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Suggested Trip

Paddling Back in Time on the Bohemia River

 

A Note About COVID-19 and Visiting Parks Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

When I first came across notice of a paddle on the Bohemia River, the name immediately evoked colorful images of free-spirited artists and vibrant wall tapestries. The Bohemia River’s unique name was actually coined by renowned explorer, mapmaker, and local historical legend Augustine Herman, after his beloved eastern European homeland country of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).  Located in Cecil County, Maryland, the area not only offers a wealth of intertwined ecological and cultural history, but served as ground zero for the creation of “the first accurate map of the Chesapeake Bay coastline,” a marvel even by today’s standards.

Off the beaten path from more populated Eastern Shore areas, the drive to the river launch on the Augustine Herman “highway” wove through seemingly endless acres of scenic farmland featuring miles of sprawling golden cornfields, classic farmhouses and barns, and occasional breathtakingly large clouds of blackbirds exploding from the fields into mesmerizing waves across the sky. Crossing the Sassafras River, then the Bohemia River, I turned left just after the bridge into a small but easily-visible public kayak/canoe launch site.

This paddle was one of many offered by the Sultana Education Foundation, which for over two decades has grown to serve more than 14,000 students and teachers as well as offering public outdoor experiences for families and individuals of all ages. Two public paddles a week are offered in fall (through October 24) and spring, each focusing on a different theme in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties predominantly, all geared towards “off-the-beaten-path” interests and positioned within one mile of a landing to ensure a leisurely experience. Adapted to the new reality of COVID safety measures,  paddles are limited to eight participants, with masks required at the beginning and end (but not on the water), with similarly modified paddles offered for families and school groups. The areas are scouted by Sultana staff ahead of time, boats and gear are provided on site, and the trips themselves are geared for all ages and abilities.

Our guides couldn’t have made the experience easier or more enjoyable. The kayaks were already down at the river and assistance was offered matching paddlers with the appropriate boat and gear. Once in the water, the paddle took on a leisurely pace, gliding smoothly along the shoreline and marshland. Our guide, Brad Hirsh, Director of Paddling Programs, animatedly discussed the fascinating history and ecology of the area.

Brad explained that Augustine Herman first visited Maryland in 1659 as one of the ambassadors sent by New Amsterdam's (present-day New York) governor. He returned the following year to Maryland with his family and proposed to Lord Baltimore that he would draw an accurate map of the colony in exchange for ownership of land on the Eastern Shore, now in Cecil County.  Prior to this, the only map of the Bay was the version created by John Smith in 1612. Herman’s offer was accepted and he was awarded 5,000 acres of land in return for his map of Maryland.  Herman proceeded to name his new property "Bohemia Manor" after the country of his birth. 

Herman spent ten years meticulously mapping the Chesapeake Bay coastline. Herman’s map itself was a legendary success. Presented to Lord Baltimore in 1670, the lasting accuracy of this map is astonishing to this day. The Sultana Foundation offers a geographic room with GIS tools where the original John Smith map, Herman map, and modern maps can be overlaid for simultaneous viewing.  The Herman map is stunningly accurate despite lacking access to modern technology and the comparison of maps offers a priceless time-capsule view into the rapid increase and colonization of English settlements and decrease of American Indian settlements over just a few generations.

We gradually wound our way into a peaceful marsh-bordered cove. Accompanied by a pair of bald eagles, a kingfisher, and the first of many great blue herons, we glided deeper into the cove, learning about the effects of the river’s salinity on regional wildlife and plants. Over the years, the salinity of the river intermittently increased and decreased with the growth of agriculture and the construction of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, all of which had varying ecological effects, including the notable migration of oyster middens (“the Goldilocks of salinity indicators” per Brad) 15 to 20 miles away from their original location. In general, however, the fairly negligible salinity has resulted in a remarkably diverse array of marsh plants compared to other rivers, such as the Blackwater or Nanticoke. As we gazed over pickerel weed, arrow arum, tuckahoe, wild rice, and more, it became clear how these creeks served as veritable bread baskets for those who settled here, providing fodder for export as well as sustenance.

As we concluded our thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating excursion, it was clear that all the paddlers were interested in further opportunities to explore and learn (which is the ideal ending to any journey!).  Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for exactly that. In addition to the previously-mentioned future paddles in various locales, and geographical exploration opportunities, Sultana also offers programs for small groups in the lovely 8-1/2-acre Lawrence Wetland Preserve just a five minute walk from Sultana headquarters in Chestertown, featuring hands-on wetland and forest habitat exploration.

One of Maryland’s newest state parks, Bohemia River State Park, features 14,000 feet of shoreline on Great Bohemia Creek and tidal inlets, 1,500 feet of non-tidal streams, 40 acres of wetland, and over 225 acres of forest. The park is currently under development. Anticipated future recreational opportunities include hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing, nature observation, fishing and hunting.

For more information on upcoming events and programs offered by The Sultana Education Foundation, visit: www.sultanaeducation.org . More information on the development of Bohemia River State Park is available here. 

Julie Dieguez

A lifelong Marylander who grew up “gunkholing” around the Chesapeake Bay with her family, Julie Dieguez has worked for nearly two decades in environmental education with a variety of organizations including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Program, No Child Left Inside, and more. She now specializes in developing outdoor classrooms, nature play and learning areas, and therapeutic outdoor spaces for kids.  Julie enjoys exploring, writing, kayaking and camping with her family including two rescue dogs.

October 15, 2020

Main image: Bohemia River, all photos by Julie Dieguez
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