A place where learning flows

Tours: The Wetlands by Canoe program teaches people how to be stewards of the Chesapeake Bay.

September 02, 2005|By Chris Yakaitis | Chris Yakaitis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Chesapeake Bay is full of surprises.

In the early moments of Wednesday evening's Wetlands By Canoe tour, sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Grasonville, one visitor spots a furry head drifting through the water in Marshy Creek, a protected cove off the Chester River.

"Oh my goodness!" says Shelby Laubhan, 24, the evening's guide. "We do have a little mammal critter up here."

Eventually, the group determines it has been treated to an otter sighting. Laubhan has led canoe tours since June 2004, but this is her first such spotting.

"I've heard they had them, but I've never seen one," she says. "He came out just for you guys."

Another surprise comes courtesy of one of the tourists. When Laubhan stops the group near a cluster of sea grass and asks for its proper name, 7-year-old Christopher Jackson of Kent Island is the first to answer correctly.

"It's widgeon grass," he says, explaining how it oxygenates the bay's water supply.

Since June 2003, the CBEC has led educational tours of the wetlands on its 510-acre property about 15 miles east of the Bay Bridge. The canoe tours leave every other Wednesday evening from the Center's base near Route 18 in Grasonville and take up to 16 people on a counter-clockwise circuit through the generally calm waters of one of the bay's tributaries. After a quick lesson in paddling, visitors set off in canoes from a small wooden pier in pairs or threesomes to explore the wildlife of the Eastern Shore. Throughout the two-hour ride, a guide provides short discussions of issues threatening the environmental health of one of Maryland's greatest natural resources.

Booked solid

At $5 a person, the tours have been an effective way for the nonprofit CBEC to communicate its message of conservation, education, restoration and research while offering visitors of all ages and backgrounds an intimate view of the bay's ecosystem.

"This year, just about every wetlands canoe tour has been booked full," says Vicki Paulas, 31, a restoration manager and educator with the CBEC. "We hope that people become more interested in our site and what we do, and leave here more educated about the bay."

Wetlands By Canoe tours run from early June through late October. When guided tours are not offered, visitors can rent canoes or sit-a-top kayaks for $10 and paddle through Marshy Creek on their own from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The CBEC's site also includes hiking, photography and birding opportunities on a diversity of terrain. But Paulas says the canoe tours and waterfront activities are among the center's main attractions.

"If you don't get to explore our property by the water, you kind of miss some of the beauty of it," she says. "We try to target every bit of the population, and we're trying to teach the kids to be better stewards of the bay."

Originally founded as the Wildfowl Trust of North America in 1979, the CBEC relies on private donations, school programs, memberships and grants to support its projects and five-member full-time staff.

The group's efforts are additionally bolstered by volunteers such as Laubhan, who works as a Chesapeake Bay Program fellow in Annapolis.

Reflecting the CBEC's commitment to restoration and education, Wednesday's tour features several discussions of the bay's ecological problems. As dragonflies skitter over the water's surface, Laubhan stops the group periodically and assembles the four boats in "canoe clumps" to explain specific issues.

She details the overharvesting of the bay's oyster population, a problem the CBEC is attempting to combat by planting new oyster beds. She outlines the concept of non-native, invasive species such as mute swans and Phragmites -- a weedlike, rapidly encroaching reed -- and describes how they are damaging the area's biodiversity.

She points out a straight, cleared corridor jutting off the cove toward the mainland and says that in the 1970s the Army Corp of Engineers had attempted to drain the wetlands, only to recognize this as a disastrously bad idea several years later. She describes the wetlands as the Chesapeake Bay's kidneys. (And when she asks what kidneys do, Christopher chimes in, "They clean your blood.")

A stunning view

In Laubhan's estimation, this recent tour offers a particularly stunning evening. The air temperature hovers in the low to mid-70s with near zero humidity and a light breeze over the water. Sunlight filters through layers of clouds to the west and glints off the cove's rippling surface. About 6:30 p.m., the steady cloud cover turns menacingly dark in the east, and a light rain begins to fall on the canoers. As the waves become choppy, Laubhan proposes leaving early.

But within 15 minutes, the rain stops, the water calms and a strip of rainbow appears on the northeastern horizon.

"It's like over-the-rainbow Oz out here tonight," Laubhan says.

She cannot promise an identically majestic experience for every Wednesday night tour. But the unpredictability may be part of the ride's appeal.

And for this night's participants, the moderate gamble has paid off. Laubhan concludes her guided tour by asking what people will remember about the evening. A few echo the ecological concerns discussed during the tour; others compliment Laubhan on her knowledge and fluid presentation.

But 72-year-old Russ Bauer, a retired mathematician from Glendale, sums up the experience best: "Wind, rain, beauty."

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