A historic journey retraced on the bay

Voyage: A North Carolina professor travels along the Chesapeake to commemorate John Smith's 1608 excursion.

July 09, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Susan Schmidt is itching to get back on the water, but she's grounded for another day in Eastport. The depth sounder on her boat is on the fritz, she needs groceries and she has an appointment to get a haircut.

Distractions of this sort didn't keep explorer John Smith from charting the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 - a journey that Schmidt is retracing and chronicling this summer on her 22-foot motorboat - although he did have to contend with a life-threatening stingray bite and the occasional Indian attack.

Schmidt, a 53-year-old North Carolina college professor, mortgaged her home to finance her three-month bay voyage, and set out in April with her arthritic dog, Molly Brown.

After a treacherous beginning on the James River battling cold, wind gusts and fog, the trip has exceeded her expectations - from sampling crab cake recipes up the bay to falling asleep in her rocking boat tucked in a secluded cove.

"When I first started traveling, I prayed for safety and decent weather, just to get through it," Schmidt said from her boat Landfall, which docked two weeks ago at the pier at McNasby's seafood restaurant in Eastport. "Now it's sort of a continuous prayer of gratitude and wonder. ... I'm just out there praying for the bay and talking to the birds."

On her laptop computer, Schmidt regularly records her observations of her bay excursion and plans to turn the journal into a book in time for the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. She's comparing her sightings with Smith's, when he made his excursion from June 2 to Sept. 7 with a crew of 13 men.

Smith was one of the founders of Jamestown, America's first permanent English settlement. He mounted his bay voyage to find food, search for gold and to discover a trading route to India.

"My general question, as a naturalist and a literary scholar, is how did the first Europeans encounter this continent, and in turn, how did the continent change the Europeans and how did the Europeans change this continent?" she said. "They encounter this new world, this wilderness, this land of unlimited richness and resources, and part of what John Smith documents is the splendid diversity and abundance of plants and animals.

"I want to remind everybody what a wonderland it was, and indeed still is," she said.

After braving the James River the first week in April - a trip Smith made in 1607 - Schmidt set out from Smith's 1608 starting point at Cape Henry, Va., on May 8 to make her way counterclockwise around the bay. She followed the Eastern Shore north, past Tangier Sound and Smith Island, across the Choptank and Tred Avon rivers, all the while exploring creeks and coves. She's taken Landfall to the waters of the upper Eastern Shore and crossed the bay to the western shore.

After visiting her ancestors' farm, now part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, she continued to Baltimore, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Bay Ridge and on to Eastport.

Along the way, she has docked at marinas and wildlife refuges, stopping to type up her notes, take a swim with Molly and go exploring in her kayak. She's also given talks to schoolchildren and environmental groups.

"The dockmasters have just been darling," she said. "I show up and I'm this crazy woman, and they're all just as accommodating as they can be."

For the past 12 years, Schmidt has taught English and environmental studies at several colleges in North Carolina, including Brevard College, North Carolina State University and Duke University. She had been thinking about taking a bay voyage for the past decade. For Schmidt, the trip is part scholarly exercise and part nostalgia.

When Schmidt was a young girl, her father taught her to sail on the bay, and she has ancestors who came from Jamestown to the Eastern Shore in 1620.

"I feel, when I go up these creeks and walk on Wye Island, that I am from here," she said. "It feels good."

The bay evoked similar sentiments in Smith, who described it in a passage from his voyage:

"There is but one entrance by sea into this country, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly bay, 18 or 20 miles broad. ... Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation."

Schmidt, a writing teacher at Carteret Community College in Morehead City, N.C., took out a home equity loan on her Beaufort house to finance her journey, which she estimates will cost $104,000. So far, she has put about $50,000 of her money into the trip - the $30,000 cost of her boat and about $20,000 in other expenses, including fuel, food and supplies.

Marine businesses in Beaufort donated about $4,000 worth of equipment and services, and she received a $500 research grant from the North Carolina Arts Council.

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