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Bay Blog: Choptank River

Jun
03
2015

Mid-shore rivers earn higher grades on latest report card

Several waterways on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore saw improvements in water clarity over the past year, helping them earn higher grades in the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy’s fifth annual report card.

Watermen hand tong for oysters on the Choptank River, which was upgraded from a "C" to a "B-" in the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy's latest report card.

Of the sixteen rivers and streams tracked by the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, grades for ten of the waterways improved from the previous year. This includes Tuckahoe Creek, a tributary of the Choptank and historically one of the area’s most polluted rivers, which was upgraded from a “D+” to a “C.” Increased water clarity and a rebound in underwater grass abundance helped the Choptank overall earn a “B-,” up from a “C” last year. Eastern Bay and the surrounding creeks showed modest improvement, all scoring “B” grades or higher.

Runoff from agriculture is the primary factor slowing the recovery of water quality in the area, according to the report. The Miles and Wye Rivers continue to struggle—earning “C” grades overall—due in part to increases in nitrogen pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels. Excess nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, blocking sunlight and creating low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic life.

Grades are based on data from more than 100 sampling sites, where volunteers test for water clarity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and chloropyll a. The Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy also tracks water temperature, pH, salinity and bacteria levels.

For more information on nutrient and sediment loads in the Bay’s major rivers— including the Choptank—see the Bay Program's latest pollution load indicators.

Learn more.



Feb
23
2015

Photo Essay: Exploring the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway

The tale of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is revered as one of the most influential moments in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. As the birthplace of Tubman, the Eastern Shore of Maryland holds a rich history in its expansive farm fields, quaint settlements and wetlands that nestle into the crooks and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Many individuals, municipalities and organizations have learned the stories of those that traversed the trail, risking their lives for freedom, and have collaborated to permanently preserve important landmarks along the Underground Railroad.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway spans 125 miles through Caroline and Dorchester Counties in Maryland. Along it, visitors can explore the secret network of trails and buildings of the Underground Railroad, a path forged by freedom-seeking slaves and abolitionists in the 19th century. It does not take long for those on the trail to learn the trials, tribulations and successes that occurred along the way - all because a few people decided to band together to overcome adversity and do extraordinary things.

Polaris, also known as the North Star, appears stationary above the horizon of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Tubman—who grew up near the refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland—and other escaped slaves fleeing north to Canada would use Polaris as one of their guiding lights to freedom.

Luther H. Cornish, 85, stands near New Revived Church in Smithville, Maryland on February 9, 2015. "There's a lot of history around here," said Cornish, who has lived across from the road from the church for almost 50 years. New Revived Church, originally known as Jefferson Methodist Episcopal Church, is one of four traditionally black churches founded after the Civil War and is part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Cornish sings on an audio guide about the Byway.

In 1884, Araminta Harriet Ross married John Tubman, a free black. His decision to marry a slave brought a set of complex challenges to the table: one being, by law, any children Harriet had would belong to her master. Although many slaves had no material possessions, most did possess a strong sense of faith that one day all would be set right and the deep love and support of family.
Several gravestones - like the one pictured above - that lie in the Malone’s Church cemetery in Madison, Maryland, are marked with the surname Tubman and perhaps are relatives of John Tubman—relatives that may have been pivotal in helping Harriet along her way.

The crossroads outside of the Bucktown General Store once served as the center of Bucktown, Maryland, consisting of two stores, a blacksmithing shop and the shopkeeper’s home. It was here in 1835 that a thirteen-year-old Harriet Tubman was struck in the head by a two-pound iron weight thrown at another slave by his overseer, breaking her skull. She took two days rest before returning to the fields, but Harriet’s life was changed from that moment on. She suffered headaches, seizures and even visions of burning fire and flashes of lightning, and she claimed to hear whispers and people screaming. “I heard God speaking to me, saw his angels and I saw my dreams. There were times I knew things ‘fo they were gonna happen. I could see trouble coming and I could go the other way,” said Tubman.

Scott's Chapel stands in Bucktown, Maryland. Harriet Tubman's master, Edward Brodess, worshipped at Scott's Chapel, and Tubman may have done so as well with her family.

