ON THE POCOMOKE RIVER — On the Pocomoke River. - We saw the afternoon's first eagle not on the Pocomoke itself but on Pitts Creek, the only tributary entering the river on the short stretch just above its mouth where it borders Virginia.
Pitts is a winding pristine stream navigable for several miles, and we had gone up it to explore, and in search of what was said to be the only stand of Atlantic white cedar north of the Dismal Swamp. We found a few trees, and had turned downstream again when the eagle coasted by, the afternoon sun bright on his white head.
The cedars and the eagle alone would have made the trip memorable, but there was more to come.
There were eleven of us on this late-fall expedition, traveling in three small outboard-powered boats. We had left Salisbury at sunrise, slipped down the Wicomico in the early-morning mist, paused to cast for rockfish in the mouth of the Nanticoke, and eased on down Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds. Our destination was Snow Hill, for practical purposes the head of navigation on the Pocomoke.
It was a beautiful day, and even the exposed waters we crossed were calm, almost glassy. That meant that the little boats could make good time, which in turn made it possible to cut the engines often to drift, fish and look. We had about 90 miles in all to cover, and we wanted to be in Snow Hill before dark.
Why were we doing this? For most of us, the objective was to learn more about the Chesapeake estuary, and to see some of its less-accessible wonders at a time of year when they're at their very best.
We were a group of friends who've been doing this sort of thing in different parts of the Bay every fall for several years. All are naturalists of one sort or another by avocation, and the majority by vocation as well. There were also a couple of lawyers and a writer or two, as fond as the rest of wandering around in marshes.
In addition to such fixtures as gulls, cormorants, Canada geese, mallards and great blue herons, we saw loons and buffleheads, wood ducks, scooters and dunlin -- plus pileated woodpeckers and a variety of hawks. And the eagles, plural. After our pause in Pitts Creek, we headed on upriver toward Pocomoke City. A mile or so south of the town, we saw four more eagles, and around the next bend, another 16. The sight was at once astonishing and encouraging.
People who care deeply about the natural world tend to spend much of their time in a state of quiet despair, for so much of what seems most inspiring appears to be in terrible peril. We see an eagle today, and wonder if our children will be able to see another a decade from now. We are stunned by the lonely beauty of the Pocomoke, its black waters brilliant with floating foliage, and wonder if soon it will be lined with marinas and second-home developments.
So it's vitally important, especially for those of us with a conservationist's melancholy instincts, to get away for a while from the depressing studies and pessimistic reports and out into the sunshine to watch eagles on the wing. Otherwise we run the risk of conveying the wrong message.
Environmentalists who preach doom and gloom -- and I've done my share of it -- have been more effective, perhaps, than they realize. Ask a Maryland seventh-grader who's had an introductory course in environmental science what she thinks of first when someone mentions the Chesapeake Bay, and the odds are she'll say ''pollution.''
But if things are so bad, isn't it really hopeless and hypocritical to talk about Saving the Bay? It must seem at times to that poor seventh-grader that she might as well turn her attention and her energies elsewhere. She and her classmates need to realize how much there is out there in that big muddy puddle which is still absolutely spectacular and absolutely worth preserving.
There's a chance, I suppose, that if she's exposed now to the wonders of the Bay she will in later life want nothing more than to establish a jet-ski rental service on the Pocomoke, or develop an oil refinery on Tangier Island. But that's a chance we'll have to take, hoping as we take it that her contemporaries will be able to keep her exploitative instincts under control.
We made Snow Hill before sunset, pulled out the boats, and said goodbye. Some of us won't meet again until next year. But next year, you can be sure, we'll be at it again. Meanwhile, the memories of a wonderful day in magical surroundings ought to keep us from getting too despondent about the all-too-real problems of the Chesapeake.
C7 Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.