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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.

Holland Island, Against the Tide

Once upon a time, there was a small marshy island in the Chesapeake. A fragment in a spinal strand of islands stretching from Bloodsworth to Tangier, Holland Island had a thriving community whose vitality reflected the richness of the Bay’s cornucopia. Finfish and crabs, oysters and turtles were harvested in their seasons by the residents of Holland Island, who numbered 360 souls by the beginning of the 20th century. Over the years, they established community hubs around which the wheels of island life turned: a church fringed by bay grasses, a two-room school, stores, a post office. Island afternoons in summer were peppered with the crack of baseball against bat at the island’s own white-limed diamond.

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19th century image of Holland Island houses, located on the island’s highest ridge.

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Holland Island’s church, school, and hall from a late 19th century photograph.

Holland Island’s mainstay was referred to as the “water business”, and a prodigious fleet of flat-white-painted workboats connected the islanders to the ballooning seafood industry in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. These were the island’s years of milk and honey. The tidily-prosperous Victorian houses that marched down the island’s backbone were a testament to the Chesapeake’s vast productivity in what would be later recognized as the “Golden Era” of Bay harvests.

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Holland’s Island watermen checking their pound nets in the 19th century.

But Holland Island’s boom years were soon to turn with the tide, quite literally. Because every wave that kissed the islands shoreline also washed it away, at first imperceptibly, but with increasing speed and impact as the years went on. The slender ribbon of land that comprised the island, 1.5 miles in all, began to break up into smaller pieces as the Chesapeake encroached. The little community was now menaced by the same natural forces that had ensured its early prosperity.

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The map above shows the erosion of Holland Island over the course of  140 years. Once it was made up of 3 peninsulas which would become fragmented as the waterline reached further onto the land. Houses once located hundred of yards from the Bay became waterfront properties over the course of 100 years. A tropical storm in 1918 that severely damaged the church was the killing blow for the morale of Holland Island’s families. With few other options, the island’s residents began to relocate, dismantling their fine homes and rebuilding them in Crisfield, a town 8 miles away on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They left behind foundations, bottles, buttons, and other miscellaneous detritus of everyday life. They also left behind their dead.

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 Photo courtesy of David Harp, http://www.chesapeakephotos.com

This recent image from Holland Island shows the community’s graveyard, whose mossy headstones have become toothy edifices supporting bird’s nests. Names like Todd, Parks, Price, and Somers are immortalized in marble that will eventually last longer than the island itself, which is slowly receding in a great flurry of pelican feathers, salt meadow hay, and water.
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Aerial photo of Holland Island, 2011. Photo courtesy of David Harp, http://www.chesapeakephotos.com

For years, only one house remained on the island, which was eventually purchased by a former watermen and minister, Stephen White, who had visited Holland Island as a child. In interviews, he proclaimed his plans to rebuild the island, stating, “It’s a matter of will and ability. I have those, but I don’t have the funds.” For years, he lead a one-man crusade to stop the erosion of the now-depopulated island, traveling from Crisfield by motorboat each day to continue his efforts and forming a nonprofit tasked with saving Holland Island. He applied fruitlessly for state grants to reinforce the island’s shorelines, but the island was privately owned. So, with sandbags, rocks, and an old backhoe he toiled, one man against the tide.

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Photo courtesy of David Harp, http://www.chesapeakephotos.com

For years, only one house remained, its toehold on the island’s extreme perimeter perilously shrinking with each rainy season. Well known to sailors, the Holland Island house became a visual touchstone for travelers passing through the island chain to the main stem  of the Bay. Seabirds of all description were often lined up on the roof peak, a clamorous audience to the island’s final act. In mid-October 2010, the old Victorian house, peeling and hogged as a scuttled skipjack, finally crumbled into the Chesapeake that had so long labored to claim it.

Today, birds rule the island’s marshy acreage, safe in the knowledge that not a single predator lurks in the spartina. Each tide brings ghosts back of the families and community that once existed here: salt-stained porch trim in a whimsical pattern, a frosted green bottle for digestive tonic, the outlines of the last foundations and headstones, parting the verdant grasses before they, too, are finally submerged.

