What do you do in the winter in an area touted as a warm weather destination? Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge near Rock Hall, Maryland has more notoriety as winter destination than summer, even though it’s a 2285 acre island in a region known for fishing, boating, crabbing, canoeing and observing wildlife.
The reason? Birds mostly.
The Tundra Swans
The winter draw of Eastern Neck is linked with the elusive presence of Tundra Swans. While these graceful white creatures are seen all over Delmarva, Eastern Neck has been a common and dependable gathering place for the end of their winter migration. Flocks travel all the way from the North American Arctic Tundra. Tracking devices have shown that they will travel up to 80 miles per hour covering over 400 miles in a single day. They stop in various wildlife refuges along the way, but for some reason a group of them make Eastern Neck the end of their migratory journey.
Though the Tundra Swans are one of dozens of species of migrating waterfowl including Canada geese, mute swans and lots of ducks, the Tundra have a haunting call – kind of a cross between a Loon and a Trumpeter swan. It’s joyful – almost spiritual. And for me … standing in the frigid temperatures on a spit of land running between the Chesapeake Bay and Chester River is worthwhile …just to listen to the symphonic melody of those haunting calls.
Walking Into the Marsh
The vast salt marshes and tidal wetlands are the jewels of the Eastern Shore landscape. They are not easily found and probably 90% of the visitors that speed down Routes 50 and 404 on their way to the Atlantic beaches will never see a salt marsh. But once you take a leisurely drive through Blackwater or Deal Island or Wye Island or Hoopers Island, you’ll be drawn back to the marshes. Lingering in the landscape surrounded by hundreds of acres of waving gold or green grass and seeing the waterfowl swoop, dive and glide about it lowers the blood pressure and brings the senses into a keen realization that the surroundings are sacred.
When Lem Ward, one of the famous Ward Brothers of Crisfield (decoy carvers) was asked why he wouldn’t travel to New York to receive an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (for pioneering an art form), Lem said, “How could I leave this marsh?”
Even the locals who live surrounded by the marshes and see them every day respect their majesty.
Most of the marshes on the Delmarva Peninsula only have road access for cars. Because of the swampy land beneath the grass the marshes have to be viewed from a distance – or by kayak and canoe where water trails have been carved through. But Eastern Neck has long trails and boardwalks that run hundreds of feet into the marshes. They are built low to the ground so one can get the feel of walking into that landscape instead of viewing from afar. The walker can see the details of the grasses, the lone trees, the scampering wildlife .. up close. In the summer there are insects to grapple with. But in the winter the walker travels unmolested by mosquitoes and greenheads.
There are over nine miles of trails that weave in and out of forests, marshes and open road.
THINGS TO NOTICE IN THE MARSH:
- Grasses – Each blade of marsh grass has two tones. When you look at the marsh from one direction – say east looking west – the grass may be gold. But when you look at the same marsh from the west facing east, the grass will be several shades darker, kind of an orange-ish brown.
- Sounds of LIfe – Stand still in a salt marsh. Within 2 minutes, you’ll hear some living creature move. One acre of salt marsh is more than twice as productive as an acre of the most fertile farm. There is a concentration of life – both plant and animal – unparalleled in the Eastern Shore landscape.
- Portals to the Spirit World – Look for shapes that appear to be “otherworldly”…. The most haunting places on earth are forests and swamps. If you look into the trees, the piles of wood, shells and grasslands, even the clouds – you’ll see faces and forms that look like creatures. Many believe that marshes are sacred and have portals into the spirit world.
The Eastern Neck landscape is stunning when trimmed with ice and snow. The smattering of white on the grasses and shoreline set against a canvass of Chesapeake blue is reflected in the sky above. Sometimes the transition from snow to grass to water to clouds to sky is so fluid that lines delineating each element become invisible.
My soul grazes at the beauty of the indrawn tides. ~Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides
There are two wonderful small towns in close proximity to Eastern Neck – Chestertown and Rock Hall. Both towns have great restaurants, museums, shops and waterfront walks.