Bay Journal


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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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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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...

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...

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...

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...

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...


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