Longtime residents of Riverton, Md. - the ones that still remember the old post office torn away in an ice storm decades ago - will tell you that the Nanticoke used to be more pristine. Even so, it is still one of the most unspoiled rivers in the Chesapeake Bay area. And early summer is a terrific time to explore the Nanticoke and nearby attractions.

The Nanticoke flows southwest from central Delaware, through Maryland's Eastern Shore, dividing Wicomico and Dorchester County, to Tangier Sound. It drains one-third of Delaware - approximately 250,000 acres - and more than 125,000 acres in the Maryland counties.

What makes the Nanticoke stand out among the hundreds of rivers that drain the Bay's 64,000-square mile watershed? Ask bird watchers, canoeists, kayakers, sailors, fishermen, or anyone who likes to poke around small, Eastern Shore towns.

The Nanticoke is bursting its banks with wildlife - especially birds. Osprey, falcons, eagles, ducks, heron, kingfisher. You name it and you'll probably see it. On a short paddle up the river from Riverton and into Big Creek, you'll be in the vicinity of fox, deer, turtles, snakes, raccoon, muskrat, nutria, beaver and a few exotic-looking spiders, especially in the low-hanging trees.

The river is also a fisherman's paradise. Anglers can catch white and yellow perch, pickerel, largemouth bass, catfish, sea trout, bluefish, weakfish and the Bay's famous striped bass, especially when these giants wend their way past Riverton up toward the three creeks - Deep, Broad and Marshyhope - to spawn in May.

"We hear them at night," said Riverton resident Lisa Jo Frech. "Especially some of the big females - which can weigh 125 pounds or more - as they thrash around trying to attract a male. They're so big that it sounds just like someone's dropping huge cement blocks into the river at night."

The marshes and creeks are excellent areas for paddling. Highlights include Chicone Creek, a wooded, easy paddle that passes through a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy and ends at the Vienna Bridge.

Barren Creek is nice if you're interested in something in the 6-mile range. Wicomico County creeks, Wetipquin, Quantico, and Resastico also offer good paddling and scenery.

Unbroken forests border the vast marsh that surrounds the Nanticoke and provide natural protection by filtering out pollutants before they can leach into the river. Nearly all of the major streams are bordered by freshwater wetlands, which account for 22 percent of the land surface, according to an Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay fact sheet. Some of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees on the Atlantic Coast are also in the watershed.

And the area around the Nanticoke will stay that way if local residents have their way. Frech, the executive director for the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, received a Conservation Hero of America Award in late May from the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service for her dedication. She has paddled the waters, survived thunderstorms in duck blinds, seen much of wildlife the area has to offer and she still can't get enough of it.

"Rivers like this are too few and far between," she explained, sitting on her front porch in Riverton. "It's no accident these days to find a river like this. You have to work extremely hard to keep things the way they are, let alone make any changes."

At present, the watershed is mostly rural, with much of the growth and development taking place in existing towns, especially around Seaford, Del. About 43 percent of the watershed is agricultural and about 300,000 acres are managed for forest products.

There is also a growing interest in conservation and stewardship by local business and industry. For instance, Delmarva Power, under its Serving & Conserving Delmarva program, runs a successful fish restoration program at its Vienna plant.

Since 1985, power plant employees have volunteered their time to help raise young rockfish at the plant until they are ready to be released in the river or Bay. Between 1985 and 1994, more than 240,000 rockfish were released through this program. Another 10,000 fry will be released in 1996. The utility, in cooperation with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, added American shad to its fish project in 1995. A collection effort resulted in the safe capture and tagging of 8,500 shad fry that were released into the river.

There is more to the Nanticoke than its natural attractions. Culture and history are also present, with a number of properties within its watershed listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of these sites is the birthplace of African American heroine Harriet Tubman, which is located in Cambridge, about 60 miles east of the Bay Bridge on U.S. Route 50. Your stop in Cambridge should also include the famous bird watchers' paradise, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

If you like the kind of birds that grace beer bottle labels then you may want to look up the Wild Goose Brewery, also headquartered in Cambridge.

After Cambridge, en route to Vienna 16 miles south, the scenery changes rapidly from shopping malls to the marshes and wetlands that make up almost 40 percent of Dorchester County.

As you enter Vienna on state Route 331 south, a historic marker reminds visitors that Unnacokossimmon, Emperor to the Nanticoke Indians, was the ruler in the region in 1677.

Once in Vienna, take a left onto Ocean Gateway and find a bite to eat at Lebo's Deli or the Nanticoke Inn. If you continue on Route 331 south, you'll see a small sign that points the way to Elliott Island, located at the tip of the peninsula, about 20 miles southeast of Vienna. The drive will take you through Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, which offers mile after mile of marshes and wetlands. Keep your eyes open for bald eagles here.

In late April, Vienna hosts a shad festival. One of the highlights is traditional shad planking - nailing the shad to planks and cooking them over a fire. There are also canoe and kayak races.Travel north into Delaware if you want to check out the land and headwaters of the Nanticoke. A visit to Redden State Forest, located off U.S. Route 113, north of Georgetown, Del., and the Trussum Pond Cypress Swamp are good destinations.

South of Seaford, on state Route 517, is the town of Woodland, home of a 200-year-old ferry. The ferry's free and, if it happens to break down while you're on it, you get a couple of free rides. Not a bad deal in this day and age.

Seven tug boats also work the Nanticoke, delivering barge after barge of home heating oil, grain and gravel from the mouth of the river at Tangier Sound, northeast to Seaford. They travel all hours of the day and night, seven days a week.

 The importance of protecting the area has not been lost on the states. Delaware awarded the Nanticoke an "ERES" (exceptional recreational and ecological resource) designation. In Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources has identified the upper Nanticoke and three of its tributaries - Chicone Creek, Mill Creek and Savannah Lake - as Natural Heritage Areas.

"We all have to use vision," Frech said. "We have to go out of our way to protect what we've got." And if you visit there, you'll know why.