Six-day journey from heaven on earth


November 13, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Beginnings are thrilling, from Genesis to opening day of trout season; pure and unencumbered, fraught with potential and discovery.

So it is with the place the bay begins -- the many places, actually. Forty-odd rivers feed the estuary from the lands of six states, covering nearly a fifth of the Atlantic Seaboard.

There is the remote valley in southwestern Virginia, where ambling across the Allegheny plateau the Bullpasture and Calfpasture creeks become the Cowpasture River.

Its cool, placid waters join the rambunctious, hot mineral springs of the Jackson River at Iron Gate to birth the James, third largest tributary of the bay.

At Fairfax Stone, W.Va., a little spring just west of Garrett County seeps forth in what Colonials dubbed "the first fountain of the Potowmack." Sweeping nearly 400 miles to Point Lookout, it becomes the second largest Chesapeake tributary.

From a rusty pipe sticking out of a hill in an eroded pasture in Carrolltown, in Pennsylvania's coal country, the bay's biggest river gets one of its two starts.

The pipe fills an old bathtub used to water draft horses. Overflowing, it splashes on some weeds and trickles south as the West Branch of the mighty Susquehanna, source of half the bay's fresh water.

But the top of the watershed where, above all, the bay begins, is with the clear, cold waters of Lake Otsego at Cooperstown, N.Y., at a latitude as far north as Vermont's southern boundary.

Cooperstown is a village so impeccably small-town American you expect to see Ozzie and Harriet chatting with Norman Rockwell on any corner. It is a good day's drive from Havre de Grace, or about six days' travel for water flowing from Otsego (namesake of a street in the Maryland river town).

The watershed literally begins amid rolling hills and pasture a few miles north of the eight-mile-long lake, where streams like Trout Brook and Hayden Creek gather moisture off the south slope of a gentle ridge, the other side of which inclines to the valley of the Mohawk River, thence to the Hudson.

Standing on such divides is an impressive way to experience geography. Spit in one direction and your spit ends up in New York City; turn and spit again and you have expectorated on Baltimore and Norfolk.

The view from the watershed's top is as lovely as anything down in tidewater. On a cool, mid-July evening, from a slope where wildflowers danced in the meadows, it lay like a silver ingot, stretching greenwalled into the smoky distance.

"Heaven on Earth," said Dan Rosen, my host.

I thought of John Smith, nearly 400 years before, sailing into the bay's mouth 600 miles below. Heaven and Earth, he said, never agreed better to frame human habitation.

It is at the foot of Otsego, just a few blocks' stroll past the Baseball Hall of Fame, that gravity's urge first gets the water moving purposefully bayward.

Here, between maple-shaded lawns, by the Council Rock where Iroquois and Mohawk once palavered, the Susquehanna begins, ever so tentatively.

A few blocks south, by the town hospital, tumbling over a 6-foot dam, the river finds its voice, begins to bubble and riffle and rill, to stretch itself for the 440-mile romp down to Havre de Grace.

Hard by the banks sit several large piles of dirt from recent construction. Reflecting New York state's lack of sediment control, they await only a rainfall to begin feeding tons of silt into the bay ecosystem.

So perhaps it is fitting that in recent months some strange (to Cooperstonians) blue and white stencils have appeared on half a dozen storm drains here where the bay begins:

"Don't Dump, Chesapeake Bay Drainage"

They were put there by Claudia Donegan, an intrepid educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She recently led a group of teachers there from Pennsylvania, a state that is going to extraordinary lengths to help the bay by stemming pollution from its part of the Susquehanna drainage basin.

It is high time that watershed's top became more connected to watershed's bottom. New York, along with Delaware and West Virginia, was never included in the historic 1983 Chesapeake cleanup agreement signed by Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

At the time, the politics of coordinating three states seemed hard enough without involving even more players, whose contributions to pollution were relatively minor.

But only relatively. New York, according to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in Harrisburg, contributes 13 percent of the nitrogen and 9 percent of the phosphorus washing into the Chesapeake via the Susquehanna. These two nutrients, mainly from sewage pipes and agriculture, and also from septic tanks, are the key pollutants behind the bay's loss of underwater grasses and low oxygen problems.

New York isn't likely to become a full-fledged member of the bay cleanup in the near term, but there is much to build a stronger connection around, starting at the top, in Cooperstown.

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