Bonna L. Nelson - June 2009
Tidewater Day Tripping:
Walkin’ the Trails at Wye Island
Bonna L. Nelson
“Mysterious” is how I would describe walkin’ the trails at Wye Island. You’re never sure what you might find while meandering under canopies of Osage orange trees or towering oaks and pines. A narrow wooden bridge traverses a small stream. A marshy wetland beckons with lily pads and a heron stalking its prey. A centuries-old holly tree, possessing many secrets from the past, stands like a sentry in a sunlit farm field. A wide vista of open river at trail’s end captures the imagination. And picnic tables under the pines offer a brief respite.
Each trail is actually a farm field hedgerow planted by farmers over the years to corral cattle and other livestock and divide property. Each trail has magic and personality waiting to be discovered by the adventurous. Intriguing coiled tree branches line one trail; swooping, circling turkey vultures reign above another, crunchy leaves and pine boughs blanket the ground under ancient forests on the next; and an endangered Delmarva fox squirrel scampers from view on another.
We saw all of these wonders on one of those delightful spring days when the sky was robin’s egg blue with chunky clouds floating by like white cotton candy and the air filled with the unmistakable scent of fresh-mowed grass and freshly turned earth. We traveled west on Route 50 toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to meet our friends, Joan and Bob Pfeiffer, who traveled east across the bridge to the Shore.
The Pfeiffers have a fondness for the outdoors. They take daily walks on the hills near their home in Boring, MD, and they climb rock walls in a nearby facility on the weekends when they’re not camping and climbing the real thing.
My husband, John, and I love the outdoors too, and we were looking forward to exploring Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area (WINRMA) with our friends. We had been mostly committed to indoor sports for the winter, and the weather, though breezy, was finally changing as evidenced by the redbuds and Bradford pears in full bloom.
Yes, spring was wearing her most attractive prom dress that day, gaily decorated with greening weeping willows, golden forsythias, pale pink tulip tree blossoms, yellow and white daffodil trumpets and royal purple hyacinths. To accompany spring to the prom came robins dressed in red-breasted tuxedos, flitting yellow finches and noble blue jays.
When we arrived at Carmichael Road, off Route 50, our friends were waiting and we led the way to the park, passing farms, newly turned fields, Pintail Point, a quaint stained glass-windowed church and the entrance to the Aspen Institute Wye River Conference Center. Cars lined the narrow road at the University of Maryland Wye Research Center. Signs announced a cattle sale of velvety Black Angus raised by the facility (and seen grazing in a nearby pasture). Additional signs along Carmichael announced Wye Plantation, Houghton House and River House.
Finally, with much anticipation, after traveling for about 5 miles on Carmichael, we crossed the Wye Island Bridge onto the island. White caps and colorful crab pot floats dotted the water at Wye Narrows, and an old duck blind stood silent watch. Carmichael Road became Wye Island Road, the 4.2-mile main road that bisects Wye Island and off which are located the walking trails. Once on Wye Island we were surrounded by farm fields with corn stands and native grasses left for waterfowl habitat. By spring most of the waterfowl, Canada geese and ducks, had headed north and songbirds, ospreys and bald eagles were taking their place. White-tail deer, Delmarva fox squirrels and shorebirds are year-round residents. We spotted an occupied osprey nest on a telephone pole with nearby neighbors, a gazillion sparrows, primly lined up on the wires strung like clotheslines between the poles.
Park Office: A left on Wye Hall Drive took us past homes and wildlife habitat fields to a small park office on the left. The sign was easy to miss: “Office” carved into a low hanging entrance fence post. Bluebird houses filled the yard of the unoccupied office. A call to the office earlier in the month was returned by a park ranger who assured me that the office would be open to obtain a Wye Island Trail Guide and have questions answered. No such luck. A telephone number on the office door was answered by a central State Park call center who located a park ranger to call me back.
Ranger Martin Calhoun called from Martinak State Park – with budget cutbacks, rangers must manage Martinak, Tuckahoe, Choptank Fishing Pier, Wye Oak and Wye Island. The island seasonal office manager would be reporting later in the week and be available to assist visitors. The ranger offered to drive to Wye Island to meet with us, but not wanting to inconvenience him, I asked for the directions to the best trails leading to the water and was given advice on where maps were posted. We drove back to Wye Island Road to look for the trails.
