Road Trip

In John Smith's Wake on the Patuxent River

Sunday, August 10, 2008

WHERE: Along the Patuxent River in Maryland.

WHY: A swamp walk, osprey on the wing and a boat ride back in time.

HOW FAR: About 116 miles.

Four hundred years ago this week, Capt. John Smith and his men reached Maryland's Patuxent River after a grueling two-month journey in an open boat. The leader of the budding British colony of Jamestown and his small crew had set off in June in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean.

At the Patuxent, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, they discovered a river brimming with oyster reefs and fish, and Indian settlements scattered along the banks. Smith, who spoke Algonquin, mapped eight Indian villages, many of which are preserved in name as Prince George's County landmarks.

Although Smith's efforts to find the legendary passage proved fruitless, "he opened up the Chesapeake," says John Page Williams, senior naturalist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Modern-day adventurers can follow in his wake on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail, the country's first all-water National Historic Trail.

The 2,300-mile route, which was established in 2006, stretches from the James River in Jamestown to the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, and from Delaware's Broad Creek west to the Potomac River. The 17th-century explorer had only rough maps to guide him, but 21st-century boaters can rely on four interpretive buoys that collect information on each location's weather and wave conditions. The data, as well as historical tidbits, can be accessed by calling 877-BUOY-BAY or visiting on your mobile device.

The Patuxent portion covers 50 miles and offers some of the last places true to Smith's "very goodly bay." The meandering bends of Mattaponi Creek, for instance, have changed little over the centuries. So why ply these historic waters? "To get a sense of how this bay worked before," Williams says, "and to get a sense of how to get it back."

-- Christine Dell'Amore

© 2008 The Washington Post Company