Parson’s Creek passes in a perfectly straight line under Route 16, an odd sight among the winding wetlands that weave through the area. The creek was once known as Joseph Stewart’s Canal and was dug by free and enslaved blacks over a period of 20 years. The canal leads from the Bay to the once dense interior forest. At that time, landowners like Joseph Stewart would fell their timber and float it down the canal to nearby wharves.

Construction progresses at the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland. During Tubman’s time, the residents of this waterfront town made their living from working on the Bay, repairing ships, repairing sails and fishing. Half of the blacks in Dorchester County were free.  Many were sailors who regularly traveled to the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, thereby playing a crucial role as messengers of news about political revolutions and carriers of information from family and friends to those who were enslaved.

“Where I come from, it would make your flesh creep and your hair stand on end to know what they do to the slaves,” said Ben Ross, Tubman’s brother, referring to the plantation from which he and his fiancée Jane Kane escaped on Christmas Eve 1854. The plot of land where the plantation used to sit can be seen by gazing across Button’s Creek, on part of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

A metal waterwheel rests at Linchester Mill in Preston, Maryland—a site that once boasted a thriving center of commerce. There has been a mill at this location for well over 300 years; it was here that free blacks worked alongside slaves and were able to pass along important messages and information. Both Quakers and free blacks helped runaway slaves navigate their way to safety in the area, using the mill as a crossing place over the creek. A metal "Fitz" waterwheel replaced an earlier wooden waterwheel in 1917.

Phragmites grow at Choptank Landing, a site that was once a thriving town, fitted with a steamboat landing and busy port frequented by those in the nearby town of Preston, Maryland. Travel by land was difficult and muddy, making the river the easier route and busy like a highway. This is the likely site of Harriet Tubman's first escape. Tubman's parents worked on a plantation nearby in Poplar Neck and were also active in the Underground Railroad.

Before the Civil War, a slave market was located in Denton, Maryland. The standing courthouse was built after the Civil War, but the previous courthouse stood on the same spot in the center of town, where public slave auctions were held on the steps of the Caroline County Courthouse.

Canada geese soar through the air near Preston, Maryland. "The wild geese come from Canada, where all are free," is a saying repeated by Moses Viney, who escaped slavery after growing up in nearby Easton, Maryland. Viney had long prepared for his escape and was kind to his owner’s hounds for months before he ran, and when they found him, he patted them, gave them a hug and sent them back to the plantation. He eventually made his way to Schenectady, New York, where he worked as the chauffeur and confidant for the president of Union College.

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.

Images by Will Parson
Captions by Jenna Valente

Jenna Valente's avatar
About Jenna Valente - Jenna developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and upbringing in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of Virginia Tech's Executive Master of Natural Resources program and University of Maine's School of Communication and Journalism, she welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of caring for the environment.



May
20
2014

Photo Essay: Walking the woods of the Chesapeake Bay watershed

For close to 50 years, Nick Carter has owned 33 acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Aside from a house, a few sheds and a trail or two, much of this land has returned to its natural state: former farm fields have become bogs, wetlands and forests, pushed along by natural growth and Carter’s deep-seated desire to create healthy habitat and clean water.

Carter’s property runs next to the Choptank River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Close to one-third of the Choptank watershed is forested, covered with the tree-and-shrub-filled habitat considered the most beneficial land use for the Bay. Forests absorb airborne pollutants, keep nutrients and sediment from entering our rivers and streams, and provide food, shelter and safe migration paths for wildlife. It is for these reasons that Carter has allowed forests to dominate his land.

“I’d like to see this little bit of property go back to old growth,” Carter said, referring to a type of forest that has evaded unnatural changes for a century or two. Carter and his wife purchased their property when he finished graduate school in 1966. For 35 years, Carter worked as a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now, he offers informal tours to naturalists, native plant societies and school groups, carrying along a walking stick that effectively points out the things visitors might not notice.

Take the plants, for example. There are 250 species on Carter’s property, and in one two-hour walk it seems he can point out most of them. There are spring ephemera like jack-in-the-pulpit and pink lady’s slipper, the latter of which has a relationship with underground fungi that make them almost impossible to transplant. There are cinnamon ferns and sphagnum moss in a bog that Carter is particularly proud of because he created it with the simple act of laying down a few logs to form a makeshift dam. And there are the pine and oak trees that dominate the upland woods, including the willow oak whose acorns are so small that blue jays can pick them up and carry them in their beaks.

