The September 1999 issue of the Bay Journal greeted me a month or two after my return from a week’s vacation canoeing the tiny rivers of the Delmarva Peninsula and camping in its state parks. This edition had a lot to consider: news about the drought, TMDLs and Chesapeake oyster populations, to name a few.
But being out there, in the midst of the Chesapeake watershed, gives one a different perspective. That perspective is a lot less global, much more immediate and definitely more sensory. And, there’s plenty of time to contemplate the health of Chesapeake tributaries from the woven cane seat of a canoe.
Each year in late May or early June, I load my canoe and set out for a peripatetic week on the Shore. Even so, I tend to visit the same places every year: Nassawango Creek, the upper Pocomoke, Hitch Pond Branch, Tuckahoe Creek. They are the best of the Delmarva, in my opinion: shady, cool, wet, quiet, rarely visited and full of wildlife.
I suppose I go to reaffirm my connection to the land and its waters, to reassure myself that the progression of seasons has indeed swung full circle yet again.
I look for certain signs, events or places that past experience has etched on my memory: the flash of prothonotary gold as a warbler flits across the creek; the wonderful scent of sweetbay magnolia flowers just opening in the morning coolness; the basso thrumming of a bullfrog at dusk.
Much remains the same, I am pleased to report, but a few things are different. On Hitch Pond Branch, the cathedral of bald cypress still arches over the chancel of the river, swollen trunks rising like buttresses from the mud. But in this year of drought, the river is low, and I drag my canoe over exposed logs and gravel bars.
Rainfall varies naturally, but the problem on Tuckahoe Creek is human-induced: A rainbow slick of diesel oil coats the river’s surface. Frogs, with their permeable skin, have fled the river for the coolness of riparian mud and grassy cover.
On the Pocomoke, Maryland’s own highly controversial and possibly endangered river, the water is an opaque orange-brown. Sunlight penetrates only an inch or two through the soup of microscopic algae that now fills the river. Where aquatic plants once waved in the current, the river now flows over empty, mud-covered gravels.
What has changed in the Pocomoke watershed in the five years since I last paddled the river? Primarily one thing: the amount of chicken waste, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, disposed of on nearby farmlands as fertilizer. A number of fields in the Pocomoke watershed already hold as much phosphorus as the soil is able, and the excess nutrients run off into the local surface water and leach into groundwater.
Fueled by this excess of nitrogen and phosphorus, blooms of microalgae have taken over the Pocomoke. Downstream, these algae may have contributed to the decline of submerged aquatic vegetation in Tangier Sound and even the emergence of the toxic dinoflagellate Pfiesteria.
It is one thing to read about these water quality problems, but quite another to experience them firsthand. To watch the swirl of algae as a canoe paddle passes through, to wade over now-unseen logs in the muddy riverbed, is a sensory experience that is immediate and real. The sense of something precious lost is palpable, the need to improve the situation is urgent.
Which brings me to my final point. If we are to create consensus in our society about how to “Save the Bay,” every citizen must become a more fully invested stakeholder. That means to get out and experience the Chesapeake watershed: Sail its open water, walk over the rocky bones of the land, slog through a marsh, watch the sunset from a high ridge, canoe a Piedmont river.
Feel it, hear it, taste it, know it in your gut and in your heart of hearts. Advocacy requires facts, but advocates need passion.
The good news is that when you get out there, you’ll find that all is not gloom and doom. The Bay is still a vital, wondrous place. Witness the endless stretch of sea and sky across a dawn salt marsh, listen for the flute of a wood thrush calling at dusk, taste the salt tang of a fresh-caught oyster, feel the tickle of tiny fish nibbling at your toes.
These and other such experiences are the best of the Chesapeake. They are our heritage, and it is our responsibility to ensure that our children, and their children, inherit a Chesapeake as rich, as diverse, as resilient, as have we.