grass.

Dissolving into the ever-widening maw of the Bay, Blackwater is a paradise for a protected population of wild things with feathers, fins, and fur. Even as its marsh tumps fade below the waterline, Blackwater’s loblollies are ornamented with heron rookeries, its grasses cloud with insects, and its water churns with spawning fish runs. While the future of Blackwater’s shores might be imperiled, for now, it is still a vibrant sanctuary where life goes on untroubled by the glowering clouds of climate chamge. Push through the wet feet and mosquito bites, and a visit might reward you with glimpses of a untamed Chesapeake past , as elusive and slippery as an otter, darting just below the water’s surface.