Description: Wye Island is a 2,800-acre island, of which 2,450 acres are designated a Maryland State Natural Resources Management Area. The island was purchased by the state in 1976, just after developer James Rouse’s Wye Island development proposal was rejected. The island is located in the tidal recesses of the Chesapeake Bay, in Queen Anne’s County between the Wye River and Wye East River. Though six remaining private estate homes dot the Wye Island waterfront, some quite historic, the island, thanks to the state purchase, remains as it has been for centuries, a mix of farm fields and forests.
Managed for agriculture and natural wildlife protection as well as recreation, Maryland’s WINRMA offers 12 miles of dirt, gravel, pine needle and tree root-covered trails open year round from sunup to sundown for walking, biking and horseback riding, as well as 30 miles of shoreline and tidal wetland (where restoration efforts are in process) for fishing and paddling. No entry fees are charged. Primitive camping is also available at three sites, and the Duck House Conference Lodge and grounds, including a pavilion, lodging, kitchen and outdoor grill, are also available to rent.
History: According to the WINRMA account, the name Wye was given to the island and surrounding rivers in the 1600s by Edward Lloyd for the river of the same name in his native Wales. The island was privately owned for over 300 years and used for agricultural purposes. Two owners of note were William Paca, Governor of Maryland (1782-1784) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Charles Beale Bordley, farmer and judge, who established prosperous vineyards, orchards, a textile production, a brickyard and a brewery.
Trails: Our first stop was the Granary Creek Picnic Area, the next left off Wye Island Road. Here are all the amenities one could ask for on a hike of a rural rustic island. A bulletin board displayed a large map of the island, with trails, picnic and parking areas noted. (I should mention my usual reminders for a Tidewater Day Trip—wear sunscreen, insect repellant, appropriate clothing and close-toed shoes for walking in the woods, hat, sunglasses, water, snacks, and a camera.)
For personal needs there was an old-fashioned outhouse, and there are others on the trails. Picnic tables and trees lined the creek cove and the view of the creek leading out to the river was scenic and tranquil.
While traveling to the next trail we stopped to let a squiggling black rat snake cross the dirt road. At Solo Cove Campsite, 80-foot maple, tulip poplar and black gum trees towered overhead. Also along the trail, we passed a manmade impoundment, shallow water, corn stalk stubble and winter wheat, all part of the wildlife habitat and protection features of the WINRMA. At trail’s end we found a rustic campsite used by scouts and other groups with picnic tables, a few small stoves and fire pits. White-flowered shadbush lined the bank of the cove, and downed trees in the water provided habitat for marine creatures and a peaceful setting.
On to one of the most popular trails – Ferry Point Landing – under a tunnel of Osage orange trees tiny, pale, translucent blue butterflies greeted us. Walking under the arching Osage orange trees, is like walking through the skeleton of a whale. The tree branches cross and curve like ribs, completely enveloping hikers. The trail ends on the water at Drum Point, at one time a ferry landing. White caps dotted the river at the windy point. On a trail loop off the main trail, purple violets covered the ground under God’s amazing architecture – the curves and tangles of the tunnel of trees.
Mourning doves took flight as we passed soybean and corn fields heading to the next trail. A yellow-bellied sapsucker rapped on a nearby tree, and turkeys grazed and scampered at the edge of a forest encircling the field. A wildlife lover’s delight!
The Holly Tree Trail is a path between a wooded area and a farm field that leads to a massive holly tree planted in 1734. Can you imagine the stories it could tell if it could speak? A variety of wildflowers poked out here and there and swayed in the breeze. This trail, like all of the others on the island, is designated easy or novice, though one must be careful of uneven ground, muddy spots and roots and vines underfoot.
Near the Schoolhouse Woods Nature Trail we passed an old barn, water tower, corn crib, windmill frame and livestock tank, a picturesque sight. The trail leads to Grapevine Cove. Pine tree bark and needles and moss blanket the path. Jack-in-the-pulpits wave in the wind. Overhead ancient ash, holly, loblolly pine, oak and hickory whisper their secrets. The trail was spooky, like traveling through a forest in a Harry Potter movie. We expected the trees to come to life and a witch or demon to pop up on the trail ahead.
Saving the remaining trails for our next trip, as we headed back toward the Wye Island Bridge, we spotted the white heads and tails of two bald eagles standing, and appearing to be conversing, in the middle of a field. We stopped to watch in awe, but they paid us no attention. The eagles were a testimony to preventing development and preserving the island for the protection and observation of nature’s gifts.
For more information on visiting or volunteering: Contact the Wye Island NRMA office at 410-827-7577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders, and Change in a Chesapeake Community Special Reprint Edition, Boyd Gibbons, 1977