Our minivan pulled into the entrance of the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Abingdon, Maryland, a forested oasis tucked between the Bush River and Pulaski Highway, 25 miles northeast of Baltimore. After passing through the industrial and port areas bordering Interstate 95, my husband and I were delighted to find this charming county park.
Having just finished a one-hour drive from Annapolis with two antsy children, we grabbed a trail map from the visitor center and started our hike on the Trail to Pier path. The path would take us to Otter Point Creek, one of three estuarine research reserves that comprise the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (CBNERR) in Maryland (the other two locations are Jug Bay and Monie Bay). The CBNERR was established by congress in 1972 in order to conduct long-term estuarine habitat research.
The sun warmed our shoulders as we hiked over moderate hills, across bridges, and up and down rough-hewn, sturdy steps. Spring buds emerged from a winter’s sleep as our children’s personalities flourished in the woods. The youngest claimed a walking stick from the forest floor as she anointed herself hike leader. She led our group confidently thanks to a straightforward trail map and visible trail markers. Our teen’s age-appropriate melancholy seemed to blow away with the light breeze, and realizing no better alternative, he became part of us again. We watched them both jump between tree roots, climb on rocks, crouch low to examine lichen, and look to the sky as a heron flew overhead.
My children - maybe all children - seem to sense the outdoors belongs as much to them as to anyone. None among us lay claim on the trees, the grass, the water, or the wildflowers. Unlike the living room couch, the snack shelf, the remote control or whatever else the adults in their lives have command over, there is limitless permission to explore. Nature is the great equalizer.
On the ridge of a hill, we saw the pier and Otter Creek in the distance. A bald eagle launched from a perch and soared into a big blue sky to view us from a safer distance. We pointed him out and excitedly ran to an open area to watch him fly by. My husband and I walked out to the end of the pier and surveyed the distant freshwater tidal marshes of Otter Creek. The kids explored a thin strip of sand next to the pier, and made a job of cleaning the beach. Their resulting trash pile contained the familiar plastic refuse too often found on Chesapeake Bay shores. We brought it all to a nearby trash can and felt good about our impromptu volunteer work.
We vigorously walked just about every trail in Leight Park on our way back to the visitor center. Inside we found educational displays on the area’s geology, ecology, and history. Nine tanks housed native amphibians and reptiles, like box turtles, spotted turtles, a diamondback terrapin, and a few snakes. A large floor tank with a running water fountain filled with turtles sat in the corner. Observers can peer in from above and watch them climb over obstacles, or look through the floor-level windows made especially for younger naturalists.
The center campus has a bit of everything one would expect from a recreational park: a wood-sided cabin visitor center, landscaped paths, and trailhead markers. The center’s website lists a wide variety of programming, such as guided canoe trips, story times, citizen scientist opportunities, and birding excursions. On the spring Saturday morning we visited, volunteers were constructing a wildlife cage on the side of the center near a greenhouse.
Next to the visitor center's front door, a man-made pond full of frogs in stages of life from tadpole to full grown, caught our attention. The kids stared into the living diorama, seeing more and more critters the longer they looked. They were captivated. My husband and I slowly backed away and sat at a nearby bench. We watched our son float dry, brown leaves on the water’s surface. Our daughter pitched tiny pebbles and watched the resulting ripples. The kids were content. They were present, and we let them get lost in their thoughts and immersion in their surroundings.
Located on the Bush River north of Baltimore, the center's mission is to increase awareness, understanding, and appreciation of estuarine ecosystems through research, monitoring, and education.