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Old Wye Grist Mill still grinding after all these years

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It was 1682, the year that Delaware and Philadelphia were founded, and the year that French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle canoed into the lower Mississippi River basin, claimed the land for his king (Louis XIV), named it accordingly (Louisiana).

It was also the year that a new grist mill was built at the end of a 50-acre pond on what is now the upper Wye East River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And that is where I found myself on a mild, late winter day for a preseason tour of that very mill — a mere 337 years later.

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White Horse Mountain worth the millions paid to protect it

Hugging the slow s-curves of road winding into a mountainous sliver of West Virginia’s Hampshire County, I remembered why they call this portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed “wild” — and why clean water advocates were desperate to keep it that way.

I was headed to White Horse Mountain, an almost entirely tree-covered heap of rocky hills hugging and draining into the South Branch of the Potomac River. It’s one of the largest undeveloped forestlands remaining in the region, home to rare wildflowers and habitats, hike-worthy vistas and the occasional bobcat or black bear. 

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Tiptoe through the trilliums at Thompson WMA

It was late spring last year when I got the tip: For a spectacular showcase of wildflowers, head to the G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Management Area in Fauquier County, VA.

And so I did, hoping to glimpse the blooms that make this tract of land a prime springtime destination for native plant lovers.

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Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse illuminates life in a screwpile

For a number of reasons, all of which are profoundly uninteresting, in 30-some years of exploring and writing about the Chesapeake, I had until recently visited only three of Maryland’s four surviving “screwpile” lighthouses:

Thomas Point Light near Annapolis, check; Drum Point Light on Solomons Island, check; Hooper Straight Light in St. Michaels, check.

But the oldest of them all, the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse now residing at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor? Nope.

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Snow geese extravaganza hits home

When birdwatchers flock to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore this winter, they are likely to witness one of the most dramatic sights nature has to offer in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Snow geese will gather by the thousands in marshes and farm fields and on the water. Then, it will happen: an explosion of noise and color as the birds honk in unison and dart into the air at once.

“If you’ve seen them in a large flock in an agricultural field, they fly in unison like blackbirds do. When they’re swirling and shimmering on a field, it’s an amazing sight to see, a pretty large group of birds working together like that,” said Josh Homyack, waterfowl program manager for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

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Otsego Lake only a glimmer of great Susquehanna to come

The Susquehanna River starts its 444-mile journey as a lazy creek in Cooperstown, NY. It begins as an outflow from Otsego Lake, where its southern tip abuts the town.

It then flows slowly under the Main Street Bridge before rounding a bend toward downstream destinations — farms, towns and cities in central New York and Pennsylvania — and ultimately reaching the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Looking eastward from the bridge — minutes away from the world-famous National Baseball Hall of Fame — you can see the first few 100 feet of that narrow slip of water with the lake and distant mountains as backdrop. It’s a lovely postcard scene.

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‘Dig a little deeper’ at the Norfolk Botanical Garden

At Norfolk Botanical Garden, everything is just so. Horticulturalists deadhead roses in the summer to ensure visitors encounter a perfume-filled, technicolor display in the fall. Azaleas are arrayed for maximum visual pop in the spring.

Even the wildflower meadow is meticulously combed for undesirable upstarts.

This oasis of beauty is perched on a 175-acre peninsula in Virginia, less than 3 miles from the Chesapeake Bay. But what statements can such a manicured place make about the nature of this southernmost loop of the Bay’s watershed?

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Western Maryland railroad turns on charm at every bend

I’ve always been fascinated by the influence of topography on where humans have decided to set up camp over the millennia.

Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, as recently as a few centuries ago, settlements in coastal areas were all about water: The best place to live was along a navigable river or creek, so that canoes and rafts and boats and ships could bring you stuff and people, or take away stuff and people.

Farther west in the Appalachian Mountains, though, waterborne transportation is less workable.

