The day is fading. Minnows launch themselves across the surface of the water like tiny skipping stones that vanish with a silver flash. Eagles shift position between the trees.
The silence on Parkers Creek is remarkable. It's also against the odds.
Parkers Creek is a small tributary on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where development is far more common than a watery landscape lost in time. Yet Parkers Creek, because of both geography and timely attention from conservation partners, falls into that fortunate niche.
The Parkers Creek Watershed Nature Preserve, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, includes more than 3,000 acres of protected land where visitors can appreciate a natural setting that is not only scenic, but ecologically strong.
"It's one of the few areas on the Western Shore that's not degraded," said Tim Larney of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "The natural system is still intact, and it still functions."
"If people are interested in what Maryland looked like years back," Larney said, "Parkers Creek is the place to go."
Parkers Creek takes a winding, 2.5 mile course from forested uplands through fresh and saltwater marshes, and empties into the Chesapeake Bay. It's a unique journey because of the distinct ecosystems that co-exist in a relatively small space.
"Parkers Creek is a microcosm of ecosystems found in Maryland," Larney said. "Here's a watershed that's mostly forested, which is unusual in itself. And it was allowed to evolve slowly over time, with lots of distinct eco-zones-the barrier beach, different types of wetlands, the cliffs themselves and the Bay."
The creek also has an unusual geographic history. It once flowed west into Battle Creek and the Patuxent River. But at some point, it became an "inverted stream"-reversing course and flowing east into the Bay.
The creek's modern path twists back and forth like a loose ribbon, especially in the lower stretch, where tall marsh grass masks the approaching vista. The dramatic arrival on a sandy Bayfront beach is framed by the distinctive white walls of Calvert Cliffs.
While the creek isn't completely free of human influence, the impacts are relatively small.
Native Americans made temporary hunting camps here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Then, as the human presence grew, ravines and ridges limited farming and deterred development. Forests were cleared to serve small farms, but the slopes and soil weren't ideal. After the Civil War, African American farmers and white farmers lived as neighbors, supplementing their incomes with timber from the forest and fish from the Bay.
The 20th century brought a few patches of cottage communities to the area, and the county seat at Prince Frederick continued to grow. But much of the land adjacent to the creek remained green.
Karen Edgecombe, executive director of the American Chestnut Land Trust, aims to keep it that way.
The American Chestnut Land Trust was the first to preserve land in the watershed, beginning with a 436-acre acquisition in 1986. More than half of the 7,000-acre watershed is now protected, thanks to a number of conservation programs and partnerships. The trust manages approximately 3,000 of the protected acres, including its own lands and others owned by the Department of Natural Resources.
Approximately 1,000 acres of private land are covered by other conservation, agricultural and open space easements.
"As a result, we have a very healthy forest," Edgecombe said. "From the standpoint of protecting water quality, our objective is to keep as much forested as possible."
The forest on both sides of the creek is laced with 15 miles of hiking trails. Some provide views of the creek and the marsh. Others travel past weather-worn barns and outbuildings.
The same ravines that helped discourage development make some trails on the north side a bit challenging.
Elizabeth Stoffel, land manager for the American Chestnut Land Trust, came to Parkers Creek a few years ago from the Shenandoah River watershed. She found the terrain surprisingly familiar.
"I thought it would be flat," Stoffel said. "But with these beautiful ravines and such a large contiguous forest, you really feel you are in the wilderness. It appeals to hikers from the Washington, D.C. area, who can drive an hour from home for an experience that feels like the Appalachian Trail."
The watershed harbors a wide range of plants and animals, including several rare, threatened and endangered species. Their presence means that portions of the reserve aren't open to the public.
Boat access to the creek requires a guided tour. The tours are popular and fill quickly. They provide a memorable trip through the secluded interior of the watershed, where the crash of the Bay's surf is quickly silenced by the first marshy bend-and sets a generous stage for things both small and quiet.
On a fall afternoon, the soft rustle of drying marsh grass drifts across the creek, and small marsh flowers are the shy remnants of summer-tiny spots of color against a slowly browning backdrop. Stoffel spots the broad white petals of a hibiscus and deep red of the cardinal flower nodding in the grass.
"There's not as much blooming this time of year, but the colors start changing," she said. "In the middle of summer you see giant marsh hibiscus and lots of kingfishers and bald eagles."
Parkers Creek is home to hundreds of bird species, including loons, heron, rail, sandpipers, warblers and more. The National Audubon Society recognizes Parkers Creek as an Important Bird Area, largely because of the diverse community of birds that live in the interior forest, and for significant populations of two species of concern, the Kentucky warbler and wood thrush.
River otters and muskrats are common. There isn't a great variety of fish, but the minnows are notably feisty. "Sometimes they start jumping and you find a few in your canoe, and you have to throw them back," Stoffel said.
Boat access to the creek comes by way of Warrior's Rest Sanctuary, part of the preserve that is usually off-limits to the public. Warrior's Rest is a 235-acre waterfront homestead owned by Calvert County physician Page Jett, whose heirs sold the property to the state of Maryland. Access to Warrior's Rest is restricted because its shoreline cliffs are critical habitat for the endangered northeastern tiger beetle and the puritan tiger beetle.
Guided canoe trips and special events provide opportunities to see this important setting.
Limited public access to portions of the preserve is part of the trade-off that allows natural systems at Parkers Creek to evolve with as little disturbance as possible. There are few such places left on the Western Shore of the Bay, especially ones with such a well-forested and conserved watershed.
"Parkers Creek has been one of the lucky ones," Stoffel said.
- Guided Canoe Trips: Three-hour paddles on Parkers Creek are offered spring through fall. Ages 5+ Registration required. Canoes available. Fall 2009 trips are full.
- Fall Colors Hike at Double Oak Farm: 9 a.m. to noon Nov. 1. Registration required.
- Arboretum Work Day: 9 a.m. to noon. Dec. 5. Help to maintain the historic trees at Warrior's Rest Sanctuary and prepare for the annual greens sale. Bring work gloves and clippers.
- Greens Sale & Beach Hayride: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 12 at Warrior's Rest. Purchase freshly cut evergreens, wreaths and garlands; drink hot cider; and take a hayride to the beach.
Parkers Creek Watershed Nature Preserve
Warrior's Rest Sanctuary is open to individuals and groups only for scientific and educational purposes with advance permission.
The trails at Parkers Creek Nature Preserve are open dawn to dusk, daily, year-round. Trail use is free, but donations are encouraged. Leashed pets are welcome. Horses and motorized vehicles, including ATVs, are not permitted. Biking is permitted on the South Side East Loop only. Trail maps are available on-site and on-line.
Directions to the North Side Trailhead: From Solomon's Island Road (Routes 2/4) in Prince Frederick, turn east onto Dares Beach Road (Route 402). In 2 miles, turn right on Double Oak Road and drive one mile. Turn left onto the gravel lane at the ACLT sign and drive past the ACLT office to the designated parking area.
Directions to the South Side Trailhead: Drive 4 miles south on Solomons Island Road (Routes 2/4) from the intersection of Hallowing Point Road (Route 231) in Prince Frederick. Turn left on Parkers Creek Road, cross Route 765, and turn right onto Scientists Cliffs Road. Drive .8 miles to the parking lot on the left.