Swamp Romp

Students Ooze With Enthusiasm After Exploring Mysteries Of Marsh

September 29, 1991|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

They came to learn and churn about in the ooze.

And by the time they were ready to leave Fox Island, 18 very messy Broadneck High students and their teacher were loving it -- joyously exploring the bilgy, sulfur-sweet nutrient stew at the bottom of the Chesapeake's food chain.

"You always hear about the marshes and how important they are to the bay, but out here you see the detritus and you get right into it.If you weren't conscious about the environment to begin with, I'm not sure you couldn't be after being here," said 16-year-old junior DonBoyer.

"What we call 'marsh-mucking' is a big part of this program," explained Fox Island counselor and proprietor John Rivers. "We'retrying to break down the barriers between students and their environment. We want to give them an appreciation rather than an apprehension of the outdoors."

Broadneck environmental sciences teacher Pat Neidhardt has taken advantage of state and Chesapeake Bay Foundation grants to subsidize trips to the marshes of the Eastern Shore for fiveof the last six years.

"Most of us are fearful of marshes, I think, because in the

past they were seen as fearsome, infectious places filled with all kinds of bad humours: snakes, vile gasses and diseases. But that feeling about marshes and swamps was one of the thingsthat encouraged people to be so unabashed about getting rid of them and destroying the bay. In reality, there's nothing wrong with getting into them and feeling the mud," Neidhardt said.

In addition to controlling erosion and filtering out toxins, the marshes provide an essential shelter, spawning ground and food base for 90 percent of theanimal species found in and around the bay, said Donald Baugh, who administers the Bay Foundation's 17 field education programs, including Fox Island.

Because we are in the northern hemisphere and water currents flow counter-clockwise (watch your toilet next time you flush it), most of the sands and sediment flowing down the Chesapeake have washed up along the Eastern Shore. And that's where the biggest marshes are found.

It's no coincidence that these shallow waters and swamps shelter many of the Chesapeake's most famous water men's communities: Crisfield and Tilghman, Smith and Tangier islands.

The BayFoundation spends $1.8 million per year to subsidize field trips at its various camps,and the state matches that figure with grants administered through the local school systems.

* * *

The only way toget to Fox Island, population two, is by taking a 12-mile journey ona Crisfield-based charter boat.

Within minutes of arriving at theChesapeake Bay Foundation's swamp island nature camp, you are whisked into a new world order. The counselors promptly laid down strict, nature-based house rules that they say are necessary to save the bay.

"We do things a little differently on Fox Island than you're accustomed to at home," bellowed counselor Kevin Truffer, a former RivieraBeach resident.

Head counselor John Rivers confiscated everyone'swatches and synchronized the students to the only relevant benchmarks in a marsh -- the tides and sunsets.

Because there's no fast land on Fox Island, the lodge is built on pilings directly over the water. A float bobbing in a hole in the living room floor rises and fallswith the waves and tides to remind you of this fact.

Rivers, a student of American Indian cultures, also taught the Aztec method of timekeeping.

Facing east or west with one eye closed, each outstretched fist you can fit between the horizon and the sun represents an hour. So this equinox weekend, 1 p.m. (EDT) was equal to either six eastward fists after sunrise or six westward fists before sunset (Aztec Standard Time.)

"I look at my watch every five minutes at home. Atschool, everything is run by bells and deadlines and out here, you just take as much time as it takes to do things right. I like that," said 17-year-old senior Pete Gerace at about four fists after sunrise last Sunday.

All the lights in the common rooms are powered by five solar panels on the roof.

The freshwater system is powered by pedal. Someone has to ride a stationary bicycle in the corner of the kitchen every time you do the dishes or take a shower. A couple of students gaped on the first day when they learned they would get only one, two-minute rinse during their three-day, two-night stay, but nobodytook advantage of the offer. In a drastic and, some said, refreshingreversal of high school etiquette, keeping clean was a major faux pas because of the negative effects run-off has on the bay.

The men's and women's rooms at Fox Island contain Clivus Composting toilets, which take three years to turn human waste into fertilizer that is used at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's model environmental farm in Upper Marlboro.

All gray water -- the run-off from showers and sinks -- is collected in 55-gallon drums and recycled on nearby Smith Island.

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