Site celebrates unspoiled shoreline

Research center aims to draw more visitors to hidden treasure


May 13, 2007|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Within minutes of starting their visit to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Pasadena residents Arnold and Kathleen Isaacs had their binoculars out ready to spot birds and any other creatures that might pop up.

The two spent a few hours exploring the research center campus on the shores of the Rhode River and Muddy Creek in Edgewater.

"It was a very pleasant walk in the spring," said Kathleen Isaacs. "What really struck me was how much of the surroundings of the bay must have been like that when we moved to Maryland in the 1960s. It's kind of a lost world."

This research center is something of an undiscovered treasure in the midst of Anne Arundel County. Many area residents know of the site because they drive past a sign on Muddy Creek Road identifying the center, but until recently few have stopped to check it out.

Last year, administrators began an effort to change that. Programs aimed at individuals and families were developed in a plan to attract more visitors to the research center, known as SERC.

The 3,000-acre site offers 14 miles of unspoiled shoreline with old-growth forest, freshwater wetlands and tidal marshes.

"We are the Smithsonian in your own backyard. We're right here, we're local and we're accessible," said Karen McDonald, the education outreach coordinator for SERC. "We're hearing very positive feedback. People love the fact that we are open and love the feeling of going back in time."

The area is open Monday through Saturday. Programs include night hikes, birding, junior scavenger hunts, seining and nature drawing.

Each month, a free evening lecture and discussion session is offered, with some of the nation's leading researchers and explorers talking about topics that range from global warming to Chesapeake Bay oystermen.

The center includes two public walking trails - the Discovery Trail and the Java History Trail. Each is just over a mile long, and they offer great views as well as a history of the property, which once served as a plantation and later as a dairy farm. Along the way, there are boardwalks through marsh and native grasses, an old water-sampling station that now serves as a nesting area for osprey and a wildfowl cove.

"We were always partially open to the public," said McDonald. "But it wasn't always public-friendly. Now it is."

Most of the 12,000 annual visitors to SERC are schoolchildren on field trips. They learn firsthand about seining, sampling and researching.

"In watching the kids here, I find enjoyment in observing them learn about fish and crabs in the Chesapeake Bay," said A. Mark Haddon, director of education for SERC. "We want them to get in this investigative state of mind."

He said he's always surprised at how many students have never stepped foot in a river or creek before coming to SERC.

"We're happy to provide that access," said Haddon, who started working at the center 23 years ago as a crab researcher.

By making the center more accessible, Haddon hopes the number of visitors will continue to climb.

"People want to know what we are doing here," he said. "Instead of always telling them, we can show them."

Perhaps one of the most popular programs is the canoe excursion, offered Saturdays at a cost of $12 per adult. The two-hour paddle is designed for beginners and includes a guided tour of the shoreline. It gives visitors the chance to spot osprey, great blue heron, muskrats and otters. There's also a public canoe and kayak launch available for visitors who want to explore the shoreline on their own. Sites along the tour route are marked, and a printed trail guide is offered.

SERC is known as the world's leading research center for environmental studies of the coastal zone. A staff of 16 senior scientists and a team of more than 180 researchers work at the natural laboratory.

The center's scientists study topics that include native orchids, blue crabs, water quality, mercury and plankton. It houses the longest running carbon dioxide study site in the world, looking at its effects on marsh grasses and plant growth.

The center's fish weir, a fence in the water that can be opened and closed, is viewable by canoe or walking the Discovery Trail. Here scientists look at patterns of migration in blue crabs and fish. The study, which began in 1983, has established that 100 percent of juvenile male blue crabs come to creeks like Muddy Creek to molt, hiding in the grasses and fallen wood before going back to the bay.

SERC also houses the world's longest data record on the increased ultraviolet solar radiation affecting the earth. It has developed the standardized tool for measuring ultraviolet radiation.

The public programs teach visitors about research and how it relates to issues such as global warming, invasive species, land use, water quality and the Chesapeake Bay.

"We're a wildlife preservation area and we are allowing the land to go back to nature and studying it in that succession," said McDonald. "Part of what SERC is about is studying how man relates to the land. Most people don't realize there are world-class researchers here."

Visitors can also climb a solar radiation tower that sits about 12 stories high and offers a view of the natural surroundings - something that shouldn't be missed. After all, natural surroundings like those found at SERC can be hard to come by and usually aren't open to the public.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.