Wye Island in Queen Anne’s County, MD, is one of my favorite places in the world. In the mid-1970s, this beautiful place was nearly lost to the public. Plans to turn the island into a housing development failed to come to fruition because the state purchased the land with Program Open Space funds and turned the island into a Natural Resources Management Area.
This 2,800-acre island provides access to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s an incredible place to explore by land and by water. Wye Island provides habitat for the Delmarva fox squirrel, which until recently was on the endangered species list. A diversity of birds also visit the island, including warblers, bluebirds and vireos, which are seen in the spring and early summer months. Flocks of waterfowl attract hunters in the fall and winter. It has more than 12 miles of hiking trails, with opportunities for hikers of any level.
Ferry Point Trail at the east end of the island is like something out of a movie. Most of this idyllic trail is lined with old Osage orange trees. Though not native to the East Coast, these trees have grown over top of the trail to create a stunningly beautiful vegetative tunnel. When planted close together, Osage orange trees can create natural fences. They also produce strange, tropical-looking — but inedible — fruit the size of softballs, which litter the trail. At the end of the trail, you’ll find a sandy beach with a rope swing, picnic table and rustic bathroom.
Wye Island is also wonderful because of the beautiful and relatively clear water of the Wye River. Unfortunately, public access for paddlers is extremely limited. I know this from first-hand experience!
Two years ago, my wife and I loaded our kayaks onto the car and drove across the Bay Bridge to Wye Island. We parked and launched from the dock owned by the Department of Natural Resources and enjoyed a day paddling around the island, seeing all that it has to offer. When we arrived back at the dock, we learned that it was not open to the public and we were asked to leave immediately.
Because the only suitable place to launch boats on Wye Island isn’t available for public use, I decided to work to create better public access for paddlers. I’m proud to say that the Chesapeake Conservancy is working with Maryland DNR and the Maryland State Highway Administration’s National Recreational Trails Program to improve options for kayakers and provide amenities such as a small parking area, roadway and signage. We hope to have this project completed early in 2017.
Public water access on Wye Island is an example of a larger issue facing the Chesapeake Bay region. The watershed has nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline, but only 2 percent of it is publicly accessible. If people can’t access the shoreline, we can’t ignite their passion to become environmental stewards of their favorite places.
The Conservancy is dedicated to working with partners such as the National Park Service to create, improve and promote public access to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. These efforts strive to fill in the gaps identified in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Public Access Plan. This plan emerged as a way to reach the goal put forth in the President’s Executive Order to add 300 new public access sites across the watershed by 2025.
This year marks the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail and the 100th year of the National Park Service. I believe that the Chesapeake and the John Smith Chesapeake Trail are as beautiful and precious to our nation as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite. I hope that you and your family take time to go outside and explore the parks and special places in the Chesapeake Bay region. To discover great destinations, visit our joint website with the National Park Service at FindYourChesapeake.com. You can also sign up for our e-newsletter, Trips & Tips, at chesapeakeconservancy.org.
To learn more about Wye Island’s history, I recommend reading Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders and Change in a Chesapeake Community, by Boyd Gibbons.