Dick Cooper - January 2009

Blackwater: A Fragile Beauty
Dick Cooper

   CAMBRIDGE - A thousand snow geese explode out of the marsh in a swirl of white. Their black-tipped wings blur against the brown and green backdrop of the forest as they bank and turn in unison. As they fly toward us, their honking intensifies, and we can feel the roiling currents of air rush over us.
    My wife, Pat, catches the sight through her camera lens. As she lowers the Nikon, her face lights up with a broad smile, half joy, half wonder.
   “I just love this,” she says.
    We are in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in the Great Marsh of Dorchester County. Blackwater Lake, a 12-square-mile tidal pool, stretches in front of us. Thousands of Canada geese waddle on the mud flats. A bald eagle stands sentry on the lone trunk of a long-dead loblolly pine. A squadron of ducks leaps out of the water and flies overhead on whistling wings. A heron stares through the surface of the water, looking for lunch.
    The 27,000-acre refuge makes you feel as if you have traveled to a remote, raw frontier of nature. But we are just 15 minutes from U.S. Route 50, a six-lane highway lined with hotels, fast-food franchises and big-box stores that cuts through the city of Cambridge.
    The marsh draws more than 165,000 visitors a year, mostly in the early spring and the fall. About 60 percent of Americans live within a day’s drive, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
    They come to see the winter home of 35,000 Canada geese, 15,000 snow geese and tundra swans, and thousands of ducks and loons - even white pelicans. Tens of thousands of migrating birds make the refuge a stop on the Eastern Flyway, so the FWS maintains a series of ponds and cultivates more than 450 acres to provide food.
    It also is the year-round home of more than 130 bald eagles, the largest East Coast population of the national birds north of Florida, the FWS says.
    The beauty of Blackwater, however, hides the fragility of the marsh.
   “Sea level is rising even faster than we thought,” says Dixie Birch, the supervisory wildlife biologist at Blackwater. “We continue to lose the marsh at an alarming rate. More and more is going underwater. It could be gone in 2025 or even 2020.”
    In the Visitors’ Center, staffed by volunteers from the Friends of Blackwater, a monitor displays the live feed from a camera over an eagles’ nest, where the female has just laid two eggs to start her new family.
   “They lay their eggs in the winter,” a volunteer explains. “They incubate them for 32 to 36 days before they hatch.”
    Males and females take turns sitting on the eggs to make sure they stay warm and unmolested.
    It’s easy to explore this wildlife refuge. You can drive from the Visitors’ Center to Wildlife Drive, which winds for five miles along waterways, woods and marsh. Several short trails branch off the drive to get you even closer to the wildlife.
    Around a corner in the drive, the horizon opens up, and you realize why Blackwater has become known as the “Everglades of the North.” Open expanses of water are framed by islands covered with pines and tall grass. Most of the migrating geese and swans winter there, congregating in flocks of hundreds to thousands.
    The air is full of the sounds of birds. The honking of an unseen flock off to the west carries across the water like a distant war chant.
    As we drive though a forested section, Blackwater’s version of a traffic jam brings us to a halt. Four cars are stopped on the shoulder. A half-dozen people are standing in the roadway, aiming binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses toward the pines.
    We join them. One of the men lowers his camera, points to the trees, and says in a reverent church whisper, “Back there, about 20 feet up, two bald eagles.”
    The pair of national birds is looking back at us with bored gazes, slowing turning their heads to get a better view. A cyclist stops to join us, followed by a young couple with a baby in a stroller. We all watch quietly. No one talks. No motorists blow their horns in impatience. A chevron of geese passes overhead. We are in their home.
    The refuge also has hiking trails and three marked water “trails” for paddlers who want to explore deeper into the marsh. The FWS recommends that paddlers take guided tours to help navigate the maze of rivers and streams.
    While the Chesapeake Bay is rising from the effects of global warming, the land is also sinking under the water at a rate of about 100 acres a year. The lake is really the drowned Blackwater River; its serpentine bed, once lined with tall grass, has slipped under the surface over the last 75 years.
    For more than 185 years, Blackwater has been the victim of upstream mistakes. A canal dug by slaves in 1820 turned the freshwater river and marsh brackish, killing trees and wildlife. Nearby canneries that shipped seafood and vegetables around the world for the first half of the 20th century used so much water that the land is slipping away. Rainwater runoff from housing developments sends pollutants into the marsh.
    If the cycle is not reversed, the marsh will continue to disappear, Birch says.
    Marshes are crucial to the environment, she adds.
   “They are a major spawning area for shellfish and finfish and an important habitat for bald eagles and migratory birds and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel,” she explains. “If the wetlands are lost, they will have nowhere to go.
   “Someone has said that wetlands are like the kidneys in a person - they filter out wastes and help clean up the bay.”
    Federal and state agencies are working on long-range plans to restore the marsh.
    A major success has been the eradication of nutria, Birch says. The beaver-like rodent, native to South America, was brought to the area in the 1940s to supplement the native muskrat fur trade. With no natural predators, the nutria population expanded rapidly. Their favorite meal happens to be the roots of marsh grasses. They were eating the marsh to death.
    The other great hope for the restoration is to use soil dredged from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay shipping channel as fill to replace the subsided land. The dredged soil is being used to rebuild Poplar Island in the bay.
    Blackwater’s preservation has drawn national attention. When a developer wanted to build a resort, golf course and thousands of homes at the headwaters of the Little Blackwater River, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation got 35,000 people to sign a petition opposing the project. Last year, state lawmakers negotiated a reduction in the size of the project and bought 750 acres of the 1,080-acre tract for parkland.
    The marshes in Dorchester County have always been sparsely populated. Most of the villages have more gravestones than occupants. Those who farm, hunt and fish the area for a living have to contend with oppressive summer heat and some of the meanest mosquitoes on the Delmarva Peninsula.
    Until the Civil War, slaves worked much of the land. Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railway conductor, was born on the Brodess Plantation a few miles from Blackwater. A museum dedicated to her life is in Cambridge.
    The road from Cambridge to Blackwater runs through incredibly flat farmland and tall stands of pine. South and west of the refuge, a network of narrow, two-lane roads takes you into the heart of the marsh. At high tide, the road often disappears under water. For miles, there are no man-made structures in sight. Frequently, the horizon disappears as the water meets the sky.
    There are great vantage points to see the colors of the day and the changing wildlife of the seasons. As we headed out of the preserve, several photographers were setting up their cameras on tripods - facing west - to capture the day’s last rays reflecting on the lake.