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I recently had the pleasure of joining hundreds of women cyclists of all ages, abilities and walks of life who converge annually at the gorgeous Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge for the Wild Goose Chase Bicycle Ride. Originally founded in 2008, this beloved event raises much–needed funds for The Friends of Blackwater. While the ride itself only occurs once a year – chock full of workshops, mouth-watering local food, and rides along scenic country roads – Blackwater offers a constantly changing kaleidoscope of stunning sights and endless opportunities for exploration year-round.
The refuge offers several bike routes for the novice to experienced cyclist. From dusk till dawn every day, visitors can embark on a 4-mile or 7-mile loop along the paved Wildlife Drive, soaking up breathtaking views of wildlife and wild lands so ever-changing throughout the seasons, visitors will likely never see the same scene twice. The area is as rich in history as it is in natural resources, so visits to the adjacent Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center and Blackwater Refuge Visitor Center are not to be missed. For those interested in a lengthier ride, Blackwater offers online maps for 20-mile and 25-mile routes that follow scenic roads through varied habitats, and the Friends of Blackwater Wild Goose Chase event page has additional cue sheets posted for 31-mile and 40-mile rides.
Deciding to take full advantage of my experience, I set off at sunrise toward Blackwater. Turning off Route 50, the scenery rapidly transitioned from strip malls to quiet country backroads, winding through fields heavy with mist as the rising sun revealed fog-shrouded figures fishing roadside creeks. Crossing over the Blackwater River, I struggled to keep my eyes on the road as a forested island loomed out of the mist, mirrored perfectly in the still water, as a heron languidly glided over marshes bathed in warm morning light.
Established in 1933, the refuge encompasses over 28,000 acres featuring a multitude of land and water trails. Perhaps the most popular route is Wildlife Drive where visitors can walk, bike or drive between the Blackwater River and inner wetlands, enjoying panoramic views of wildlife and gorgeous scenery. The refuge is home to nearly 1,000 animal species and, with over 200 varieties of birds, it has gained fame as a premiere destination for birdwatchers and photographers, especially in the cooler months when migratory waterfowl and the annual Eagle Festival are big draws.
I was soon off on my guided nature ride led by event co-organizer and refuge volunteer Sue Fischer. Along the route, we rode past vast fields of blazing yellow tickseed sunflowers juxtaposed against a stunning blue sky, reminiscent of the endless poppy fields Dorothy encountered en route to Oz. The fields were alive with butterflies, and as I stopped and took a step toward the field edge for a photo, a small critter let out an “Eeep!” that startled us as it darted unseen into the flowers. Continuing on, our guide amusingly pointed out “birds on sticks” – dozens of gulls resting on a line of wooden poles, all reflected like wildlife lollipops in the mirrored surface of the river. Turtle snouts poked up from the water, an eagle feigned invisibility in a grove of trees, and an egret silently stalked fish as clouds of dragonflies and butterflies engulfed us.
Rising Waters, Ghostly Forests
It’s easy to get lost in the sheer joy of wildlife viewing, but Blackwater’s majesty also reveals a critical warning. Sea level rise brought on by climate change, combined with sinking land along the Delmarva Peninsula, has claimed 5,000 acres of marshland – nearly half of Blackwater’s historic wetlands. As saltwater inches forward ever more rapidly, marshlands are submerged and forests struggle. Pausing at an observation deck overlooking a sinking marsh, our guide points into the distance at a “ghost forest,” a haunted-looking gauntlet of dead trees between the marsh and forest, explaining that the hardwoods go first and the more salinity-tolerant loblolly pines hang on a bit longer as a last line of defense. Scientists estimate that water levels in the Chesapeake could rise by over three feet by the end of this century; under that scenario, nearly all of Blackwater’s existing marshes could be underwater by 2100.
Ghost forest, Julie Dieguez photo
While it may be the wetland version of a canary in the coal mine, Blackwater is also a portrait of inspiring resilience and hope. As author Diane Ackerman has stated, “We control our own legacy. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless…our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.” Throughout the day, we continually encountered inspiring examples of innovative techniques restoring hope for a wild treasure at risk.
Arriving at the visitor center, I meandered through kaleidoscopically-colorful native pollinator gardens pulsing with butterflies before moving inside to peruse displays describing the 20,000-year history and vast flora and fauna of the region, as well as inspiring examples of innovative conservation solutions. Interestingly, wildlife biologists are now looking past just protecting marshes in their current locations. With sea level rise and encroachment of salt water, some marshes will “migrate” inland, replacing ghost forests. Since marshes-on-the-move require access to wide-open landscapes, computer simulations are being used to identify priority “migration corridors”, allowing conservationists to focus on preserving habitats in priority areas, offering conservation easements to farmers and purchasing land to be absorbed into the refuge.
Using a similarly inventive approach, Blackwater constructed a freshwater impoundment system on the inner side of Wildlife Drive to preserve the availability of freshwater habitat. In late summer, water control structures are closed to allow rainfall to refill the impoundments, making seed, tubers and invertebrates available for the magnificent influx of migratory waterfowl that delights visitors throughout the fall and winter.
31 Flavors of Wild Beauty
Bicycling around the outskirts of the refuge I frequently found myself grinning ear-to-ear at the wonder around me. I passed miles of wetlands, water glittering under the rising sun, and stopped to marvel at an eagle’s nest in the crook of a loblolly pine. Legions of dragonflies landed on the white line marking the road edge then peeled off into the air, one after another, like swimmers in an old Esther Williams movie. As the day warmed, dragonflies were replaced by such a multitude of butterflies, I found myself swerving around them and frequently stopped to escort the occasional frog, caterpillar, and even a small rough green snake to safer ground.
Eagle nest, Julie Dieguez photo
Reluctant to leave after such a pleasantly exhausting weekend, I was reminded of the quote “no man ever steps into the same river twice.” I have visited Blackwater several times over the years by land and water, yet every time I have a completely new, magical experience. With that in mind, I look forward to returning to enjoy many more wild rides in this ever-changing wild land.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: Daily permits: $3/vehicle; $1 foot or bicycle (Children under 15 free). Trails open dawn to dusk every day. (Marsh Trail is often closed January-early August to limit nesting disturbance). Refuge Visitor Center: Open 9-4 every day except Thanksgiving & Christmas. Harriet Tubman Visitor Center: Open daily 9-5 except Christmas day. For info, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Blackwater/
Wild Goose Chase: For more information and to subscribe to the mailing list, visit FriendsofBlackwater.org
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.