For 121 days this summer, I and 11 comrades were treated to a front-row view of the Chesapeake Bay and its major rivers by virtue of our method of travel — a slow, silent, 17th century-style, 28-foot open boat.
We rowed and sailed 1,500 miles at an average of four miles-per-hour, as we inaugurated the new Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and took part in community festivals.
Along the way, nothing passed us in a blur. We never once said to one another, “Did you see that patch of eel grass? Well, I think it was eel grass, but we passed over it so quickly, I’m just not sure.” We saw one heck of a show.
What stands out in my mind is the conflict between the natural world, and the one you and I have fabricated around it. Nature blossoms in isolated patches on the shore and in the water all around the bay. But its splendor is short-lived. At every turn, the natural environment collides with the human world, resulting in fragmented soft shorelines and declining water quality.
There are beautiful, underdeveloped places on the bay. Along the Potomac River, a setting I assumed would be choked from its mouth to the fall line by the megalopolis it flows through, we experienced portions of unspoiled shorelines.
Birds hunted and fed their young with fish caught from the surrounding waters. Deer languidly wandered out of the deep green forest and into the water for a cool drink. At the Potomac’s mouth, cownose rays glided about us in small schools, their wing tips cutting the water’s surface. Further south at the mouth of the Rappahannock, schools of curious dolphins swan within feet of our small wooden boat. Their intelligence was palpable.
But nothing lasts forever on the bay. We experienced the natural world’s splendor in small doses, always aware of the swarming mass of humanity around the next bend. To get lost in the bay’s pristine setting would require blinders or a healthy case of tunnel vision.
A family of Bald Eagles may be nesting in a poplar tree. But there is much more to the scene. A short trip in either direction reveals the birds are feeding their young in the shadow of a power plant. Drift silently with the flood tide around the next corner, and it’s easy to see nests high atop cable towers and on the decks of rusting ships.
There are shorelines that feature contiguous wilderness, but they require seeking out. We traveled for miles on the Nanticoke and Rappahannock rivers without seeing a single house or car. Through land easements and conservation efforts, riparian buffer zones surround portions of these rivers. The scene is breathtaking, but it’s not large. The threadbare ribbon of green provides a thin barrier between the river’s steady ebb and flow and the haphazard movements of the society it conceals.
The same can be said for good water quality. We were euphoric when small groves of submerged aquatic vegetation magically cleared the turbid water.
The improved visibility allowed us to see 4, maybe even 5, feet down to the green grass-covered bottom. In clear water, the underwater world blooms like a flower. Many juvenile species of fish dart among the strands of grasses while small, cantankerous blue crabs beat frantically at the water with their flippers, perturbed by the shadows we cast above them. But here, too, the splendor is short-lived, even while traveling at a slow speed.
In July, a billowing cloud of maroon-colored water surrounded us on either side of the Bay Bridge, snuffing out any visibility we had won back.
Portions of the bay appear healthy. Parts of the bay appear destroyed. After suffering through the welter of turbid water, fish carrion and a blemished shoreline, slipping into a part of the bay that was teeming with wildlife and native plants and trees was like being exonerated from the crimes we witnessed.
This summer I was fortunate to be a part of this voyage that very slowly and very intimately explored the Chesapeake Bay. I saw everything from flourishing wildlife, to military test explosions. Often, these two worlds were neighbors.
What concerns me is our lopsided dominance over the land and water. Can people live with nature? From what I’ve seen, I remain optimistic. Yes, I believe it’s possible to have both; however, in order to do so, nature needs more support from us.
Andrew Bystrom is a writer now living in Augusta, Ga. This summer he and 11 others rowed and sailed a replica of John Smith’s boat 1,500 miles around the Chesapeake and its major rivers, a project organized by Sultana Projects, a nonprofit educational organization in Chestertown, Md.