Only minutes away from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, it’s possible to take a hike through ancient woods among endangered species and have the air filled with the honking of Canada geese — not car horns.
The Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore provides a haven not only for wildlife, but also urban dwellers seeking solitude on a Bayside area little more than an hour from the crowded metro areas of Baltimore and the District of Columbia.
The island, almost all of which is owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, offers more than 30 miles of shoreline and 12 miles of hiking trails spread over about 2,550 acres.
Among the acreage is the largest remaining tract of old growth forest on the Eastern Shore — more than 20 acres of an oak-hickory forest preserved in Schoolhouse Woods, named for a one-room school that once stood nearby. “There are probably trees in there that are 300 years, plus,” said Dave Davis, manager of the resource area.
Within the forests, visitors may also catch a glimpse of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, the only endangered mammal in Maryland. Once common on the Eastern shore, the larger, slower cousin of the gray squirrel has lost much of its woodland habitat in the region.
Not that long ago, it might have lost this refuge as well. In the mid-1970s, a residential development was planned for Wye Island, which is located between two tidal rivers, the Wye and Wye East. To protect the site, an important resting area for many types of waterfowl, the state stepped in and purchased almost all of the 2,800-acre island in 1976.
That kept the island the way it had been for centuries: a rural landscape covered with a mix of forest and agricultural land.
For more than 300 years, the land was privately owned, and managed mainly for agriculture. Among the past owners was William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Maryland governor from 1782-84.
As a reminder of its agricultural past, roughly half of the state’s holdings are still leased for farming. Some of the grains are left on the fields for the winter to help support Canada geese and other wildlife, as happened when the land was privately owned.
A reminder of the agricultural past is found on the Ferry Landing Trail and the Osage Trail Loop. The trail passes through a tunnel formed by the limbs of old osage trees. The trees were brought here from western states and planted more than a century ago to create hedgerows. Their large, softball-size seed pods provide food for wildlife.
Another surprise hidden in the woodlands is an ancient holly, nearly 300 years old, found along the Holly Tree Trail.
The purchase preserved not only the natural and cultural legacy of the island, but also kept intact 30 miles of undisturbed shoreline and adjacent tidal wetlands that support an abundance of waterfowl and other wildlife. “The major reason the area was purchased was as a waterfowl resting area,” Davis said.
Canada geese and a variety of ducks winter along the shoreline of the island — and are a major draw for birders from the fall through the spring. the most popular time for visitors the management area, Davis said.
The island’s main road offers numerous pull-offs with scenic views of the shoreline and waterfowl. Some of the best waterfowl sighting, though is from the water. Paddlers on the Wye East and Wye rivers are treated to spectacular views of the island and its wildlife. Paddlers must launch from public landings on the mainland in Talbot and Queen Annes’s counties. Several soft landing areas allow canoeists to go ashore and hike the land trails.
On shore, the woodlands are filled with deer, woodpeckers and — especially during the summer — a variety of songbirds. Bald eagles and osprey nesting on trees along the shore can sometimes be seen making spectacular dives for fish.
The island remains rustic in character, and the management area offers few facilities outside of a picnic area and restrooms. But then, that lack of development is part of this waterside jewel’s charm for people seeking a getaway from the more frantic pace found only a few miles down the road.
From the Bay Bridge, travel 12.5 miles east on Route 50. Turn right on Carmichael Road, and travel 5.1 miles and cross the Wye Island Bridge. Follow signs to the NRMA office or parking areas. There are no fees to visit the management area. For information, call the management area at 410-827-7577 or visit www.dnr.state.md.