John Page Williams has worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for 18 years, and rivers flow freely in his conversation.
He rattles off streams and their vital statistics the way parents recite their kids' ages, and with as much affection. "The highest average tide change in the whole Chesapeake Bay system, from the Bay Bridge Tunnel up, is at Walkerton on the Mattaponi, 3.9 feet," he says. That's the Mattaponi River on Virginia's Western shore. It flows into the York at West Point, Va.
Then there's the altogether different Mattaponi Creek that feeds the Patuxent River in Prince George's County. Mr. Williams has run dozens of field trips in there and says it's loaded with wild rice.
"The bay's got more wild rice than any other part of the country except Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it's all up in these tidal fresh rivers."
Today Mr. Williams is a fund-raiser and director of special field programs for CBF and a bit office-bound. He works out of a small, second-floor space on East Street in Annapolis, cluttered with maps and charts that he uses often as he describes who he is and what he does.
One thing he does a lot is share his knowledge of the bay's enormous watershed. It's not enough, he believes, to just get out there and "groove on nature." He's written a book, "Exploring the Chesapeake in Small Boats," that will be published next month ($12.95) by Tidewater Publishers.
Mr. Williams hopes the book will help readers discover places they have overlooked in the bay and see more clearly the places already familiar to them. He also gives advice about staying safe and comfortable, about pulling gear together and provides other tips on using small boats.
He lives within sight of the Severn River in Anne Arundel County, just downstream from Ray's Pond, "one of the best pieces of natural habitat left on the Severn," he says, with his wife, Louise; daughter, Kelly; dog, Marshyhope; and three small boats.
"I have a Grumman canoe and I have a 14-foot aluminum skiff with an 8-horse and I have a 17-foot Mako with a 90-horse Merc on it. I can pretty much get everywhere. The Mako is just big enough to be safe in the open bay, but she'll float in 7 inches of water, and with the engine tilted up, she'll run under power in about 10. If it gets too shallow for that, I'll pole it, and if it gets too shallow for that, I get out and pull her."
In his early days with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Mr. Williams earned his living in small boats.
"I came to CBF to develop an education program for high school students. We bought a fleet of nine aluminum canoes in 1974 and had a trailer built for them. The trailer at this point has 250-300,000 miles on it. I put about 150,000 of those on it," says the solidly built Mr. Williams.
He towed those canoes to high schools all over the watershed "in an attempt to work close to kids' own back yards."
Over the years he led students up such streams as the Chester, the Gunpowder, the Chickahominy, Chicamacomico, Nassawango Creek, the Pamunkey, the Pocomoke, Nanticoke and Marshyhope, the Mattaponi and the Mattaponi. "In the end, the canoes and I worked every major river system on the bay," he says.
Along the way, he began to see patterns from one river to the next, "and that began to get real exciting to me. I could see how things that happened on the Nanticoke could happen on the Rappahannock.
"You see the seasons come one day at a time, one degree at a time as the water temperature changes. . . . What I found was that following it through the seasons, fishing it, looking for its waterfowl, looking for its birds, trying to tune into bird migrations, all of that stuff was a real profound way to make myself a part of that creek, to develop a deep working relationship with it."
Eventually, "having all this stuff there, it just got real obvious to write a book about it, to help people understand where to go."
Mr. Williams, 49, grew up in Richmond, hanging around on the Northern Neck and fishing a lot, he says. "I've always had a real bad fishing vice. I don't know where it came from, but I've got it pretty bad. It's the primary way I relate to the water."
He gets a kick out of getting together with a few river-rat friends and exploring a stretch of river from one end to the other "to see how the pieces fit together." He describes an early spring trip on the Patuxent in the current Chesapeake Bay magazine, where he writes a monthly column.
"The first time we ever did it, we ran from Denton to Federalsburg, which is 16 miles by road, but it's about 140 miles by water." From Denton, they cruised down the Choptank, past Cambridge and into the open bay, then south and into the Nanticoke, upriver past Vienna to Marshyhope Creek and on into Federalsburg. "We poked around in a Miocene clay bank up in the Choptank. I must have run past 10 or 12 places I'd run field trips in the course of that day but had never been able to fit all those pieces together. That was real neat."