It’s early December, and the mornings start off with a cold chill. Almost all of the color has faded from the landscape. As darkness settles in earlier each day, I find myself slipping away during my lunch breaks to take a walk to catch some fresh air and daylight before the sun sets again too soon. It’s this time of year I can’t help but let my mind wander and reflect back to the warmer, more carefree days of early Autumn.

This year was particularly spectacular. Warm days seemed to hold on to no end and the autumn colors lingered brightly. Personally, I cherish sunny fall days close to the water on Maryland’s eastern shore. This season, there were plenty of warm sunny days to be spent on the Bay. In fact, one weekend in particular was more seasonable than most when I attended a retreat along the shores of the Bay herself.

The retreat took place in Bishops Head at the Karen Noonan Center (KNC), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s most inland education center – and a former bay hunting lodge. At this location, visiting groups have the chance to learn and experience what life is like for those that make their living on the water. Most importantly, by understanding the reality of life downstream, students and professionals of all ages can see firsthand how human interactions have affected and continue to change how life flourishes in the Bay itself.

Thanks to an educational grant from the US Forest Service, the Alliance had the opportunity to host a new group of foresters and watershed professionals from across the watershed. They took time out of their hectic schedules to attend the Chesapeake Forestry Retreat, spending a few days immersed in a section called the “middle bay,” the very tip of water in the Chesapeake Bay just south of Cambridge, MD. The Chesapeake is the nation’s largest estuary, a large body of brackish water on the east coast where the salty waters of the Atlantic meet the fresh waters of its tributaries. The retreat is aimed at furthering the education of those who work to protect or restore aspects of the watershed, usually many miles upstream in the headwaters of the Susquehanna, Potomac, James Rivers, and their various tributaries (this year, as far away as Oklahoma and Indiana).

In order to get to KNC, one must drive for miles on end through the flat, marshy, sandy lands of the eastern shore of Maryland, and through the expansive Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge provides a haven for migratory birds, complete with tidal marshes and forests of mixed hardwoods and loblolly pines. It is unique in nature, boasting one of the highest concentrations of nesting eagles on the Atlantic coast – and is also the childhood home of Harriet Tubman. Driving here from upstream areas, the tides are a new force to be reckoned with. In fact, one cannot access the tip of the island without knowing where the water lines are. At high tide, the single track road in and out of the center floods for about an hour or so, leaving a visitor at the mercy of nature, forced to slow down and wait until the road clears again.

Our first day at the KNC was a particularly gorgeous and sunny one. The Foundation’s boat captain took the group out on their deadrise workboat, a traditional waterman’s boat used for crabbing, fishing and oyster harvesting. We visited Lower Hoopers Island, five miles to the west of KNC. From there, the group waded through thick mud flats and low tidal waters, exploring the grasses and wildlife. We felt like kids that afternoon, mucking through the marsh, spotting crabs, and picking up bits of “treasure,” (trash that had washed ashore).

This island, however, is eroding away at an astonishing rate. Residents of Hoopers Island lose about 24 acres of land per year. Unfortunately, many islands in this region have suffered loss or have even disappeared. Often because of the erosion, there is a good chance to find Colonial or Native American artifacts washed up on the beach. This day, however, nothing was spotted except a large pod of dolphins just off shore making a leisurely fishing trip back toward Tangier Sound.

The following day, the group performed a small amount of dredging, taking a scientific approach to understand the threats and diseases that are currently troubling oyster populations. We explored how dredging has had a major effect on the former oyster reefs that once existed throughout the Bay, also affecting the growth rates of oysters. Additionally, our group learned how the Oyster Wars from 1865 to 1959 threatened the livelihoods of those so entwined with bay life (do a web search, it is some wild stuff!). We even played games to understand how certain techniques have destroyed oyster reefs. And to better understand the life of a waterman, listen to a classic maritime song from 1978, Dredgin’ is My Drudgery!

It was humbling to learn of the effect that certain techniques and overharvesting over the last 300 hundred years has had on the brackish environment. Astonishingly, only 5% of the biodiversity of wildlife, fish, and oyster presence is left since the early days of Captain John Smith’s first exploration of these waterways in 1608. Fortunately, the restoration efforts of many organizations and nonprofits region-wide are contributing to building back the critical oyster reef habitats.

No trip to the Bay would be complete without setting crab traps or picking steamed crabs smothered in Old Bay seasoning with friends. In the evening, the group took free time seriously, either walking along the shoreline, kayaking, fishing for rockfish (striper if you’re from up north), or laying in the balcony hammock staring across the water as the sun sets. One night, a participant pulled an eel up off the dock. October is also rut season for sika deer, a unique animal for this area. Sika are small spotted deer, originally a native of Japan and eastern Asia. They flourish in the marshy land, often so evasive that they are referred to as ‘ghost deer’ by the locals. Each evening we could hear the bugle calls of the Sika deer, a small member of the deer family. These deer are native to Asia, but were introduced to the marshes and wetlands of Maryland in the early 20th century. Due to low light pollution on the Bay, the stars were so bright that we could even make out the faint outlines of the Milky Way. Falling asleep to the sound of lapping tides, I dreamt about how it must be to live out here.

Time is a funny concept along the Chesapeake Bay. The days are marked by colorful sunrises, sunsets, and the variation of the tides. The direction and force of the wind matters, as do the seasoning and phases of the moon, all affecting how deep the tides flow. The slower pace of life takes some time to get used to and is truly a breath of fresh air. While the group had a fun break from a typical work week, we were reminded why our work matters. Through making new connections, learning about the Bay, and immersing ourselves in nature, the group felt renewed with a sense of purpose to protect and restore this magnificent ecosystem.

For many of us, the week’s end arrived too soon. It was hard to leave those shorelines, but after breakfast on the last day, the tide was coming in quickly. We knew it was time to leave, yet pieces of the Bay were coming with us in spirit. By taking the time to renew and learn, this trip offered new fuel to work in a greater capacity, and share our newfound knowledge with those around us. We found this retreat to be an invaluable experience for all of those who attended. By experiencing life on the Bay, we gained perspective that will allow us to better understand why watershed conservation is so important. We headed home re-energized with an ignited passion to continue our upstream conservation efforts. It’s my hope that all conservation professionals working within the Bay watershed will one day get to experience an autumn weekend as incredible as the one we spent at the KNC.

It’s an experience I hope all who work towards improving Bay health can one day live. If you find yourself working in this space and have not yet experienced life on the Bay, go see it for yourself! You won’t be disappointed.