Capt. John Smith and his crew had been out of Jamestown for less than two weeks in their exploration of the great, but largely unknown Chesapeake Bay.

But they had been battered by storms, much of their bread had been soaked and his crew was demoralized and ready to turn back.

Smith urged the crew to “abandon those childish fears for worse than is past cannot happen, and there is as much danger to return, as to proceed forward. Regain therefore your old spirits. for return I will not … til I have seen the Massawomeekes, found Patowomeck, or the head of this great water you conceit to be endless.”

Smith, of course, did not turn back in 1608. He and his crew went on to find the Potomac River, as well as the Susquehanna River at the head of the Bay, in a trip that some people put on a par with the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In December, Congress recognized the significance of the journey by voting to create the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

It joins a system that includes 16 other National Historic Trails, marking such routes as the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express route and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

But it will be the first water trail in the system. Visitors will retrace the journey in boats, led along their journey by maps as well as new interactive buoys that provide information along the route.

“This trail will bring history to life and will help educate visitors about the new colony at Jamestown, John Smith’s journeys, the history of the 17th century Chesapeake region and the vital importance of the Native Americans that inhabited the Bay area,” said retiring Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a leading proponent of the trail.

“It will also provide new opportunities for recreation and heritage tourism not only for the more than 16 million Americans living in the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed, but for visitors to this area from throughout the country and abroad,” Sarbanes said.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from the region had been pushing for the creation of the trail before the 400th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown this spring.

Proponents of the trail have long contended that it would help build awareness of the Bay’s history, culture and resources, as well as increase support for its restoration.

Under the legislation, the trail would be managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with nonprofit organizations, other government agencies, local governments, businesses and others.

The legislation also calls for the trail to be coordinated with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a series of museums and historical, cultural and natural sites, which is also coordinated by the park service.

With the passage of the legislation, the park service can begin writing a management plan for the trail, identify its exact route, develop maps and signs, and begin forging partnerships with organizations that will play a role with the trail. The total cost to the park service through 2011 for plan development and trail management is expected to be about $2 million.

Some elements of the project are already under way. Congress last year funded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office to develop three interpretive buoys that will mark parts of the trail and provide historical and educational information as well as real-time information about environmental conditions to the cell phones of boaters.

Internet users far away will be able to get the same information, and vicariously visit the trail be viewing live images from the buoy.

This year, trail supporters are seeking an additional $500,000 for three more buoys.

A host of other trail-related activities are also under way. The Sultana Projects Inc., a nonprofit educational organization, built a replica of the 28-foot “shallop” Smith used for transportation during the main Bay expedition. It has been on display in museums around the Bay to raise trail awareness, and will be used to reenact Smith’s explorations.

In a series of voyages between 1607 and 1609, Smith explored the entire length of the Bay and much of the tidal portions of its tributaries. The journeys covered more than 2,300 miles. The trail will retrace the journey through what is now Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia—and come within a few miles of Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River.

The purpose of the voyages was to secure food for the new Jamestown Colony and to search for valuable minerals and a northwest passage.

Smith himself realized early on that the region’s wealth rested not with gold and other metals, but with its abundant natural resources, from fish to its vast forests. During his exploration of the Potomac River in 1608, his crew found no evidence of a rumored mine in the area, but found “beavers, otters, bears, martins and minks.”

Then, in one of his most widely quoted passages, he reported “fish lying so thick with their heads above the water [that] as for want of nets…we attempted to catch them with a frying pan, but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.”

His vivid description of the Bay region’s resources, landscape and Native American populations remain a benchmark used by ecologists, anthropologists and historians. His maps from the voyages were used for more than a century.

During testimony before a congressional committee last year, Pat Noonan, chairman emeritus of The Conservation Fund—one of many groups advocating for the trail—credited Smith’s writings as an important factor in spurring migration to the New World by people in the search of a better life.

“His adventurous spirit, descriptive writing and accurate mapping all serve to bolster his place in history,” Noonan said. “A man of humble birth, he was a captivating individual who played a crucial role in our country’s history.”

The trail, Noonan said, “provides a practical opportunity for the outdoor enthusiast, as well as the historian, to experience Smith’s spirit by traveling the same route he did nearly 400 years ago.”

For information about the trail, visit www.friendsofthejohnsmithtrail.org.