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Devil’s Marbleyard tempts hikers with rocky challenge

After a mile of increasingly pitched hiking through a dense forest, a strange scene unfolded. Quartzite boulders, ranging in size from La-Z-Boy recliners to school buses, reared up, blazing away in the sun. The absence of green was matched only by the audacity of white and its kindred tints: alabaster, ash, gray.

The well-tended trail continued upward, following the rim of woods along the outcropping’s flank. But I didn’t come all this way to take the path of least resistance. I came to explore one of the East Coast’s singular hiking experiences: the Devil’s Marbleyard, a rock slide of epic proportions and views.

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C&D museum sure to float the boat of any canal lover

The year was 1829, and the news was big — big enough to be trumpeted on a broadside that exercised all of the exaggerated fonts and eye-grabbing capitalization of the day:

“Notice is hereby given,” it stated, “that this CANAL is NOW OPEN FOR NAVIGATION ... The rates of Toll have been fixed so low, as to make this the CHEAPEST as well as the most EXPEDITIOUS and Safe channel of communication, between the waters of the Chesapeake and Delaware."

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Pleasant Grove Park a connection to nature, the past

In the small central Virginia county of Fluvanna, a triangle of historic farm and forest is wedged between the Rivanna River and Virginia Highway 53, just 20 miles southeast of Charlottesville.

At the western end stands a three-story story brick house, built in 1854 by Col. William Haden where he raised 12 children and managed a plantation of approximately 3,000 acres. In those days, the river connected the Haden family to the world — and markets — beyond their home.

Today, 830 acres of the original Haden land have become Pleasant Grove Park, named after the original plantation, connecting visitors from near and far to the river, local history and the natural world.

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Onancock paddle weaves nature, history with every stroke

Four and a half miles from its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay, Onancock Creek diverges in three directions. In 1680, settlers transformed the banks of this branching stream into the town of Onancock.

The community on Virginia’s Eastern Shore has borne witness to more than 300 years of U.S. history, a narrative recorded in its antebellum homes, sprawling cornfields and ever busy wharf.

Despite its deep harbor, Onancock was never destined for the types of development — seen in port cities like Baltimore and Norfolk — that have all but banished nature from the landscape.

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Travel: Archives

A cabin waits for you along the Appalachian Trail

For years, my friend Alison has been telling me, “You’ve gotta rent a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabin! You’ll love it!” So here we were, my husband and I, on a late winter afternoon so dank and foggy we could...

Thomas Point a beacon for mariners, historians alike

I once heard the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse described as a Victorian rendition of a lunar landing module. It’s an absurd image that stuck with me, not just for its succinct visual depiction of the structure — a white,...

Montpelier’s ‘Landmark Forest’ rooted in history

Horticulturist Sandy Mudrinich paused at the edge of the forest that rises behind Montpelier, the historic home of President James Madison, nestled in Orange, VA. Before leading a group of visitors farther up the hill, Mudrinich invited them...

London Town and Gardens rising from its roots

It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I worked in Annapolis for nearly 20 years — and lived there much of that time — but never once visited Historic London Town and Gardens in nearby Edgewater, about three miles away on the...

Gorge-ous! Goshen Pass offers scenery, solitude

In the annals of Virginia whitewater paddling, the Maury River at Goshen Pass has earned a reputation. The five-mile stretch of river, a tributary to the James River in mountainous western Virginia, can be a bruising paddle even if...

‘Forgotten’ Nassawango returns to its natural state

We seem to be alone under the canopies of bald cypress and black gum. Hawks soar overhead. Leaves on the rose bushes rustle. Remnants of a beaver lodge hide among the brambles. An old truck, possibly from the 1950s, sits rusting on the...

C&O Canal quarters are locked in a time warp

As I clawed my way west on the traffic-jammed outer loop of the Washington Beltway, it occurred to me that I should have scheduled my tour of the C&O Canal’s Lockhouse 10 at noon or so. Not at 10 a.m., which, in this neck of the...

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