Under the shade of a sprawling mulberry tree at the end of Amos Garrett Boulevard at Spa Creek, Pam McCallum, wearing work gloves and Wellington boots, quickly pops four spindly marsh grass plants and a dusting of fertilizer into the restored sandy shoreline.
Just beyond her in the brown-green swath of Spa Creek, a boatload of tourists from Annapolis's City Dock motors by, all of them staring at McCallum and the others working onshore. Some take a closer look through camera zoom lenses. It's an idyllic view: barefoot children chasing each other over the sandy banks, their parents talking and laughing as they carefully plant grasses, blooming pink hibiscus and white-flowered buttonbushes.
A week earlier, Amos Garrett Park presented a different picture, one in which the murky water met oily banks pebbled with broken glass and overgrown with poison ivy.
It would have stayed like that if not for the efforts of a fledgling nonprofit group called the Spa Creek Conservancy, which harnessed the energy and expertise of a half-dozen environmental groups to transform the park from a city eyesore into what biologists call a "living shoreline."
"This is something we just have to get right,'' said Mel Wilkins, founder of the seven-month-old Spa Creek Conservancy.
Wilkins, a large man with a new pacemaker and a long history in project management, hefts a tray of lizard tail grass and sweet pepper bushes down to one of the more than 70 volunteers who turned out on Saturday afternoon for a work party that doubled as a rededication of Amos Garrett Park.
"There are so many parts to the project: science, technology, permits, administration, funding," says Wilkins, pointing around him to each corresponding person on the project.
There's Steve Carr, environmental consultant for the city of Annapolis, shirt off, knee-deep in the water, directing planting. Beside him in the water is Rob Schnabel, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation watershed restoration scientist, who designed this 150-foot portion of the creek and is now teaching neighbors how to revitalize their own shorelines. Up on the new fieldstone walkway is Kristen Saunders, who lives in the nearby Murray Hill neighborhood and works for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources -- another project partner -- and David O'Neill, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the organization that provided a $24,449 grant to pay for most of the restoration.
Wilkins, who lives in Gambrills, has spent most of the week at the park, meeting neighbors and directing workers. This is the second project for the Spa Creek Conservancy, which earlier this year restored the creek's headwaters near the Chesapeake Children's Museum. Another restoration project, completed a year ago by the Department of Natural Resources just across the creek at Truxton Heights Park, has given root to lush vegetation and retained about one foot of sediment behind its 1,500-foot-long shoreline, drastically cutting down on runoff. All of these local efforts aim to ultimately benefit the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Unlike rock bulkheads, which have been a popular way to stop shoreline erosion, these restored shorelines allow the water to meet the land through replenished clean sand and biodegradable "biologs," which are long cords of coconut fiber. A buffer of water-filtering plants is planted in the improved sandy shore and also in the biologs.
Schnabel, who lives in Murray Hill, shows volunteers how they can secure the biologs in the water, where they have been shored up with several tons of rocks. At $10 a linear foot, the biologs are an environmental bargain, shielding shorelines from erosion and nurturing shallow habitats for fish and crabs. The logs biodegrade in about seven years.
Before the restoration, the park often smelled of sewage. Runoff from the street would tumble over a deteriorated dirt shoreline straight into the creek.
"There were no natural filters,'' Schnabel said. "No tidal wetlands with green filters, or plants, to absorb pollutants, mainly nitrogen, like that coming from leaks in the main sewage crossing pipe upstream.''
The sightseers in their tour boat had headed back to the city by the time Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D) addressed the workers on the stream's banks. Forty years ago, Moyer had a hand in creating Amos Garrett Park. As first lady to then-mayor Pip Moyer, she helped transform the street-end into a little urban oasis.
"There was no public access to the water back then,'' said Moyer, who unveiled a new sign identifying the park, which was named in honor of Annapolis's first mayor.
Moyer, who said she hopes to make Annapolis an environmental model for cities throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, said the city's recreation department is committed to maintaining the park.
"This is a great turnout,'' she said, watching the industrious neighbors hauling biologs and planting. "It shows the level of interest in going this direction with things.''
Going through city records in anticipation of the re-dedication, Wilkins found a postcard photograph of the creek taken more than a century ago. It shows the point, just up the creek, where a railroad trestle connected downtown Annapolis with Bay Ridge resorts. The picture shows a creek broad and clear, and green with abundant vegetation.
It's a vastly different picture from the one today's Spa Creek boat tourists will take home with them. But volunteers like McCallum, who lives on the water just four houses from the park, are hopeful that the transformation of Amos Garrett Park is a good start.
"I've seen the difference in the Truxton Heights Park shoreline since they put in the biologs,'' said McCallum, who kayaks the creek to get coffee downtown. "I've seen a big difference from one season to the next in the amount of runoff. This really, really works."