Bald cypress trees emerge from the water, their branches convoluted and their greenery draping, haunting and lush. Their structure is impressionistic, and somehow looks more like a painting than a photograph. The scene seems to belong in Louisiana, Mississippi or any other place you’d expect to find alligators, Cajun river monsters and Spanish moss…
But this is Delaware – Sussex County, home of the Great Cypress Swamp. This forest – the largest of its kind on the Delmarva Peninsula – forms the headwaters of the 73-mile-long Pocomoke River, the Chesapeake Bay’s easternmost tributary. With depths ranging from 7 to 45 feet and a width of less than 100 feet, the Pocomoke is rumored to be the deepest river for its width in the world.
At the Great Cypress Swamp, you can walk (or boat) among the northernmost stands of bald cypress in the United States. How do these swamp giants survive in high water? Their “knees,” of course! Bald cypress trunks have “knees,” or knots near the water’s surface, which allow the trees to send oxygen from the air down into their root system underwater…kind of like a snorkel!
Acid from the bald cypress roots contributes to the Pocomoke’s dark, tea-stained color. This may be what gave the river its name; locals will tell you that Pocomoke means “black water.” However, experts will tell you that it means “broken ground,” referring to the indigenous tribes’ farming methods. I’m not sure who’s right or wrong, but the color of the water is unique. As one writer put it, the Pocomoke’s water offers the perfect reflection surface for cypress and other trees that line the river banks.
As the Pocomoke flows south into Maryland, it forms the boundary between Wicomico and Worcester counties. At Porter’s Crossing, the river begins to narrow as it flows southwest. It runs through Snow Hill and Pocomoke City before emptying into Pocomoke Sound in the Chesapeake Bay.
Along the way, you can find birds – and lots of them! One hundred seventy-two different species have been recorded in the area. The Pocomoke’s marshes are some of the best places in the Atlantic Flyway to observe both warblers and waterfowl.
If you’d like to take to the “black water” yourself, check out local canoe and kayak rental companies in Pocomoke City and Snow Hill. Hiking trails in Pocomoke River State Forest, Pocomoke River State Park and the Nassawango Preserve of The Nature Conservancy reveal views of the swamps surrounding the river. If you’re lucky, you can get up-close and personal with some of the river’s non-human residents!
For you history buffs, be sure to visit the Furnace Town Living History Museum, a nature and archeology site dedicated to preserving the history of the Nassawango Iron Furnace, started in 1829 near Snow Hill.
(Image courtesy Uncommon Fritillary/Flickr)
Fishing is also excellent in the Pocomoke. Expect to find largemouth bass and panfish, but keep a lookout for pickerel and longnose gar. Since the Pocomoke is a tidal tributary, figuring out the tides is key to having a good fishing experience!
Have you been to the Pocomoke River? Tell us all about it!
Gulls call to each other, belted kingfishers swoop down into the seagrass, monarchs chase the wind, and Alicia and I snap photographs of as much of it as we can. Fisherman Island is only open to the public during this time of year, and it is very likely that this trip will be our only opportunity to visit the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Although thousands of motorists pass over the 1,850-acre land mass each day as they drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, few of them know that this area is one of only 17 sites classified as a “wetland of international importance.” Thousands of migratory birds stop here each fall and spring, and monarchs feed on native plants as they make their winter trip to Latin America.
The refuge is closed to the public because many of these species, such as brown pelicans and royal terns, are sensitive to threats from humans.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages Fisherman Island. Refuge law enforcement makes sure that the public – and yes, even fishermen – stay away.
Alicia and I were afforded access to Fisherman Island through Chesapeake Experience, a non-profit organization that offers summer camps, eco paddles, corporate retreats and experience-based environmental education for educators and students. Chesapeake Experience Director Jill Bieri and two refuge staff members led a morning walk on the island’s nearly unspoiled beach and an afternoon kayak tour from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.
But this trip is a different kind of Chesapeake experience for us, coming from Annapolis, where the Bay’s brackish water forms a distinctive landscape.
Most of the tour participants are avid birders and have come prepared with binoculars. We see many yellow-rumped warblers, or “butter rumps,” (Dendroica coronate) squeaking back and forth across the path.
There are plenty of other interesting features to observe at Fisherman Island, including:
Although we find treasures that we’re not likely to see in Annapolis, we also saw something disappointing: plastic bags that have washed up on shore and are now buried deeply in the sand.
To me, this illustrates why efforts to restore the Bay need to collaborative, involving agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, non-profits like Chesapeake Experience, and regular people like you and me. Although this tract of land is hardly touched by the public, and managed meticulously by the government, it is still vulnerable to the pollution that is happening throughout the Bay.
That afternoon, we paddle to where the Chesapeake Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, following the meandering path of the water through the marsh. Sitting on my kayak in this water, I feel it drift in and out of the Bay, and realize that the boundary lines between ocean and bay are fuzzy, or even, invisible.
