This time of year brings out the best in our Chesapeake landscapes - the redbud, the Appalachian spring, the great forests of mixed hardwoods shifting from budding in pastel versions of fall colors to the brilliant early greens, the sprouting grasses in the shallows, the fields of winter wheat coloring up like pieces of Ireland - it is almost too much to all happen in one small corner of the world. And I have been fortunate this year to have my travels take me to a number of the most special places around the Bay.
A few weeks ago, I was part of group of state, local and tribal officials visiting the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia to dedicate the most recent upgrade of their shad hatchery. It has been in operation since 1918, and serves as a major source of shad fry to the James, the Susquehanna and other Bay rivers.
The reservation itself predates the United States, having been established by treaty with the King of England in the 1600s. The river there is so clean and pure that it still supports a natural spawn of the shad, which the Pamunkey use to feed their state-of-the-art hatchery.
After the ceremony, we were invited out on this remarkable river. I asked a simple question about how the boat was fueled, and learned that the nearest marina is eight hours away, in Yorktown.
Between us and there are four hours of meanders down to West Point, where the Pamunkey joins the Mattaponi to form the York, then four more hours on the York. There are a couple of boat ramps, but not much else; and to the north a railroad bridge prevents all passage. If you get to West Point and want to go up the Mattaponi and your boat is more than 7 feet tall, you need to call the Virginia Department of Transportation 24 hours in advance and show up an hour in advance, while they get together a crew to crank up the bridge. You can then pass through, head upriver past the Mattaponi Indian Reservation, and on to Walkerton, home of the highest tidal range on the Chesapeake - up to 4 feet.
In other words, we are talking remote. Out on the sweeping curves of the Pamunkey, with low banks on the outside, and endless wetlands on the inside, you could just as easily be in the Paraguayan Pantanal or the Siberian taiga, as an hour from downtown Richmond. It is a very special place that needs some special efforts to protect it. Even now, the lands between these two tidal rivers are slated to be made into a reservoir for Newport News, an action which seems to be based more on perceived political clout than on a realistic assessment of water needs.
Another time, another place. It's a few weeks later on a Saturday that I am spending on the Bay with a TV film crew from Beijing. We have headed over to the Eastern Shore and are moving up the Wye River. On one side are state-owned wildlife areas and farms with a natural shoreline of sand and grasses and wetlands with snags of fallen trees - a garden of delight for birds and other wildlife. On the other side is a relentless lineup of hardened shoreline, with bulkheads and rip rap and other barriers at the water's edge. Behind these rise up the heavily fertilized lawns and gardens surrounding the houses, many of them pretentious McMansions built by people who somehow never got the message about living lightly on the land.
Of course, there's no doubt where the sentiments of the film crew lie. While I am trying to point out the virtues of natural shorelines and riparian buffers on one side of the boat, they are on the other side shooting what to them and to their viewers back home must be some form of paradise. Through the language and cultural barriers, I can see the failure of my efforts to point out mile upon mile of sterilized shoreline, devoid of trees or of any interaction of land and water - we're having no better luck educating these folks than we've had with the inhabitants of the bulkheaded McMansions they are filming to take back with them.
The shocker is how much of this kind of development along the shoreline is new and is still being allowed in the '90s, and particularly in the State of Maryland, with its Critical Areas Act and Forest Protection Act and Smart Growth initiatives. No state in the region has enacted more laws to protect lands and waters, yet where are the results? If you ask further, you get a set of murky answers. A lot of the explanation involves lands which were "grandfathered" by the new laws, but there are also matters of loose interpretation and enforcement by the state and local authorities.
In more ways than one, it isn't a pretty picture. It seems that "Grandfather" is killing the Bay, and there are evidently a lot of folks willing to supply him with fresh ammunition. The Wye is another special place, but things have gone wrong, badly wrong. Another change of venue: It is Easter Sunday and we are on a family hike along the Potomac, on a remarkable trail I only recently discovered. We are not in some remote part of West Virginia, but right outside the nation's capital. While thousands are using the towpath and the bike trails on the other side of the River, we encounter maybe a dozen others during our 4-mile walk on the Virginia side, hiking the Potomac Heritage Trail.
It is a virtually unknown wonderland. Leaving the Roosevelt Island parking area, we hike under Key Bridge and along the George Washington Parkway for about half a mile - hardly a wilderness experience. But then the Parkway heads up to the top of the cliffs, and the path leads down along the river. Leaving the sound of traffic behind, we enter an almost magical world - a series of rock amphitheaters of almost Western proportions, carved into the cliffs by the river over eons. There are massive trees, rushing streams to cross, and waterfalls starting hundreds of feet over our heads.
But best of all are the wildflowers. Whether it is the soils, the occasional flooding, the amount of shade or something else, conditions are obviously ideal for a spring display beyond belief. Banks and banks of Virginia bluebells, wood phlox, Dutchman's breeches, squirrel corn, jack-in-the-pulpits and more, going on literally for miles. It couldn't have been planted to look any better. And here we are - in the center of a metropolitan area of 3.5 million people - and hardly anyone else around. I don't need a McMansion on the Wye. And I frankly don't understand why, when there are places like the Potomac Heritage Trail, anyone else does.