It's early autumn on Jug Bay, where the wetlands cast a majestic presence across the full width of the Patuxent River. From the high ground of the Jug Bay Natural Area in Prince Georges County, MD, the view is spectacular.
Broad-leaf plants, such as spadderdock and pickerel weed, hug the water's surface in a winding expanse of green, their edges curled with a hint of seasonal brown.
Change is also under way on the shoreline. The stand of wild rice that grows here is one of the largest in Maryland. During the summer, its stalks form a tall, green thicket. Today, the green is slightly faded and the cloud of heavily fringed tops has begun a slow bow toward earth.
The motion still charms Greg Lewis, after decades of work at the Jug Bay Natural Area with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
"Wild rice is the reason that Jug Bay is such an important area," he said.
Lewis twirled a strand of the fringed top between his fingers. A small grain separated from the strand. "This is the rice, just like you'd buy in the store. It turns brown, hangs off the plant, and then drops into the mudflat to reseed itself for next year."
In the midst of the process, the rice draws an enormous number of birds and waterfowl to Jug Bay. More than 250 species have been documented in and along the marsh, including 100 species that nest here. The National Audubon Society has named Jug Bay an Important Bird Area.
Fall is an excellent time to visit, as birds such as the sora rail and other waterfowl visit Jug Bay on their migration south. Thousands shelter at Jug Bay during the winter, too.
"My favorite time of year here is February because you almost have the place to yourself," Lewis said. "Some mornings I walk down by the shore, where the geese and ducks are all lined up. When they take off I can hear their wings moving in the air. There aren't too many places left that are quiet enough to experience that."
The Jug Bay Natural Area, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is a 2,000-acre oasis for wildlife and humans alike-one of 12 properties that make up the larger 7,000-acre Patuxent River Park on the river's western shore.
The park is roughly 15 miles from the Washington Beltway, but urban congestion couldn't seem more distant. And while the view from the visitors center is stunning, the park provides lots of choices for a more direct experience with woods, water and the history of southern Maryland.
A pontoon boat travels the river and wetlands between April and October with guided tours that highlight the ecology of the area and history of the landscape. Visitors can also launch their own boats or rent canoes and kayaks on site, ideal for exploring the shallow wetlands. Beyond the central river channel, most of the 350 watery acres are less than a few feet deep.
Guided birding trips and nature hikes are available year-round, drawing on more than 8 miles of woodland trails that are open for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Two popular fishing areas offer good tidal fishing all year. Bow-hunting is permitted during deer season, and a limited number of waterfowl blinds are leased to hunters on a seasonal basis. Primitive campgrounds are available for groups.
Lewis hopes that park visitors will develop a new sense of stewardship. "We hope people will begin to realize the value of preserving and protecting open space lands like this, and that it's really a quality of life issue for all of us."
Two areas of the park emphasize the ties between humans and this wet, winding portion of the Chesapeake Bay region.
The first is a collection of five rustic buildings that form The Patuxent Rural Life Museums.
"The economy of southern Maryland was built on the Patuxent River," Lewis said. "It was the engine that drove everything that happened along the river-founding a seat of government, producing goods and developing trade."
This economic bustle was also grounded in tobacco. The Tobacco Farming Museum showcases an enormous, century-old "tobacco prize," which was used to pack tobacco leaves into wooden barrels as tightly as possible. The barrels, called hogsheads, could weigh 500-700 pounds when full.
Exhibits also reveal the seasonal cycle of planting, harvesting, drying and stripping the plants, as well as the changing social response to tobacco.
During colonial and early American history, much of the farm labor depended on enslaved Africans and African-Americans. The log home of Charles Duckett, an ex-slave and Civil War veteran, is a rare example of an 1880s tenant house originally located on a farm in Prince Georges County.
Duckett probably built the small, two-story home himself. The chimney has an obvious outward lean. But that's deliberate, and so is the pole that supports it. In case of a chimney fire, the pole could be removed and the chimney could topple safely away from the home's chestnut walls.
The crisp white "Sears house" is another unusual example of rural housing. This three-room house literally came in the mail, as a do-it-yourself kit ordered from a Sears & Roebuck catalog. Lowe Steed bought the house from Sears in 1923 for $400 (outhouses cost another $40 each) and lived there with his family during the Depression. Sears, Montgomery Ward and other companies sold thousands of homes this way during the first half of the 20th century, some of them quite elaborate.
The blacksmith shop and W. Henry Duvall Tool Museum showcase the tools, gadgets and equipment used by people to work their land and their kitchens. The Duvall collection includes more than 1,000 19th-century tools and artifacts from southern Maryland, including farms adjacent to the park. The portable chair and drill of the region's "horse and buggy" dentist might inspire some gratitude for modern dental care.
Museum docents help visitors with a guessing game at a table of unlabeled tools that were used for measuring, cooking, cutting and building. A few remain mysteries, even to park staff. Lewis believes that answers will eventually arrive at their door.
"Someone will walk in here and say, 'My grandfather had one of these in his barn.' And then we'll know exactly what it was for."
Another treat at the Jug Bay Natural Area is the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Tour.
This four-mile route is designed to highlight the natural resources of the Patuxent River, and demonstrate why Maryland's Critical Area Act provides special protections for land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters.
Interpretive signs mark features of the critical area, beginning along a paved road in the Jug Bay Natural Area, then crossing the marsh and continuing on a gravel road in the neighboring Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.
Nontidal wetlands, bluebird habitat and forest buffers are among the highlights. But the tour's show-stopper is the marsh crossing on a long plank bridge that hovers low over Mattaponi Creek with an observation tower at the midpoint.
"There's no better way to get right up close to see how spectacular these wetland habitats are, for their importance-but also just for their sheer beauty," Lewis said. "And during the fall, this place will be chock-full of wildlife."
Jug Bay Natural Area
Jug Bay Natural Area, which is a unit of the Patuxent River Park, is open 8 a.m. until dusk daily with seasonal adjustments. Admission is free, although reservations and special-use permits, available from the park office, are required. For the schedule of river tours, nature hikes and birding trips, call 301- 627-6074 (301-699-2544 TTY).
- The Patuxent Rural Life Museums, which are located on park grounds, are open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, April through October. Group tours are available by reservation throughout the year. Admission to the museums is free.
- The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Tour is open daily for hiking, cycling and horseback riding; driving is only permitted on Sundays. Horses are not permitted on the marsh bridge. September through December, access to the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary is restricted.
- Directions: Take MD Route 301 to Croom Station Road. Follow Croom Station Road 1.6 miles, then turn left onto Croom Road (Route 382). Proceed 1.5 miles. Turn left onto Croom Airport Road. Continue 2 miles, then turn left into the park driveway.
For information about Jug Bay Natural Area, visit www.pgparks.com/places/parks/jugbay.html or call 301-627-6074 (301-699-2544 TTY). For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
(Please note, those not familiar with the area often confuse Jug Bay Natural Area with Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, which is on the other side of the river. To learn more about the sanctuary, see "Jug Bay Sanctuary's walk on the wild side only a few miles from major cities," February 2007.)