Looking out onto Virginia’s Yeocomico River, where a pair of small workboats made lazy circles fishing a string of largely empty crab pots, 17-year-old Tara McFarland tried to sum up what her journey to that scenic spot had taught her.

About 25 days earlier, the high school senior from Turner Ashby High School in Rockingham County had left her folks, central air and all of the comforts of home.

She and 15 other members of the school’s Future Farmers of America chapter embarked on Expedition Chesapeake, a 30-day trip from their Shenandoah Valley hometown to Tangier Island in the Bay.

The purpose: to go beyond what they’d learned about the Chesapeake from books and lectures in their school’s agriculture and ecology program.

By paddling most of the way from home to the Bay, a 355-mile trip on the Shenandoah, Anacostia and Potomac rivers, they’d see firsthand how what happens along the route affects the Bay.

Squinting to follow a gull heading for a piling near the group’s campsite on Lynch Point in Westmoreland County, McFarland thought for a few seconds before summing up what she had learned on the trip.

“It’s really given us the bigger picture,” said the FFA president with a tan from weeks of paddling. “We can all see our own little part, how what we do back home affects the rivers and resources there. But a trip like this lets you see how it all comes together, how it’s really what we all do that affects the Bay, meaning that we all will have to get involved to save it.”

Sitting nearby, Eric Fitzgerald couldn’t help but beam proudly. As the FFA’s adviser, agriculture and ecology teacher and a driving force behind the trip, he’s quick to point out that no one’s putting words into his students’ mouths.

“These kids will think and speak for themselves,” said Fitzgerald, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2004 Educator of the Year, who got his kids involved in environmental education when Bay legislation initially created animosity between farmers and watermen.

“We studied the issues in class, but out here on this trip, the kids can see for themselves the declining health of our rivers, streams and the Bay itself. We’ve all learned from it,” Fitzgerald said.

The trip was organized by the Bay Foundation, and sponsored in part by L.L. Bean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office provided water quality monitoring equipment for the voyage.

When the group paddled through King George and Westmoreland counties in late July, it stopped at WKingcopsico Farm, the private home of W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.

The students had time to pepper Murphy and Northern Neck Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. with questions about the Bay’s decline, before being treated to a tour of the nearby Bevans Oyster Plant, where the youngsters witnessed everything from oysters getting shucked to details about a new process that fast-freezes oysters on the half shell for restaurants.

Murphy, who grew up in Westmoreland scooping soft crabs from a river bottom once covered with thick aquatic grasses, told the students not to be satisfied with the status quo.

“What you have seen on your trip, what you see out here today, is not the way things should be,” he said. Instead, he called them a starting point to getting the Bay and its rivers back to the vibrant health they once enjoyed.

During a break, some students said they started with a bit of an attitude about the hit that farmers, like those in their rural county, have taken as sources of fertilizer pollution and erosion that hurt the Bay.

Several were struck by seeing more than a thousand head of cattle in the Shenandoah River, as one student put it, “using the river as their restroom.”

“But in other spots, we saw farmers using best management practices, buffers and alternative water sources to prevent that sort of pollution,” said 18-year-old Chad Funkhouser.

Steven Burgoyne, 17, said the group saw a site on the Shenandoah near Front Royal where development had stripped enough trees and vegetation to allow runoff straight into the river.

Add to that the sight of polluted runoff from all of the pavement in and around the District of Columbia and the sad sight of a massive fish kill on the Shenandoah.

And while the youngsters used much of the trip for serious purposes, it was fun as well.

“It’s been a blast, seeing all these beautiful places and getting to know each other better,” said 17-year-old Kelsey Brunton.

“Many of us, especially the five girls on the trip, aren’t huge fans of camping, and hadn’t really paddled or kayaked before. But we did 16 miles on the Potomac yesterday in just over five hours. That’s not bad.”

This article by Rob Hedelt, which was originally published in The (Fredericksburg, VA) Free Lance-Star, appears courtesy of the Associated Press