In middle of I-95: great outdoors

Outdoors

May 11, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

No one would ever mistake the median strip of Interstate 95 for the Grand Canyon's breathtaking Indian Springs campground.

Maybe an ancient Indian burial ground, what with all the carcasses of animals sacrificed to four-wheeled machines that menace mere feet away.

Yet there's something wild and slightly adventurous about pitching a tent under the stars and having dinner by the glow of thousands of headlights.

Maryland - that is you and I - owns the land between the northbound and southbound lanes of the artery that connects Maine to Florida. Of the 1,925 miles, 109 miles pass through Maryland. In some spots it's just a soft Frisbee toss from one side to the other. But there are spots where it's broad and lush, with a border of wildflowers planted by state workers and a soundtrack provided by Ford and nature.

Bunnies hop, woodchucks waddle and hawks wheel overhead. A deer pokes around nearby. Late at night, the mechanical sounds fade - or maybe the ears adjust - and small, unseen critters make their presence known by rustling in the undergrowth. An owl announces its presence. Repeatedly.

How do I know?

Fieldwork.

No, it's not exactly sanctioned. But neither are the 30 or so 18-wheelers that park overnight on the road's shoulder by the rest area in Howard County. You can't miss them. They're parked right next to the official "No Standing Anytime" signs.

If state troopers can give them a nightly bye, what's a little 6-foot-by-8-foot "campground" on public land that no one uses? Besides, access didn't require a dangerous dash across the asphalt, not even halfway.

Just a little aerial photo work, some topo map reading and a couple of hours of scouting.

By the way, don't get any wild ideas about trying this yourself.

It has been done now. Find your own suburban Jon Krakauer adventure.

And Maryland has tons of good campgrounds that don't require sucking down exhaust fumes or listening to the primal growl of air brakes.

As far as repercussions go, apparently a journalist on a story in the median is considered no more of a nuisance than a broken-down car in a similar spot, according to the State Highway Administration.

"You're not going to hear any complaints from us," SHA spokesman Dave Buck says.

Like any positive "camping" experience, you want a flat surface on high ground, no overhanging dead branches, no poison ivy and a modicum of privacy. After all, why invite a visit from folks you don't know?

The site selected, gear is next. I recommend simple: a one-person tent in earth tones, a warm-weather sleeping bag, a small camp stove, a flashlight, a headlamp, a small pair of binoculars and water. Oh, and food. Freeze-dried pesto salmon pasta for dinner and oatmeal with almonds and cinnamon for breakfast.

No iPod. No DVD player. Not even a book to distract from studying the critters of I-95.

So why do it?

Because of Lowell Adams, or more specifically, the Maryland wildlife expert's 1981 study, "Small Mammal Use of an Interstate Highway Median Strip."

Adams, vice chairman of the governor's Wildlife Advisory Commission and a University of Maryland professor, targeted a 17-mile stretch of Highway 85 near Henderson, N.C. He trapped 136 critters representing seven species and found that the highest density of animals was in the unmowed right-of-way bordered by woods toward the median strip interior. The density in the median was similar to that found in wooded habitat within a quarter-mile of the highway.

That squared with a 1977 study of birds living in the median strip of I-95 in Maine.

Adams is amused by my highly unscientific experiment and, nice man that he is, asks me what I saw.

He isn't surprised by my list.

Neither is Paul Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"It's like critterland in miniature," Peditto says. "There's no habitat that isn't covered in a median strip, from sandy soils to rocky outcroppings to forest and grasslands and wetlands. If we were to survey every mile, I think we'd find that almost anything documented in Maryland would be found somewhere in the median."

The abundance and diversity isn't exclusive to the middle of the highway, either.

"There's got to be a white-tailed deer on every good, fully forested exit ramp. In some cases, a full family group," Peditto says. "At [Route] 32 and [Route] 100, there are some really nice bucks."

But all that wildlife causes headaches for DNR and state police. While some animals are content to hang out in the median and travel in a linear way, others try to make a break for it.

"We can't figure out why the turtle crosses the road, but they sure do," Peditto says. "It's something that confounds wildlife managers, and we spend a lot of time trying to find ways to mitigate the conflicts."

Culverts - such as the ones under I-97 - divert animals such as turtles. But often they prove unsuccessful because the pipes become waterlogged or animals are fearful of entering something where they cannot see the other side.

There are the inevitable collisions between deer and vehicles and other animals.

"One of our most frequent calls is when mallard hens are taking their broods from one [highway] sediment pond to another," Peditto says. "She's the only one who can fly. The others have to waddle, and they don't waddle fast."

My wildlife behave themselves. No stolen pic-a-nic basket, no critters nestled in my boots, no nasty confrontations.

Dinner tastes pretty good, although the thought of having company drop by and me without an extra place setting is a tad unsettling. The night passes quickly - an unintended detour into sleep mode for a short spell probably helps. At first light, it's some coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, and then I break camp.

Time to give a tiny strip of wilderness back to its residents.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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