Maybe you dream of a getaway that will put you in touch with nature -- something vigorous and outdoorsy that challenges you physically while it soothes your soul. This year, kayaking the Amazon and hiking the Alps may be out of your price range. But fortunately, you can discover the great outdoors here in Maryland -- the best bargain around.
We asked people intimately acquainted with our state's natural beauties to share what they like to do on their days off. Maybe you'll want to visit their favorite places. Or maybe their experiences will motivate you to explore some of the other locales listed.
Park naturalist Greg Kearns, who for 12 years has worked at Patuxent River Park in Marlboro, doesn't need getaways -- he works in the middle of one. "One evening," he says, "I sat on the bridge over the Mattaponi Creek that's part of a scenic drive through the park. I stayed very still, and I saw deer, muskrats and otter near the water. There was a beaver messing around with some mud, pushing it back and forth, marking it with his scent. I could hear a pair of great horned owls calling back and forth. A fox walked up behind me -- he didn't see me -- and he was watching the beaver, too.
"I saw a pair of bald eagles that live here -- they're a young pair, nesting for the first time. In just one month, they built a nest 2 feet deep and about 4 or 5 feet across. That same night, I saw about 400 swans overhead, and about 1,000 geese passed over, too, plus some red-tailed hawks.
"That was all in 40 minutes. You don't see that much activity in the middle of the day, but if you camp overnight here, and walk out in the evening, and sit real still, you can see that many animals. I always tell people they should camp here weekdays. It's the best time to come."
Mr. Kearns also recommends canoeing Mattaponi Creek, a freshwater estuary surrounded by patches of wild rice. Canoeing and other park activities require a reservation and park permit. Cost for the full-day canoe rental: $10. Call (301) 627-6074.
Other parks that provide a glimpse of nature:
Pocomoke River State Park, along the Pocomoke, a tidal river, also features canoeing and camping. Call (301) 632-2566.
Elk Neck State Park, located on the Eastern Shore, offers a sandy beach with lifeguards and a bathhouse, plus 300 camp sites for tents and recreational vehicles. Some cabins available. (301) 287-5333.
New Germany State Park sits within Savage River State Forest in Garrett County. You can hike or swim, camp in tents or cabins, or take your backpack into the wilds of the forest and really rough it. Call New Germany: (301) 895-5453; or the state forest: (301) 895-5759.
For a thorough listing of Maryland public and private campsites, call the State Tourism Office at (800) 543-1036 to request the 1991 Maryland Travel and Outdoor Guide.
AS PRESIDENT OF THE Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Will Baker has one complaint: He rarely has time to visit the waters his agency protects. That's why Mr. Baker often accompanies groups of children from city schools on the foundation's educational trips. Doing so gets him out there, on the water. One of his favorite spots is the foundation-owned Great Fox Island, off of Crisfield on the Eastern Shore. Many of the children Mr. Baker accompanies have never been outside of Baltimore. Imagine their shock, then, when the boat deposits them at Great Fox and they find themselves immersed in wilderness. There is no 7-Eleven down the street, because there is no street -- just marshland for miles.
The children sleep in an old hunting lodge, harvest their own food and pedal-pump their water. They find out that crabs and wild birds reign on the island. When the kids get their first glimpse of such a creature up close, "Their eyes really do get as big as saucers!" Mr. Baker says.
"Hopefully, when I retire I'll have time to canoe and sail and fish," he adds. "And hopefully by then, with the help of these kids, the bay will be saved and ready for me."
Write the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to find out about public field trips. The address is 162 Prince George St., Annapolis, Md. 21401.
Other activities on and in the bay:
Hop a ferry from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore to Smith Island. Wild and beautiful, home to great blue herons and snowy egrets, the island has changed little since John Smith found it in 1608. Ferry information: (301) 425-2771.
Scuba dive off of Ocean City or Point Lookout. Best times: October to March, when the water is calm and sea nettles are scarce. Several scuba companies are listed in the yellow pages. Try Scuba Hut: (301) 761-4520.
Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis is a popular swimming and sailboarding spot. Rental boats available. Call: (301) 757-1841.
Assateague Island is wilder and emptier than Sandy Point or Ocean City. You'll find sunbathers, swimmers, fishers and yes, surfers. Call Assateague State Park: (301) 641-2120.