Kayakers Stop In Cecil County During A 500-Mile Journey
By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
For years, there have been seemingly endless studies of the Chesapeake Bay.
What is the health of the Bay? What sources pollute the Bay? How many crabs are growing? What is the health of the fish populations? How can the oysters and clams be nurtured? What impact do humans have on the waters? How can we improve the Chesapeake Bay environment?
There are surely enough study documents to reach the top of the cliff along the Susquehanna River where the Donaldson Brown Center is perched. There are scholarly lectures on the subject. Regional youngsters learn something about the Bay in elementary school through high school and even college.
Two experts on the Chesapeake Bay have long believed the best way to understand the Bay and follow its health is to be on the Bay.
Renowned Chesapeake Bay environmentalists Tom Horton and Don Baugh are currently leading a special kayak trip to examine, at sea level, the Chesapeake Bay as well as the waters surrounding the entire Delmarva Peninsula.
It is a 30-day trip that will cover 500 miles. They started their challenging journey just north of the Bay Bridge late last week, paddling north.
Dusk was settling onto the C&D Canal on Friday evening, In the waning light of a beautiful late summer day, there was a lot of activity happening along the shoreline in the community of Elk Forest.
The group of kayakers were getting ready to camp for the night.
Horton and Baugh became friends through their shared admiration for the Chesapeake Bay. They have spent their careers looking at ways to introduce people to the Chesapeake Bay and the many factors that affect the health of the Bay. They are writers, educators. lobbyists – and willingly take on any other role necessary to help the Chesapeake.
This is not the first time the two men have taken on this journey of epic proportions.
They made the same trip a decade ago.
“Don kind of gave me this trip as a 60th birthday present,” Horton explained, his eyes taking a distant glow as he recalled his first circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula. “It was later in September when we started that trip.”
“It was the trip of my life,” Horton proclaimed.
“I always thought we’d do it again,” he said, looking around the campsite that was forming around him.
Horton grew up on the Eastern Shore and his interest in the waters of the Bay led to a long career as an environmental writer for the “Baltimore Sun” newspaper where he covered the politics, culture, nature, and other aspects of the Bay region. These experiences provided material for books on the subject, including one book on the three years he and his wife and children spent living on an island in the Bay. He has also written articles for National Geographic, The New York Times magazine, Chesapeake Bay magazine, Bay Journal News and even Rolling Stone magazine. He serves as a Professor of Practice in Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.
Last year, Baugh retired after a 38-year career with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation where he served in a number of roles, including vice president for education. One of his initiatives was “No Child Left Inside,” a program to get young people outside enjoying the environment. Baugh also helped get environmental education as a mandatory subject for Maryland school students and it is also being considered as part of the public school curriculum in neighboring states. He, too, teaches at Salisbury University and is also involved with non-profit groups that promote the Bay and education. With all of those years working along the Bay, he has made a lot of connections. But his friends and acquaintances do not reside in all of the right places that correspond to the travel plans.
Horton and Baugh plan daily travel segments of approximately 20 miles.
“It’s been a challenge for us to find places to camp,” Baugh said.
As he planned the trip, Baugh consulted maps on the computer to find areas with sandy beaches to handle the kayaks and the crew.
He knew a family along the C&D Canal, but they recently sold their house.
So, he tried to find a good beach, researched property records and then got into contact with property owners.
Rick and Corinne Sernyak of Elk Forest were contacted by Baugh.
Rick Sernyak said he was happy to welcome them.
“I grew up in an area of Pennsylvania where people would knock on your door and ask to walk through for hunting,” he said, explaining there was never any doubt that local people would allow other people to pass through their property.
“I am happy to return the favor,” Sernyak said.
The kayakers set up their vessels near the water’s edge, pitched their tents in the Sernyaks’ backyard, parked support vehicles in the driveway and enjoyed a dock area with a screened porch, watching the boat traffic float past. They cooked rockfish from the Rock Hall area on the Sernyaks’ gas grill.
Additionally, the county’s Tourism Office had been advised of the visit of participants in this environmental kayak trip and worked with a local business to offer a few tasty local dishes for dinner.
“We are honored to be welcomed with open arms in Cecil County,” Baugh said.
While there are certainly less strenuous ways to travel through the waters around the Delmarva Peninsula, Horton and Baugh said nothing is as satisfying as a kayak.
“Kayaks are the perfect vessel,” Horton explained. “They can handle big water and shallow water.”
During their previous trip around the peninsula, they decided they were hungry as they paddled through the Atlantic Ocean near the Maryland state line, Horton recalled. They rode the waves into the beach, pulled their kayaks out of the water and found an open burger restaurant for a meal and then pushed back out into the ocean to continue south.
Observations On The Bay
Only a few days into their current journey, the two agreed they had already made some significant observations.
