Chesapeake Insider

John Page Williams

Raised in Richmond and on the lower Potomac, John Page Williams has been a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff since 1973, serving as a field educator, program administrator, fundraiser, and staff writer while running field trips by canoe, outboard skiff, and workboat on every river system in the Chesapeake. 

As Senior Naturalist, he works on a grassroots campaign to develop a strong, active constituency of anglers and boaters throughout the Chesapeake/Susquehanna watershed participating in programs to improve water quality and restore the ecosystem’s health. He also serves as liaison with the Chesapeake Conservancy, the National Park Service, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the National Geographic Society to develop the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  

Did you grow up with boats?

Yes. Little boats, wooden skiffs. The first boat in the family was a 15' cypress skiff built by Capt Isaiah Evans on the Shannon Branch on Yeocomico River around 1948. I was out in that by the time I was five years old. When I was 13, I got an aluminum jon boat with a 5 horsepower engine on the back that I could wander all over the place with. I spent my time fishing and exploring.

How important is fishing to you?

My father taught me how to fish. We fished ponds around Richmond, and went out on the Chickahominy, the Yeocomico, the upper James above Richmond. When I was eight, I rode the train to Washington D.C. with my grandmother. She bought me a copy of a fishing magazine to keep me occupied. That was a life altering moment. I've been obsessed with fishing magazines ever since. For my birthday she got me a subscription because she saw I loved it so much. 

You are very familiar with the NOAA interpretive buoys that mark the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. You recorded stories that people can listen to when they call one of the buoys or go online to get information about the Bay that day. What information do you look at when you go fishing?

I look at chlorophyll A to see about algae blooms, I look at oxygen, water temperature, and salinity. Oxygen is very important. With heavy suburban sprawl and agriculture, the Chesapeake has fallen prey to invisible pollutants and one of the effects is low dissolved oxygen. If you check the Gooses' Reef buoy [John Page opens the NOAA mobile app to check buoy information], check the oxygen level on the bottom. At the surface it is 8 mil per liter. On the bottom it is 0.76 and it has not been above 1.3 in a week. That is close to low enough to kill worms. It is killing oysters. The water is anoxic right now. This is why Gooses's Reef is not a good fishing reef.

How can people who don’t own a boat have an experience on the Chesapeake Bay or one of the rivers?

Sail or paddle with Sultana Education Foundation. They do wonderful tours from Chestertown MD on the Chester and the Sassafras River.

On the Potomac River, well, there are tour boat companies all over the Potomac, and fishing guides.  One of my favorites off the upper tidal Potomac is Mattingly Park, on Mattawoman Creek, in Indian Head. It’s a stunning place. And on the Virginia side, Mason Neck State Park has a nice little kayak/canoe launch and marvelous trails along wild rice marshes. These places are great testimony to turning over the quality of the water in Potomac, bringing people in, and building a tourism economy.

Do you have a favorite Chesapeake place?

My home river is the Severn. It wonders me that I could live for 42 years on a 13 mile river and still be learning about it every time I go out there. And I’d have to say the Jug Bay area of Patuxent River Park. It is arguably the finest public facility on the Chesapeake, with all due regard to First Landing State Park at Virginia's Cape Henry, or Belle Isle State Park on the Rappahannock, or the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland. At Jug Bay, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has done a tremendous job preserving the culture and environment of the Patuxent, and they've done it with input from the old river families. You're in deep country, and yet only 25 miles from Washington DC. I've been running canoes and my skiff on the Park's Mattaponi Creek for 40 years and it is still the same creek. It is rich and accessible in natural resources and human history there. The inter-relationships between human history and natural history are a fascinating topic for me.  The Park offers canoes to rent, walking trails, and tours by pontoon boat. And it's interesting at any season of the year.

Schooner Sultana
Sultana Education Foundation

The Sultana Education Foundation offers a diverse variety of history and science-based field programs serving students and teachers throughout Maryland and beyond.

Mason Neck State Park
Mason Neck State Park

Overlooking the Potomac River, the park is a haven for migrating bird species in spring and fall. It has hiking trails, 3 miles of paved multi-use trails, a large picnic area, a playground, a car-top canoe launch and a visitor center.

Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area
Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area

Jug Bay Natural Area offers many activities including walking through wetlands, guided boat tours, hiking and horseback riding over eight miles of trails, boating, fishing, camping, hunting, and visiting a museum.

Footbridge to Beach at First Landing State Park
First Landing State Park

First Landing State Park is located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay close to the spot where Captain John Smith landed in 1607. First Landing is Virginia's most popular state park with over a million visitors each year.

Bel Air State Park water view
Belle Isle State Park

With seven miles of waterfront on the north shore of the Rappahannock, Belle Isle State Park features diverse tidal and nontidal wetlands, lowland marshes, tidal coves and upland forests.

Fog Covered Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Cindy Chance

Cindy Chance is a Cultural Anthropologist for the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office. She lives in Annapolis, MD, on the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. 

July 6, 2015

Main image: John Page Williams
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