A great blue heron watches us kayak into the waves. Our group slowly paddles to him, waiting for his five-foot wing span to cast a shadow over us. His flight makes our cameras snap and mouths hang open.
Jill instructs us to turn back before the waves get too rough. After all, we’re only novice kayakers!
Our homeward bound drive along Route 13 reveals abandoned homes alongside tents selling Virginia pecans, fireworks and cigarettes, all of them advertising their products with home-made, home-painted signs dotting the side of the road.
Mobile homes, their porches decorated with pots and pans and people in rocking chairs, sit on large tracts of land that I imagine to once have been profitable tobacco or cotton farms.
As the sun sets, these surroundings disappear, and we have only the stars to look at until we reach Annapolis.
Every summer of my childhood, I dug for crayfish, collected rocks and even searched for treasure in Paxton Creek, a stream that ran through my neighborhood park in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Little did I know that this stream flowed into the Susquehanna River, a tributary of the nation’s largest estuary. Reflecting on these childhood experiences, I realize that Paxton Creek may have been where I first cultivated my affection for the natural world.
(Image courtesy Artman1122/Flickr)
Soon after beginning at the Bay Program, I discovered the Paxton Creek Watershed and Education Association (PCWEA), a volunteer organization that’s working to restore this stream and cultivate a new generation of environmentalists as they comb its waters for crayfish.
As its name suggests, PCWEA’s mission is more than “science”; the organization places just as much emphasis on creating environmental education opportunities and fostering community relationships.
PWCEA’s projects range from a community-wide Crayfish Crawl to control the invasive rusty crayfish to a tour of stormwater best management practices that neighborhoods, schools and localities have adopted to help reduce pollution. Because Paxton Creek flows from rural areas in the headwaters (near Blue Mountain) to the city of Harrisburg, PCWEA volunteers have the opportunity to work at the interface of urban, suburban and rural environments.
Paxton Creek’s biggest threat is pressures from development, which has inundated the upper portion of the watershed since PCWEA was established in 2001. The creek’s upland portions flow through Harrisburg’s suburbs – areas that were once farms and woodlands. Even since I left the area in 2005, abandoned fields and wooded lots have been converted into gas stations, housing developments and shopping centers. Sure, this means that many of the secret hideouts of my childhood have disappeared, but it also means that there are more roads, parking lots and buildings. These paved, or impervious, surfaces do not allow stormwater to soak into the ground; instead, it flows into storm drains, carrying oil, pet waste and other pollutants along with it.
But just because PCWEA doesn’t like impervious surfaces doesn’t mean that the group is against development. Instead, it views the changing land use patterns and rapidly increasing population as an opportunity to promote sustainable growth and influence new residents to install beneficial landscaping techniques.
“There are modes of development that can achieve satisfactory runoff infiltration with less impervious surface,” E. Drannon Buskirk writes in PCWEA’s latest newsletter.
PCWEA has partnered with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to showcase best management practices already implemented in the creek’s 27-square-mile watershed. Residents can view rain gardens, rain barrels and conservation landscaping examples, or they can take an online tour of the sites.
In case you’d rather see the other end of the spectrum, PCWEA has compiled a driving and online tour of “hot spots”: streamside areas that are eroding and contributing sediment pollution to the creek.
PCWEA seeks to reduce impervious surfaces and sediment pollution, but it is also interested in involving the community’s 60,000 stakeholders in community greening projects.
My favorite PCWEA project: A streamside tree nursery
PCWEA has a streamside tree nursery in my old neighborhood park, Shutt Mill Park. Community members work together to maintain the nursery.
These trees keep the soil in place, preventing sediment pollution from clouding the creek. Also, their roots absorb rainwater, which reduces flooding and stormwater runoff. And as these trees mature, they will provide habitat for wildlife and shade the creek, keeping water temperatures cool.
Do you live near Paxton Creek? Get involved today!
There are plenty of opportunities for people to help restore and protect Paxton Creek, such as tabling at the Dauphin County Wetlands Festival, leading youngsters in creek explorations, and implementing sustainable landscaping practices on your own property.
(Image courtesy Paxton Creek Watershed and Education Association)
Contact PCWEA for more information on how you can help Paxton Creek.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Nick DiPasquale, the Bay Program's new executive director. Nick began his position in August, just a few weeks after I began with the communications team. So we’re both still learning to navigate the Bay Program’s world of goal implementation teams (GITs), total maximum daily loads (TMDL), Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), and host of other acronyms!
In honor of Nick’s 60th birthday earlier this month, I thought I’d ask him six questions so we can get to know him a little better!
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring really got me thinking about the environment back in 1963. The idea that we'd have a world where birds couldn't exist because of pesticide use was a huge shock to me.