“Overall, the Bay is not as restored as much as we thought it would be ten years ago,” Horton said, saying he now realizes how quickly ten years seem to just evaporate when it comes to trying to make substantive changes..
But Horton does not want to paint a dismal picture because there are some improvements. He already noticed the better health of the Susquehanna Flats and observed there are many more natural grasses growing in the water. He also noted increased numbers of eagles, ospreys and pelicans.
Horton is working on a movie about crabs in the Bay. He feels the plight of the watermen, saying that with all of the expenses they have to operate their businesses, low populations of crabs and other bay creatures, as well as tight limits on what can be harvested from the Bay, makes it more difficult each year for them to make a living.
“This year, the Bay doesn’t have as many crabs and oysters as they had hoped,” Horton said.
Horton said there needs to be more markets where watermen can sell their catch directly to the public. He noted about a couple in the Chester River who catch perch and catfish.
“They catch enough to feed all of Chestertown,” he said. But the couple has a hard time marketing their catch to the local people and instead ship their fish to Michigan.
The ways the kayakers mark the conditions in the waters is that they net fish each day and do measurements of water quality.
“We certainly are seeing some water quality issues,” Baugh said. When their trip started last week, former State Senator Bernie Fowler joined them. He is the state official who started the annual wade-in along the Bay many years ago. Today, many people throughout the Bay regularly measure water quality for themselves by wading into the water to see how deep they can get while still seeing their feet. School children joined in the wade-in as the kayakers started the 500-mile journey.
“They could only wade until the water was halfway up their calf,” Baugh said, adding the water got clearer as the kayakers got away from the shoreline.
Horton said that some mandatory requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency have helped push water quality improvements.
Baugh agreed that other states, particularly Pennsylvania have to be more invested in improving their watershed practices to help with the Bay health.
“Pennsylvania is an important partner in this Bay clean-up effort,” Baugh said.
“There is significant shoreline erosion,” Baugh said. “Homeowners are losing their waterfront investment.”
But Baugh agreed with Horton that there is reason to be optimistic, noting the improvements they saw in the waters off Cecil County.
Not Enough Bay Access
When Horton and Baugh made their first kayak trip around the Delmarva Peninsula a decade ago, the two had little trouble deciding where to camp for the night. They went as far as they wished, found a good beach and then basically trespassed – setting up their tents near the waterfront.
“Out of the 28 days we were out on that trip we probably camped legally about four nights,” Horton said.
This trip is different. They wanted to be able to invite other people interested in the Delmarva Peninsula environment and they figured they would have at least a half dozen people paddling with them on any given day – and possibly more kayakers joining them on the weekends. That is too large a group to just stop anywhere to set up camp.
“The hoops Don has had to jump through to get access to land for us to camp,” Horton said. “It’s darn near impossible. Again, if we didn’t have contacts, we wouldn’t have access.”
“It’s been a challenge for us to find places to stay,” Baugh said. “It underscores the need for more public access.”
With millions of people now living in the Chesapeake Bay region, Horton said he is disappointed there are still so few access spots for the general public.
“It’s a public waterway, but a very private shoreline,” Horton observed.
One area of the Eastern Shore that gets the need for good water access is Rock Hall, Horton said.
“When we rolled into Rock Hall a couple nights ago, they set the gold standard,” Horton said, explaining they have a beautiful small park on the water and allow kayakers to land there and spend the night. As a result, some local businesses got a boost to their bottom line as the kayakers went into town, he said.
Upon hearing the Cecil County government is considering closing the Stemmers Run boat ramp area, Horton said that would be an unfortunate decision.
“I think that is emerging as one of the themes for this trip – the lack of access,” he said.
Goals Of The Trip
Horton and Baugh agree that this trip was designed to encourage younger people interested in the health of the Bay and the other waters around the Delmarva Peninsula to get a first-hand look at the Bay.
Baugh said he is worried that many of the more effective environmentalists working toward healthier waterways are aging.
They also want to pinpoint issues affecting the Bay health.
While agreeing that the Conowingo Dam does have sediment behind it that is washing over in storms and that it is a valid concern, Horton said a movement in the state that is trying to blame all of the Bay’s issues on the dam is wrong.
It is not that simple, he said.
“When you have 17 million people living near the Bay, there is no one solution – it’s everything,” he said.
Horton said the trip will allow him the chance to update some of his writings on the Chesapeake Bay.
Baugh said there are two main reasons he set off on his second circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula.
“First, I wanted to revisit the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River and Atlantic Ocean,” Baugh said.
“Second, I want to pass on the experience to others,” Baugh said.
“We are also telling a story,” Baugh noted. The trip can be followed through numerous sites on the internet.
“I don’t think we can get enough people loving the Bay,” Baugh said, adding that the people who are joining them on the trip and those following at home are important. “These are the people who will be stewards of the Bay,” Baugh said.