If you slog along the muddy banks of Little Pipe Creek near Union Bridge, two things strike you.
First, it's deserted along here, unless you count the black-and-white Holsteins trampling the banks. Carp and catfish rule the water, and a lack of trees makes a backhoe the most visible feature in the pasture.
Second, the stream flows nearly in a straight line, paralleling four miles of Route 75 from New Windsor to Union Bridge, near the western edge of Carroll County.
The creek wasn't always straight and barren. Seventy years ago, farmers took out the meanders and marshes that seemed a waste of valuable land. Using powerful bulldozers, they scraped the land, drying and cleaning stream banks for pasture and crops.
Now, in a bow to nature, crews from the state Department of Natural Resources are trying to take Little Pipe Creek back to the 1930s, when it was a tree-shaded waterway flanked by wetlands. They hope to cool the water's temperature and bring back the animals and fish that have been choked out by the loads of fine sediment in floodwaters rushing toward Union Bridge. The wetlands would also soak up nutrients and other pollutants headed for the Chesapeake Bay.
"This is a stream that's in need of help, definitely the worst in Carroll County," says Kevin M. Smith, chief of DNR's riparian and wetland restoration program. "I think it's one of the best opportunities I've seen in the state: You can bring that stream back."
The Little Pipe Creek project is part of a nationwide back-to-nature movement for rivers and streams, a counterpoint to the bulldozers of farmers and developers. In Maryland alone, 100 to 200 similar restorations are either finished, planned or under way.
"Streams in this part of the country had been in equilibrium for 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age," says James W. Gracie, who is not involved in this project but who does stream-restoration work as president of Brightwater Inc. of Ellicott City. "If the land hadn't been disturbed, the streams would be meandering, with lots of vegetation on the banks. A stream wants to meander."
Little Pipe Creek loops all around the compass. Rising in Westminster, it flows past New Windsor and Union Bridge to join Big Pipe Creek, where the two merge as Double Pipe Creek at the flood-prone town of Detour. The creek then empties into the Monocacy and Potomac rivers.
Its name apparently refers to smoking pipes, says Jay Graybeal, executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County, noting "Place Names of Maryland: Their Origin and Meaning." One item lists a 1797 kiln "built near the creek known as Pipeclay Creek" for a whitish clay used to make smoking pipes; a second refers to "peace pipes" made of local red clay.
But Little Pipe Creek isn't peaceful when it rains.
Standing along the creek and gesturing upstream, Union Bridge Mayor Perry L. Jones Jr. says, "When it floods, it's nothing to have a couple feet of water through this whole field. A major storm, an Agnes or Eloise, can mean five feet in Union Bridge."
Straight streams cut steeper slopes, says Gracie, a founder of Trout Unlimited in Maryland. "Then the water runs faster through major storms. The process accelerates - generating a lot of erosion from the channel, which keeps the stream full of fine sediment, which keeps most things from living there. That's the major cause of loss of aquatic life."
Work crews involved in the restoration project have a blueprint, of sorts, because aerial photographs from 1937 and 1938 in the archives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture show Little Pipe Creek's former path.
The stream took twice as long to reach the town when it meandered, says Jill Reichert, a DNR environmental specialist working on a 40-acre wetlands park in Union Bridge.
At the park off Main Street, boulders nest in the curves, and switches of black willow stick up everywhere. The fast-growing willow forms root balls that hold the soil; bigger sycamores, red maples, pin oaks and river birches will be planted this fall.
Reichert and crew will move upstream for a similar project in New Windsor, mucking along the banks of Dickenson Run before it enters Little Pipe Creek. Here, the stream still meanders, and that makes a quantifiable difference, she says. The New Windsor project is 15 acres, but the length of the stream is the same - about 3,000 feet - as in the 40 acres at Union Bridge.
Gracie and others credit David L. Rosgen, owner of Wildland Hydrology in Pagosa Springs, Colo., with spreading the back-to-nature movement since the mid-1980s, creating a cottage industry.
Rosgen says the demand for training has taken precedence over his restoration projects, because he figures he can reach more rivers and streams through the 7,000 people he has taught from around the world. The process involves "41 quantitative steps, more complex mathematically than standard engineering."