Saturday, October 3, 2009

We Begin: Chance Meetings on Chesapeake Bay

On Monday, September 29, we began our east-to-west crossing of the United States at the Atlantic Ocean and Assateague Island. Tonight is our first chance to get online. The connections we had arranged at Chincoteague Island, Smith Island, the Rappahannock River and Mattawoman Creek all worked wonderfully, but the theme has been unexpected coincidences and encounters.
At the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, biologist Joelle Buffa explained refuge management and, with volunteer historian Myrna Cherrix, we climbed 7 flights of the circular staircase to the top of the Assateague lighthouse for views of the barrier island and nearby Chincoteague Island. "Wild" ponies swim between the two islands each July so that young can be auctioned...a way to control the population which has no predators on the island.
Joelle invited us to spend the night at her home nearby, where she and her husband Clyde live exactly on the 38 degree line. Clyde retired after many years directing the Don Edwards NWR in San Francisco Bay, and Joelle had been in charge of the Farallones Islands in those years. Lots of mutual west coast birder and environmentalist friends among us.
On the 30th we took the ferry to Smith Island, 10 miles out into Chesapeake Bay, again right on the 38th parallel. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation runs an Education Center there, and that day a high school class from Clarke County, VA was going out on a CBF boat to drag the bottom of the bay and learn about the living creatures pulled up, to, as their teacher's explained, help those farm kids from west of Washington DC understand how agricultural practices within the greater watershed affect nutrient and sediment deposition and so the bay ecosystem. Sort of a reverse of the strategy of bringing kids from Los Angeles to the Mono Lake Basin, to understand how their actions in the distant city affect the upper end of their watershed. The students also pulled up 17 crab pots they'd put out the day before and brought in dozens of blue crabs...for their dinner that night. The environmental education coordinator is Krispen Parke, who told us, first thing, that her parents are named Janet and Dave.
As we waited for the return ferry, we met author Tom Horton, who wrote about his years living on Smith Island raising his family in the book Island Out of Time. He has not lived there for years, but happened to be there with another high school group...another fortuitous coincidence for us, as we had both read his book before the trip.
Joelle and Clyde suggested that, on our drive south to loop around the end of the Bay, we stop and see the hawk surveying and songbird banding going on near the end of the peninsula, where migratory birds are funneled toward the point of land before making the long water crossing at the mouth of the Bay. The research has been going on for decades, carried on by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, with many volunteers working with the staff.
Looping around the south end of Bay we came back to the 38 degree region at Fredericksburg, where we visited the Friends of the Rappahanock River. Their director, John Tippett, took us on a short walk to the river's edge to see where Embrey Dam had been removed in 2004. The dam, built for hydroelectric generation and water supply to the city, had lost its usefulness due to sedimentation and another way of capturing domestic water farther upstream. John was eloquent about how moving it has been to see the once dammed water flowing again. Anadromous fish (types of herring, shad, alewife, and striped bass) can reach their spawning grounds again. The organization has also had successes at protecting the city ownership of river-front lands on the entire watershed and, as we heard time-and-again, is fighting the major battle of never-ending developmental sprawl: as the percentage of land made impervious to drainage grows past 10%, the nutrient and sediment run-off issues drastically reduce biological health in the Bay.
Yesterday, Friday, October 2, we were at Mattawoman Creek (camping at Smallwood State Park). Our contacts with the Mattwoman Watershed Society, Jim Long and Bonnie Bick (who also runs the local Sierra Club's campaign on this issue) suggested we rent kayaks and join them on the Creek. This watershed is threatened by development (a familiar story now) coming to a crisis point due to a major highway "improvement" proposal in the upper watershed that will itself harden lots of land, but also serve sprawl. For these reasons, the Mattawoman is listed number 4 on the American Rivers Organizations annual listing of America's most threatened rivers. (This year, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system is number 1 on the list). We learned a lot during the kayak trip, and on our return, another rather amazing coincidence happened: the national board of directors meeting for American Rivers was happening this week, and they had a large group ready to go out in kayaks as we landed. (In that group was Jeffrey Mount, author of the U.C. Press book California Rivers and Streams...we had not met before; amazing to have that happen so far from home).
Today was our VIRGINIA PRESIDENTS ON THE LINE day, as we encountered and/or visited the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, James Madison's Montpelier home, James Monroe's birthplace in Fredericksburg, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home (they have a great new visitor center and helpful guides like Mimi Almy), and tonight we are in Staunton, VA, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson.
Tomorrow-- almost heaven, WEST VIRGINIA!


  1. Ecology everywhere. Traveling mercies.

  2. Thanks for sharing your travels with us.