Cool Things from Collections- the Poacher’s Decoy

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Just a few of our 10,000 treasures in our Collections Building at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

One of the most magical places here on our campus at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is the Collections Building. Tidily arranged on sterile-looking white shelves are a pirate’s horde of Chesapeake treasure: ship models and oyster cans, one-of-a-kind Bay boats from over 100 years ago, sail maker’s benches, steamboat menus, cork life jackets, the first Evinrude outboard motors, antique eel pots, and that’s just on the first row. Each object tells the story of some aspect of Chesapeake life or work, a talisman of a past Bay where the water represented sustenance, stability, and income.

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A red-breasted merganser drake decoy, by Alvin Meekins, 1955. CBMM Collections.

Some of the the most interesting things in our collection are the most unexpected. As a maritime museum in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, it makes sense that our collections would include decoys, as waterfowling is a big part of the Chesapeake’s unique heritage. Generally these are grimy, battered working decoys used for sport hunting, but there are a few decorative ones as well by big names like the Ward Brothers. Within that comprehensive collection of decoys there are a few surprises- like the merganser pictured above. These are working decoys, too, but these are special- created for use in the off season, or for birds that were illegal to shoot. They are examples of poacher’s decoys.

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The bottom of the merganser, with a torn detail label.

This merganser drake decoy, made by Alvin Meekins of Hooper’s Island, Maryland, was confiscated at an illegal spring shoot in Dorchester County in the 1950’s, and both the decoy and its use are full of information about the Chesapeake’s environmental history. It was created during a ‘golden era’ of Chesapeake decoy carving, after the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 created limited seasons and shooting methods for waterfowl hunting.

Prior to that time period, there were very few limits to hunting at all, and those regulations that did exist were a patchwork of different limits, seasons, and rules that changed depending on which Chesapeake county you hunted in. Birds could also be baited, trapped, and shot on the water. There was no great need for decoys, which are primarily used in on-the-wing sport shooting.

With the new regulations in 1918, restrictions were federally placed on hunting, regulating seasons, limits, techniques, and locations. On-the-water shooting was eliminated, which suddenly made concealment and camouflage a necessity for anyone who hoped to get a shot at a bird in flight- and opened wide the market for decoys as key element of a waterfowler’s “gunning rig”.

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Red-breasted Merganser detail- note the crest.

Decoys varied from river to river, reflecting the migratory birds that sought refuge in different parts of the Chesapeake. The northern Bay, the celery-grass-rich Susquehanna Flats in particular, were famous for canvasbacks, while the southern Bay was the winter home for a large variety of diving ducks.

Dorchester County, Maryland,  where the merganser decoy was created, historically offered migrating waterfowl shelter in its expanses of salt water marshland and its reedy shallows, which teemed with small finfish. The mergansers, along with other fish-eating diving ducks, congregated by the millions in these open southern Bay tributaries. 

But the drawback with mergansers is that they are what they eat- though filling, their flesh reeks of fish. This was no deterrent for the highly practical waterfowlers in Dorchester County, however, who merely piled the fishy duck on top of the muskrat and woodpecker that already filled their plate and had at it.

Similarly undeterred was the poacher who used this decoy for a spring shoot, several months outside of the winter hunting season.  For many years after the waterfowling regulations went into practice, wardens had their hands full and their ears pricked for the sound of gunshots as they attempted to control the waterfowler’s longing to return to the limitless good ol’ days.

Delbert “Cigar” Daisey recalled poaching mergansers and avoiding wardens, “The bulk of the money I made back then was from trapping ducks. You just had to worry about the wardens. Hell, they knew all your traps and who you were selling to. I’d shoot mergansers, sometimes twenty-five to thirty-five a day from February to April, and then sell them to the people who worked in the oyster shucking houses. The good birds, black ducks and pintails, I’d sell to the other professional people during the week.”

As creative as poachers could be in attempting to skirt the law using decoys, baits, traps, or big guns(their backfiring homemade guns were truly works of eyebrow-scorching art), wardens were just as artful at catching them, as our out-of-season merganser proves. Wardens used boats, airplanes, dogs, and ingenuity to catch poachers, and our collections and exhibits have proof of their success, in decoy, gun, and photograph form.

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It’s a lot of history in just one decoy, and its just one decoy in a row of hundreds in the CBMM collections, packed carefully away until their story gets a chance to be shared.