Federal trail would honor bay explorer

April 12, 2006|By RONA KOBELL | RONA KOBELL,SUN REPORTER

In 1608, Capt. John Smith and a couple dozen hardy souls left Jamestown in an open shallop and paddled up the Chesapeake Bay. Though they never found a river route to the Pacific, they did discover a waterway flush with vibrant native peoples and packed with enough crabs and oysters to erase memories of a starving colony back home.

Nearly 400 years later, Smith's route -- all 3,000 miles of it -- could be on its way to becoming the nation's first national water trail.

The U.S. senators from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware have introduced legislation to create the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced yesterday. If approved, the trail would become the third-longest in a federal system that includes the Lewis and Clark Trail across the Louisiana Territory.

Lawmakers and environmentalists gathered yesterday in front of a replica of Smith's boat at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore to promote the Smith trail proposal. Last year, President Bush signed a law authorizing the National Park Service to study the feasibility of the plan.

The study hasn't been completed, but lawmakers are hoping to push the bill along anyway; they expect the National Park Service will agree the trail should be marked in the bay and its tributaries. Their hope is that Congress will pass the legislation before it adjourns in October so the trail can be done by 2008, when Jamestown celebrates the 400th anniversary of Smith's expedition.

"This is a way to reach back into history 400 years and find a touchstone that will let us reach out to all Americans and celebrate the Chesapeake Bay," said Patrick Noonan, founder of the Conservation Fund. "There is more history in the Chesapeake Bay region than any region in the United States, but it's an undiscovered history."

For the trail, buoys would mark off portions of Smith's journey and signs on land would tell the history. Using Smith's detailed maps and notes, the park service would create educational materials. Smith completed two long journeys around the bay and up and down its tributaries in his shallop, a 30-foot craft made of white oak and propelled by oar and sail.

When Noonan first broached the subject of a water trail, many were skeptical. A move to turn the Chesapeake Bay into a national park fizzled last year, in part because of the cost. But Noonan figured the water trail wouldn't cost much money. It would be in the publicly owned bay and there's plenty of public access to the water throughout Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

He enlisted the National Geographic Society to put together maps based on Smith's records. He received public support from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Garden Club of America. And he helped pave the way for a Chestertown company to replicate the shallop.

Now Noonan envisions a completely 21st-century John Smith experience. Before they set out for the trail, paddlers could download maps from National Geographic Society's Web site. When they arrive at a noteworthy site, "talking" buoys -- programmed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- would tell them about it.

Those who don't want to paddle their own canoes could hire watermen to take them around. The watermen, Noonan figures, would be grateful for the business, because crabs and fish hardly constitute the protein factories they did in Smith's day.

"Combining history and conservation is such a logical nexus and such a great teaching tool," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the policymaking arm of the federal-state bay cleanup program. "It's another opportunity to pull people into the Chesapeake."

Many people might be more enamored of the legend of John Smith and his romance with Pocahontas than they are focused on the bay's ecology. But the trail would foster awareness that the bay needs to be saved, said Will Baker, head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

John Smith looms large for Baker's organization. It was Smith who said, upon seeing the bay, that "heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation." And the bay as Smith found it is the standard by which the foundation each year measures water quality and conditions for fish habitat.

"John Smith chronicled the bay at its best, and what the chronicle does is give us a baseline," Baker said.

Sarbanes, who is retiring in January, said he would like legislation to pass before he leaves Congress. "This will focus a tremendous amount of attention on the bay," he said. "What an opportunity it's going to give us for recreation, education and tourism."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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