Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

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Editorial Review

Finding Refuge on the Water

By Jeff Baron
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 10, 2004

THE BALD EAGLES born this spring at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge -- 90 miles east and eons away from the Beltway -- are already as big as their parents, and now they're honing their hunting skills. You'll get the best views of those young eagles and their white-headed parents from the "paddling paths" the refuge opened just a year ago. Think hiking paths, with markers posted to show the way. The refuge, nearly the size of the District, is a wetland, so the best way to get around is by water.

The three new paths are marked purple, green and orange on the refuge map and give visitors access to the center of the habitat for the first time. On long stretches of shallow water in the wetland, only kayaks and canoes can pass.

"You will see more of the refuge paddling than by any other means," says refuge ranger Tom Miller. "You'll be alone most of the time. The wildlife is more accepting of you when you're in that quiet state, so you'll get better views."

Laura Murray, a University of Maryland wetlands biologist and guide with Peake Paddle Tours, recently took a friend and me out on the purple trail. We watched two ospreys intercept a bald eagle just overhead and harry it from their nesting area. A barred owl bolted from the tall grass, diving, climbing and diving again, chased by two terns. An osprey circled, riding the winds on its five-foot wings, then tucked and plunged into the water after a fish and missed, as another winged by, a silver sliver in its talons. On an island a hundred feet from our kayaks, a pair of bald eagles looked out from their nest, a ton of carpentry high in a loblolly pine.

Time on the water: five hours. Distance covered: nine miles. Buildings observed: half a dozen, far away across the water. Cars heard or seen: zero. Other people encountered: none.

Each of the three new paths offers a different experience, in terms of natural setting, views of land and water, and paddling difficulty.

The purple path is a one-way trip nine miles long, following the narrow channel of the Blackwater River. The route appears to run through a huge lake, about 12 miles long and six wide, but most of that "lake" is extremely shallow. "The great blue heron walking on water out there is not an optical illusion," says Murray. "Your sense is you're paddling on land, and you almost are, because the water's only a few inches deep, over an area that 50 years ago was land -- marsh that has sunk."

On the purple path, if you're not heading toward or away from an osprey nest -- it winds directly under 14 of them -- you are probably lost. Getting off track is all too easy on the path, and that can mean getting stuck, seriously stuck, in the marsh. Navigating requires excellent map and compass reading skills and knowledge of tides, winds and weather. Novice kayakers and those unfamiliar with the area should go with a guide. (For any paddling trip at Blackwater, if you'll need a guide or equipment, make your arrangements before going to the refuge; see below for contact information.) Depending on conditions, the trip is about five hours, two-thirds through open water and the rest through marsh. The purple path runs through sensitive habitat; it will be open until Oct. 1 and then reopens April 1.

The green and orange paths are open year-round. They generally follow narrow river or creek channels and "are suitable for paddlers of all levels," says Bill Reybold, a soil scientist and Friends of Blackwater volunteer who mapped and put signs up on the new routes. Both paths wind through magnificent areas, forests and fields and, of course, marsh, with close-up views of eagle and osprey nests. Each is a round trip, about eight miles total, four hours of paddling.

The green path, which goes up the Blackwater River, is Reybold's favorite. While the water in the refuge is mostly brackish, fresh water feeds into the green path, too, so that during the summer, white waterlilies bloom along the water's surface. The tannins from the pine trees along the shore turn the water a "pure, translucent black," as Tom Horton writes in his wonderful book "The Great Marsh: An Intimate Journey Into a Chesapeake Wetland" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). The first third of the orange path runs through open water, the Swan Pond Marsh. The path then turns up Coles Creek for a beautiful trip -- marsh grass on the banks, transitioning to forests up away from the creek. "Stick to the banks to avoid the strong tidal action in the creek channel and to see the wildlife close to the shore," advises Jude Apple, a University of Maryland wetlands scientist and Chesapeake Outdoor Adventures guide.

Blackwater is a refuge for the eagles who live there, the hawks who migrate through in the fall, the snow geese and tundra swans who come for the winter, the small elk whose mating calls carry across the marshes during their October rut, and for us, too, out on those paddling paths.