But there's also Lewis Mumford, who lived in the early 20th century. He was a city planner, and an architectural and social critic. Mumford talked about livable cities and isolating the automobile to the fringe of communities. He designed homes with driveways and garages in the back, and front porches where you could engage with your neighbors. Mumford wasn't what we'd classify as an "environmentalist" today, but he certainly had an environmental ethic.
I was also quite struck by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. Louv believes that children are suffering from “Nature Deficit Disorder”: lack of exposure to the outdoors and resulting physical and psychological problems. He’s concerned that children aren’t developing a sense of value toward the environment. Without it, they may not be inclined to protect nature in the future. His book has given rise to the environmental literacy movement in this country.
I'd have to say that everyone from school kids to retirees who spend time trying to improve their surroundings are all my heroes. They don't get recognition sometimes, but they're out there trying to make a difference in the environment and in their communities.
I hope to keep Bay restoration a priority. The TMDL has set very specific goals for water quality. We are attempting to stick to a schedule for implementing best management practices, which will reduce nutrient and sediment loadings to the Bay. There also is the larger Chesapeake Bay agreement, and what comes after that, as well as the president's executive order, which establishes goals in areas like fisheries and healthy watersheds.
There’s a lot we need to accomplish, and in a fairly short period of time. Restoring the Bay isn’t like flipping a switch; the ecosystem doesn’t immediately respond when you put a best management practice in place. In our world, things move at a quicker place; for example, when you send someone a message, you expect them to respond pretty quickly. An ecosystem doesn't do that. We will send it messages, but it will take a while to get back to us.
I've cared about the environment since I was very young, probably 12 or 13. I grew up across from the high school athletic fields, so I was always outdoors with my friends. We had an abandoned apple orchard right next door. And there was an old rail line we used to walk along...we would go out on these great explorations. There was a farm right by the rail line, with a farm pond where we used to play hockey during the winter. I was just a five or ten minute walk from a huge public beach on Lake Ontario. My brothers, our friends and I were outdoors all the time, so for me it’s really kind of natural to feel some affection for the Bay.
Since I moved to Annapolis, I have gotten out on the water a few times. I went kayaking on the South River with the South River Federation. We toured some shoreline restoration projects. Another one of my favorite places for kayaking is Wye Island on the Eastern Shore. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Rock Hall are two others I enjoy.
In terms of communities around the Bay, I like St. Michael's, Oxford and Easton. The Eastern Shore towns really are picturesque and have many little attractions. One of my favorites is the St. Michael's Winery.
Most of the places I enjoy are on the Bay, but of course, the watershed includes a lot more than just the actual Bay. I recently took my first trip to Ellicott City's historic district. I enjoyed the quaint shops and restaurants along the Patapsco River.
My list of favorite places is long, and I'm sure as I get out more, I will find more.
There are a lot of good reasons to protect the Bay. Some believe the most important reason is economic: the Bay represents a huge resource in terms of tourism, fisheries, boating and recreation.
And of course, we should protect the Bay’s natural resource value. This is also related to economics because fisheries, for example, are an important economic sector. Natural resources also include the wetlands and upland areas of the watershed, which are equally important.
And then there is the Chesapeake’s sense of culture and sense of place. There is history here that is embraced by those who have been around for a while, and also, those who haven't.
I think there is also a value of having a place where you can go for spiritual renewal. A lot of people, myself included, experience a sense of calm and well-being when they go out on the water. This is more important than ever as our world gets a little bit crazier and a little bit busier. I go hiking in the woods a lot. There's something about a forest – maybe the smell of the trees, or the decomposition process – that lifts the weight of the world off your shoulders. My friend's grandfather used to go out walking after work; he would say he was "blowing the stink off" from the day. He thought that when you're inside all day, your body emits or attracts something harmful. So he would go out walking to "blow the stink off." But I also think he was talking about the stress of the day, and how you can't carry it around with you. Even if you can get out for 20 minutes over lunch, you'll feel more at ease.
I am an avid recycler. I also try to walk to work when I can. I drive a hybrid vehicle so I cut down on air emissions and gas consumption. I'll be volunteering with the Spa Creek Conservancy to take bacteria samples on Spa Creek, here in Annapolis. This information will be entered into a database to track water quality trends over the long term.
I try to involve myself in tree plantings, especially along riparian areas. I've participated in a few of those types of projects, and any other opportunity to go outdoors and help improve the Bay’s resilience. I'm a big advocate of planting trees because it is one of the best ways to stabilize shorelines. Trees sequester carbon, benefit air quality, and are simply pleasant to be around.
Nick served as secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from 1999 - 2002. Nick was also deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and as director of the Brandywine Conservancy's Environmental Management Center. Most recently, he served as a senior consultant with Duffield Associates in Wilmington, Delaware.