John Smith redux

Editorial Notebook

August 05, 2006|By KAREN HOSLER

Even 400 years later, the Nanticoke River still welcomes waterborne visitors with unspoiled marshy and forested vistas very much like those that greeted the bold English sea captain who charted the Chesapeake Bay.

Just north of Vienna, the modernity of the Route 50 bridge, gritty power plant and soaring utility lines quickly give way to lush aprons of sea grasses, pinky white hibiscus, purple pickerel weed and wild rice. These natural breadbaskets of the native peoples John Smith encountered along his route buffer thick stands of red maple, green ash and black gum.

The trees are not so tall as those of Capt. Smith's era because forests are recovering from years of timbering, and the water level has risen over centuries during which the river served as a busy shipping channel. Even so, it's possible to envision the extraordinary beauty that would prompt the explorer to proclaim: "Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a more perfect place for man's habitation."

Offering tourists such an experience is the goal of a campaign under way to win federal coordination of a national historic water trail that would help boaters re-create Capt. Smith's 2,300-mile exploration of the bay region. Area lawmakers are seeking congressional approval in time to launch the water trail as part of next year's 400th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown.

Sponsors hope to broaden and deepen appreciation of the bay as well as provide an economic boost to dozens of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware communities a bit down at the heel since the maritime industry passed them by.

But as with John Smith's own tumultuous visit to the region, an influx of tourists to such serene locations as the upper Nanticoke could be a mixed blessing if it means dock bars, Jet Skis and a slew of party yachts at anchor. In fact, the Nanticoke appears as it does today in part because the action moved elsewhere, and much of the land on its banks has been protected through public and private conservation programs.

The tiny town of Vienna, population 300, may provide a model, though, for toeing the line between healthy growth and too much.

Vienna is already working with the developers of adjacent farmland to expand the town just enough to be worthy of its own grocery, pharmacy and maybe an upscale restaurant to supplement Millie's Roadhouse.

If the John Smith water trail is approved, Vienna hopes its tiny waterfront will become an official gateway, complete with visitors center and boat-launch ramp. But the only boats available for rent would be no bigger, and probably smaller, than Capt. Smith's 30-foot vessel powered by sail or oars. Bed and breakfast accommodations would be available, but no motels.

As part of its tight growth controls, Vienna has won agreement from the developer to buy a broad swath of land on the town's outskirts and transfer ownership to the town, which would put the land in a conservation zone that could never be violated.

"At least that's the pipe dream," said Mayor Russell Brinsfield. "We don't want to grow any more than that."

The economic impact of John Smith tourists is uncertain. Towns along the westward route of 19th century explorers Lewis and Clark were disappointed at the turn-out for bicentennial celebrations of that journey.

In both cases, what's most widely known of the explorers is more myth than reality. Historians now question, for example, John Smith's romantic account of Pocahontas interceding with her father, Powhatan, to spare the Englishman's life.

And neither the House nor the Senate has yet found time to act on the trail legislation, which may delay federal support for buoy markers and other guides to help visitors navigate the watery Smith route.

Yet if only a dedicated few kayakers are motivated to follow the path of John Smith's "discovery barge" through quiet bay backwaters that remain essentially unchanged while the explorers are forever transformed, the water trail will be a success - perhaps more so because of the missing hordes.

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