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Old Bay, New Ways: Experience the Chesapeake like you haven’t before

Photo of an orange-sky sunrise with bridge in background

Sunrise over the bay; by Wendy Crowe

Like a sunrise or spring’s return, the Chesapeake Bay is something Marylanders may be guilty of taking for granted. Those steel-blue waters and fiery sunsets astonish millions of visitors each year, but for Free State residents, living alongside North America’s largest estuary is old hat.

Which isn’t to say we don’t love the bay. It’s on our license plates and in our spice racks. We all have our favorite beaches, boating spots and bayside seafood joints—the ones we visit summer after summer, without question. And while these are precious traditions, the routine they create can prevent us from getting to know the bay—and the remarkable impact it has had on our history and our home—from all its seemingly endless, awe-inspiring angles.

This year, commit to experiencing the Chesapeake Bay from a new perspective, up close and personal. Don’t worry: no one’s going to move your beach chair, and that crab cake will be there when you get back.

Photo of people looking for fossils on beach

Looking for fossils; by Elena Gilroy

Forage for fossils at Calvert Cliffs
Ten to 20 million years ago, southern Maryland was submerged beneath a warm, shallow sea. When the water receded, it revealed the massive cliffs that now tower over the 24 miles of coastline in Calvert County. Over time, the cliffs began to erode, exposing bones, teeth and other remnants from prehistoric animals. More than 600 species of fossils have been recovered along the beach here—including long-buried remains of crocodiles, camels, dolphins and rhinoceroses.

To find your own relics, pack up a bag of sieves and small shovels and set off on the Red Trail within Calvert Cliffs State Park. At the end of your 1.8-mile hike along boardwalks and through even, wooded terrain, you’ll come to the open beach area. Spend the afternoon collecting ancient oyster shells and shark teeth, or simply admiring the chalky cliffs above you.

Photo of lighthouse and cross

St. Clement’s Island; by Melissa Boyle

Go to church on St. Clement’s Island
On March 25, 1634, two boats—the Ark and the Dove—arrived on a small island in the Potomac River, bringing with them the first 150 English settlers to step foot on Maryland soil. These settlers named the island after Pope Clement I, the patron saint of mariners, and (it is believed) performed a Roman Catholic mass within hours of landing to celebrate their new-found religious freedom. It was the first Roman Catholic mass said in the colonies.

To commemorate those events, Maryland Day was declared a state holiday in 1903, and in 1934—on the tercentennial of our statehood—a 40-foot stone cross was erected to recognize the island’s integral role in establishing America’s enduring commitment to religious tolerance.

On summer weekends, you can catch the water taxi from St. Clements Island Museum to St. Clement’s Island State Park to experience what the first Marylanders did the day they made history.

Photo of trail

School House Trail at Wye Island; by Anthony Burrows

Look up at Wye Island
Just minutes from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area is a tree-hugger’s paradise. Literally. The 2,500-acre refuge contains one of the largest tracts of old-growth trees in the region. Schoolhouse Woods is where you’ll find the oak-hickory forest; it’s been standing since the American Revolution.

On the Ferry Landing Trail, you can walk through the oft-photographed tunnel of Osage Trees, marveling at their knotted trunks and twisted branches. The trees’ lumpy, softball-sized fruit—sometimes called Osage oranges or hedge apples—that line the ground are inedible but fun to feel and look at.

But the star of the show here is the nearly 300-year-old holly tree that stands in its field like a lighthouse, beckoning visitors to sit a while in its shade.

Oh, and while you’re admiring all those trees, don’t forget to keep your eye out for the Delmarva fox squirrel, a species that was once endangered but is now thriving, thanks to the state’s conservation efforts.

Kayaking at Janes Island; staff photo

Sleep on a desert isle at Janes Island
Ever dreamt of sleeping on your own private island? At Janes Island State Park, you can do just that. The park operates three backcountry sites, accessible only by boat. The farthest and most remote site—Long Point Island—is a long paddle with a big payoff.

You can obtain a permit and rent a canoe or kayak from the park office, and then it’s just a 5-mile haul between you and your desert-island paradise. (Be sure to check the tide to avoid challenging currents.) Along the way you’ll pass salt marshes, cormorant nests and the legendary Crisfield oyster houses.

Once you’ve shored your boat, make yourself at home on one of the island’s wooden platforms where you can pitch your tent and enjoy the sights. The old smoke stack across the sound is all that’s left from a 19th century fertilizer factory. Every once in a while, the Smith Island Ferry will sail by, full of revelers and long-weekenders. And at twilight, no one in Maryland will have a better view of that famous Chesapeake sunset.

Article by Ashley Stimpson—freelance outdoors writer. Appears in Vol. 21, No. 2 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, spring 2018.