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A Kayak Expedition to the Mouth of the Chesapeake Bay

As the gray clouds parted and a brilliant blue sky opened up, I saw that the kayakers had picked perhaps the most beautiful place on the Chesapeake Bay to set up camp.  A row of pine trees towered over a sandy bluff and a stretch of beach that looked like it must have 500 years ago.  

A three-day paddling and camping expedition down the lower eastern shore  of Virginia to the mouth of the bay had been organized by Chesapeake Bay educator and naturalist Don Baugh, with help from his friend, the renowned bay author, Tom Horton.

“You know, for me, as an environmental writer – and for Don, as an environmental educator – we deal way too much with all the parts of the bay that are in trouble, or are non-existent,” said Horton, gazing out at the water as their team of 20 paddlers ate breakfast and readied their gear. “And it’s very important for us, and for a lot of the people who come with us, to get out in the parts of the bay – the considerable parts, that are still pretty nice, like this one.”

As he spoke, light glistened off the waves, and a cow-nosed ray lifted a tip of its wing from the water.

 “We spend a lot of time lamenting and talking about what we’ve lost,” Horton said.  “But you have to celebrate the considerable amount that’s still here, or frankly you’d burn out in these ‘save the world’ professions, like being an environmentalist.”

Among the kayakers on the trip were several leaders of the bay restoration and cleanup effort, including Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission; Dr. Robert Summers, former Maryland Secretary of the Environment; Chuck Fox, former Chesapeake Bay “Czar” for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Eric Schwaab, former Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Everyone comes from a different vantage point, but they’re all focused on the Chesapeake Bay,” Swanson said.  “Some are experts in policy, some education.  Some are in community development or leadership.  And when you put the collective knowledge together, you get a heightened consciousness and understanding of what’s going on. The more you understand, the more you know what do next for the bay.”

In casual conversations around the campsite and out on the water, the kayakers shared ideas about how to reduce pollution – and climbed out of their kayaks to literally pick up trash on the beach. But mostly, they shared their love of nature and used the trip as an opportunity to recharge.

For three days, the company paddled south along the beaches toward where the estuary opens to the Atlantic Ocean. Occasionally, the forested shorelines were broken by a new McMansion, with a wall of rocks along the beach and all the trees around it cut down. 

Our boats slid over lines of buoys attached to long nets that stretched  almost a quarter mile into the bay. Long poles had driven into the sand to hold the nets in place, and perched atop the poles were brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants.

That night, we camped on a sandy, uninhabited island at the mouth of a meandering creek south of Cape Charles.   As I walked through the muddy marsh grasses to find a place to set up my tent, thousands of fiddler crabs scurried away, in a hissing wave of life. 

After setting up my home for the night, I took a swim in the stream and found myself swept away in the warm, swift current.    A horseshoe crab, large as a car wheel, scuttled along the bottom.   Nearby, in the waterway, white poles marked the locations of underwater cages in which watermen were growing thousands of clams.

Black clouds mounded above the trees, and then dissolved.  As the sun set, through the remnants of clouds ripped daggers of silver.

After building a fire in the sand, Horton pried open oysters and laid them on a log for his guests. Don Baugh roasted clams and crab cakes in butter in a pan over the flames. For desert, he served his guests buttery, multi-layered Smith Island cake.   This was really “roughing it.”

Later, when people were relaxing, Baugh explained his own personal connection to this scenic place – which is called Old Plantation Creek, because it runs past the site of the Eastern Shore’s first plantation.

 “We know that right of the mouth of this stream, right across from where we are, was an old Indian village,” Baugh said.  “And on top of that, unfortunately, when the colonists came, they plopped their homes right where the natives were.  So on top of top of that village was built one of the largest plantation homes in America at the time, back in the 1600’s."

Baugh has a reason to know this story.

"It just so happens that I am the 12th great-grandson of the first governor of Virginia, George Yeardley, and the first person to have a land patent on the Eastern Shore of Virginia," Baugh said. "It was a several thousand acre patent he got from the ‘Laughing King,’ who was a half brother of Powhatan, the Indian chief.”

Baugh reflected that, for the last 20 years, he’s been taking students and leaders out on kayak trips on the bay, to educate and enlighten – and help people connect to the history and life of the nation’s largest estuary.

“Over time, we’ve invited people kayaking whom we thought would benefit from it, so they can have their own personal connection to the bay,” Baugh said.  “What this does for people is that it allows them to plug back into the real Chesapeake. Not the Chesapeake Bay in reports; not the Chesapeake in video; and not the Chesapeake in a dataset – all of which is very important.  But it's a very real feeling, a visceral feeling, a connection that people get.  It’s that feeling that fuels people and makes them want to bring the bay back.”

The next morning, when we awoke, we found that our tents and the marsh grass around them were covered in shimmering diamonds of water.   After packing up and eating a breakfast of oatmeal, bagels and dried fruit, we continued our paddle south along the coastline.

Here and there, trees had tumbled from the sandy bluff onto the beach, and were jutting out into the waves.  

We paddled past a waterman motoring from one buoy to another. He was lifting up his crab pots, shaking out his catch, and then filling the traps with more bait before heaving them back in.  Far out on the bay, a giant container ship slid across the horizon.

History was all around us and beneath us.  Although there was no way to tell from the water, we were kayaking over a massive crater left by a meteorite that, 35 million years ago, smashed into what later became the lower Chesapeake Bay.   The meteor burned and crushed everything in its path, shattering rocks, and throwing debris thousands of miles as it plunged a mile below the surface.

But today, the water is so peaceful it's like it never could have happened.

A few miles south, off Kiptopeke State Park, we glided into a strange landscape.   Nine World War II cargo ships were chained together offshore, rusting and falling apart and sprouting grass atop their roofs.

Upon closer inspection, these vessels turned out to be constructed entirely of cement – an odd material with which to build a boat, but apparently one that was used during the war because it was so cheap.   In 1949, engineers intentionally sunk the ships off Kiptopeke to create a breakwater to protect a pier and ferry service.

As paddled around the wrecks, I saw a dolphin flash in the water not far from my kayak.

I thought to myself:  There is a lot of magic left in the Chesapeake that is worth saving. But it could disappear as quietly as a fin in the waves. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.