Then there are the reptiles and amphibians. Carter has counted 30 species of these, from the tree and wood frogs that favor damp habitat to the broad-headed skink and Eastern fence lizard that like forests with abundant leaf litter. Leaves that litter the ground conserve water, recycle nutrients and offer shelter to small critters. Its presence on Carter’s land can be felt as soon as you step from the hard pavement of Draper’s Mill Road to the soft, spongy forest floor.

Carter’s woods are home to charismatic fauna, too, including 30 species of mammals and 85 species of birds. Because so much of the property is forested, it serves as suitable habitat for “forest interior dwelling” birds, or those birds that need the moderate temperatures and light levels found deep within the woods. Carter has spotted pine warblers, prothonotary warblers and ovenbirds, but on our walk we spotted a bird that was much bigger and a little less particular about its habitat: a female wild turkey on her nest in a grove of skunk cabbage.

These critters flourish here because Carter has done so little to disrupt the natural processes of the world around him, aside from building the dam that led to the bog and managing some invasive species. While Maryland’s white-tailed deer often chew up low-growing plants, changing the structure of area forests, Carter’s dogs have warded them off with their loud howls. And when invasive plants like autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, English ivy and bush honeysuckle start to grow, Carter steps in to exert control. “Some I spray, some I cut, some I pull,” he said.

The changes that have taken place on Carter’s land present a classic case of succession: disturbed ground is replaced by shrubs, shrubs are replaced by pines and pines are replaced by hardwoods. In other words, this land works “the way it ought to work,” Carter said. And it reminds us of the habitats the Maintain Healthy Watersheds Goal Implementation Team is working to preserve in order to demonstrate the challenge of protecting streams.

Carter’s work to bring people onto his property could help further this goal, as he shares knowledge that can inform and inspire his visitors. “Here’s a little piece of land on which I can make all the rules,” Carter said. “Here, I can make this land good for the Bay and its rivers. And I can show people what’s good for the Bay and its rivers.”

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.

Images by Steve Droter and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.



Dec
17
2013

Fossilized oyster shells from Gulf Coast will restore reefs in Maryland waters

More than 100,000 tons of fossilized oyster shell will be shipped from the Gulf Coast to Baltimore on CSX Corporation trains, thanks to a new partnership between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Jacksonville, Fla., transportation company.

Image courtesy James Butler/Flickr

The shell will be used to restore reefs in Harris Creek and the Little Choptank River, both of which flow into the Choptank on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The waterways are the first two sites of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-led strategy meant to restore oysters to 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025.

From the Field: Rebuilding oyster reefs in Harris Creek, Md. from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

The 377-acre Harris Creek site was chosen because its water quality, salinity and protected status point to a high likelihood of restoration success. While granite will be used to build some of Harris Creek’s reefs, shell is the best material for oyster larvae to settle on, and a lack of natural shell in the region posed a restoration roadblock. The state met the challenge by spending $6.3 million on shell from Gulf Coast Aggregates.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) helped negotiate the state’s agreement with CSX, which will transport 50 train cars filled with Gulf Coast shell at cost to Curtis Bay two to three times each month over the next nine months. The shell will then be transported by barge to the Eastern Shore sanctuaries.

“This collaboration is monumental, as it allows us to complete the substrate construction of the largest tributary-focused oyster reef restoration project on the East Coast,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP), in a media release. ORP will help build the oyster reefs, seed them with baby oysters and monitor planting success. “In all, more shell will be placed in Maryland waters over the next nine months than in the past decade—enough to cover 80 football fields with shell 12 inches deep.”

Habitat loss, disease and historic over-harvesting have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations. But the bivalves play a critical role in the Bay’s environment and the region’s economy, filtering water and feeding countless area residents.

Learn more.



Aug
22
2011

DNR, Bay Foundation plant millions of oysters in Choptank River

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have placed 306 reef balls planted with millions of baby oysters in the Choptank River near Cooks Point.

reef balls being lowered into the water

Reef balls are three-dimensional structures that provide habitat for oysters and other aquatic organisms, including worms, mussels, striped bass and black sea bass. Reef ball plantings help restore oyster populations and promote thriving aquatic reef communities. Many reef-dependent species have not been seen in the Choptank River for many years.

Visit Maryland DNR’s website to learn more about the agency’s artificial reef initiative.



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