Captain John Smith may not have made it to New York or the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the trail that bears his name may now take modern adventurers to such far-flung destinations.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on May 16 announced that he was adding four connecting rivers — the Susquehanna, Chester, Upper Nanticoke and upper James — to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Their designation as “historic components” allows the National Park Service, which administers the trail, to provide technical and financial assistance to state agencies and local organizations to promote and manage the trail.
“Today’s action really is a model of conservation in the 21st century,” Salazar said during a ceremony on the shore of the Bay at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland.
Expanding the trail was part of the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative which, among other things, encourages outdoor tourism and building local connections to cultural resources and promoting water-based recreation.
The original trail, approved by Congress in 2006, helps travelers retrace Smith’s 1607–08 explorations of the Chesapeake, which covered 3,000 miles around the Bay and up portions of many tributaries.
Smith rarely made it into the free-flowing portions of those rivers, remaining mostly in the wider, tidal areas. Nonetheless, Salazar noted, Smith made contact with many American Indian tribes who lived, traveled and traded along these river corridors.
Salazar stressed a desire to build upon “our rich relationship with our Native Americans” to help tell their stories about the region through the trail.
Representatives from a number of American Indian tribes attended the ceremony. They included Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee nations (the Iroquois Confederation), who gave his opening remarks in the Onodaga language to illustrate that the heritage and the culture of the people who populated the headwaters of the Susquehanna during John Smith’s time was still alive and vibrant.
Hill emphasized the close ties of native peoples to the rivers, even naming many clans, such as the “eel clan” and “beaver clan” after river-dwelling species. “There is no alternative to fresh water,” he said. “Water is life.”
The “historic component connecting trails” add more than 800 miles to the John Smith trail system, which will now reach up the Susquehanna to Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, NY, up the James to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and also encompass much of the Nanticoke and Chester river drainages on the Eastern Shore.
The Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, led an evaluation of six tributaries to explore the potential for adding connecting trails to the system. It worked with local watershed, tribal and water trail groups, along with state agencies to develop applications to the Park Service.
The expansions were supported by local groups, and approved by the governors of each state.
Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, said the trail would help communities along the rivers conserve their local history and landscapes, and added that doing that work “exceeds the capabilities of one individual or one organization.”
John Maounis, superintendent of the trail for the Park Service, said the extension allows the service to “lend the brand” of the John Smith Trail to help market and promote the upstream trails. The Park Service will also work more closely with organizations to improve facilities; add signs; help interpret historic, natural and cultural sites for visitors; and make other improvements along the trails. But, Maounis added, “It’s not what we do. It’s about what everybody does. It’s about collaboration.”
He also said it was likely that water trails on other Bay tributaries could be added to the system in the future.
Some have an even grander vision. Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund who led efforts over the last decade to create the John Smith trail, said he would like the extension to provide a “blueway framework” that serves as a focalpoint for landscape conservation along the rivers.
The Chesapeake Bay rivers, Noonan said, are as worthy as the Northern Rockies, Greater Yellowstone and the Everglades, which have been identified as priorities for large-scale conservation planning efforts by the Interior Department.
“This is a natural blueprint for conservation in the watershed,” Noonan said.