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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, six-sided, lapped-board cottage perched on spidery iron legs in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay — but also for the sense of vulnerability and isolation it evokes.

Indeed, there must be parallels between landing on the moon and spending weeks at a time encapsulated in a tiny shelter surrounded by a vast, inhospitable environment. That was the reality of life for a succession of lighthouse keepers who tended it for 111 years.

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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 to look across the valley of pastures and forests spreading west for 30 miles to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“This is pretty much what Madison would have seen back in the early 1800s when he brought his wife, Dolly, and young family to live here,” she said.

The group had come to view “the Big Woods,” the 200-acre forest at Montpelier that has been relatively undisturbed since Madison’s time.

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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 opposite shore of the South River.

Well, wait, that’s not exactly true. There was the time I was looking for a bar on Londontown Road, but drove past it and had to turn around where the road ends, which happens to be the entrance to Historic London Town. So there’s that.

It was fitting, therefore, that when I finally did manage to visit the Colonial era historic site, I was again looking for a bar. Don’t judge me; this time it was a historic bar — or rather the place where a bar once stood, and will soon stand again, in the 18th-century William Brown House.

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Wade into fun and get your feet wet at RiverPalooza

More than 6 million people live in the Potomac River watershed, but relatively few get the chance to wade into its waters on a regular basis.

That’s why the Potomac Riverkeeper Network started RiverPalooza, a two-month-long series of events giving residents of all backgrounds the opportunity to get on — and even in — the so-called Nation’s River, as well as its major tributary, the Shenandoah. 

Not to be confused with the many concerts and festivals that attach the word “palooza” to the name of the nearest waterway, almost all of the 12 events that make up this summer festival involve boating, fishing, wading — and even snorkeling — in the river.

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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 you’re very skilled and very lucky. In high water, it can be downright foolhardy. 

Experienced and knowledgeable paddlers nevertheless flock to Goshen when the river is up but, fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to experience the waterway and protected lands that surround it.

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‘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 water’s edge.

There is much to look at in a six-mile paddle through the Nassawango Creek Preserve, a 9,953-acre ecosystem on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. But what our group of five didn’t see during three hours of paddling its meandering path were other humans. We encountered no other paddlers and heard no footsteps. Even though the creek backed to some houses, no one was in the yards. We didn’t even hear a dog bark.

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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 woods, is still rush hour.

It also occurred to me that I never really knew there were lockhouses along the C&O Canal. As fascinated as I’ve always been with that remarkable and ill-fated waterway, my focus had always been on the ingenious locks themselves, not the people who operated them. Or the fact that they needed to live there. In houses. With their families.

But of course they did, and I was on my way to see one of those houses. Not just any lockhouse, mind you, but one of six that have been refurbished and furnished to accommodate overnight guests.

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Set sail to turn back in time at Spocott Windmill Village

Little known fact: On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, in the days before fossil fuel, there were dozens and dozens of wind-powered gristmills.

Maryland’s Dorchester County alone, by some accounts, had 20 of them. That makes sense when you think about it. The Eastern Shore, with hundreds of square miles of mostly pancake-flat topography, has little fast-moving water, but plenty of wind.

Today, none of the windmills remain, because … well, mostly because of wind. The last of Dorchester County’s windmills blew down in a hurricane in the very early 20th century.

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Waterfowl break winter silence at VA wildlife refuge

Laid bare of its sound-absorbing foliage, the forest of lanky hardwoods becomes a cacophony of sound. On this cool morning, the leaves crunch underfoot and rustle nearby as a squirrel digs for hidden treasure. 

The din of a waterfowl gathering in the Great Marsh, though still a hundred yards away, swells quickly as we walk toward the Potomac River through the woody peninsula. From a sturdy overlook, the geese, swans and ducks come into view. Their quacking, honking and flapping are all we can hear. 

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Catch the spring action at a vernal pool near you

The fields and forests of Gifford Pinchot State Park in southcentral Pennsylvania are still in winter dormancy, but not for long. You will actually hear the change. 

When the days are cold and short but the spring thaw draws near, the shrill call of spring peepers will announce that winter is over. The familiar sound, which signals spring for humans, is the peepers’ call for survival.

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Kayaking course helps paddlers get their feet wet

Have you ever wanted to kayak on the Chesapeake Bay, but didn’t know how or where to start? Here’s your chance. On March 10, the Chesapeake Paddlers Association is offering a one-day introduction to sea kayaking at a retreat center on the West River south of Annapolis. 

To the uninitiated, that term “sea kayaking” may sound daunting, evoking images of plowing through ocean swells, far from land. Nothing so daring, at least to start, said Rick Leader, the course’s organizer. Rather, this course is designed for beginners and occasional recreational paddlers who are interested in “taking a step up.”

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The past is alive in former mill town of Waterford, VA

On the outskirts of the sprawling suburbs to the nation’s capital, there’s a time machine of sorts that can transport you back a century or two. It’s a quaint village called Waterford.

You’ll find it preserved like a dragonfly in amber amid the cookie-cutter housing developments that are gradually consuming the rural remnants of Loudoun County, VA, one of the nation’s fastest-growing communities.

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Travel: Archives

Cove Mountain forests offer refuge for animals, people

From a distance, Cove Mountain looks like it floats on the Susquehanna River. Closer up, it’s a typical Pennsylvania red oak-dominated forest, with scattered lichen and moss-covered boulders, clear mountain streams and clearings...

Cumberland Marsh beckons birds and birders alike

Fall migration is an excellent time to spot a wide variety of birds, and identifying a few birding hotspots can help fledgling birders — as well as experienced ones — know where to go. During fall and well into winter, bird...

Imagine a flight from slavery on Woodlawn Manor trail

Dr. William Palmer married his second wife, Cleorah Duvall, shortly after moving to Woodlawn Manor in Sandy Spring, MD, in the mid-1820s. The marriage came with a dowry gift that would change his plantation’s future: its first slave....

Lower Chickahominy’s fish, wildlife lure visitors

The broad marshes along the wooded banks of the Chickahominy River in Virginia still evoke the landscape that English explorer Capt. John Smith first saw when he visited this area in 1607. And it is the same mix of forest, river and marsh...

Catoctin adventures invoke the (inner) child in visitors

In the 1980s and 1990s, my family and I lived at the very edge of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a mere five miles from the northern reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Walkersville, MD, just outside Frederick, we were close enough to a...

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