Visiting the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
by Amanda S. Creasey, Outdoors Writer
As soon as we cross the bridge from the mainland, I sense a change. The land seems flatter, the trees shorter, the sky broader. I have never been to this part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and my friends Ashley, Stephanie, Sarah and I have been looking forward to this trip with an anticipation akin to a child’s at Christmas.
After a quick lunch at our lodgings in Church Creek, my three friends, my two dogs and I are back in the car for the short drive to Blackwater Adventures. We have scheduled a two-hour guided paddle on the Little Blackwater River, where it meanders through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The outfit’s website has promised us bald eagle sightings, as well as the potential to see other waterfowl and maybe some sika deer, one of the few non-native species that our guide Jamie Spicer Willey says people are glad to have around.
Like industrious ants, we scramble around the SUV, unloading life vests, sunscreen, camera gear, towels and water bottles. My friends help me heft my paddleboard from the roof rack, and I sheath my dogs in their skin-tight, SPF-50 sun shirts and life vests before applying sunscreen and donning my vest.
Jamie provides a brief paddling and safety lesson, and everyone settles on their boards or in their kayaks as we launch. For me and my dogs, this is the first paddle of the season and I feel a sense of freedom and peace as the little wavelets click against the underside of my board.
PADDLING LITTLE BLACKWATER
We have hardly paddled out of the small, make shift harbor when we see our first bald eagle. It soars above us as we paddle toward our first stop: a nest high up in the pine trees on the opposite bank.
When we reach it, we crane our necks up, up, up, in awe of the massive nest. Bald eagles return to the same nest every year, increasing its size with new branches and moss.We will see two more nests, one 15 years old, one perhaps brand new, as Jamie says she has never seen it, and she looks forward to telling her fellow guides about the discovery.
As we drift along, lazily paddling around a peninsula for a different view of the first nest, ospreys cry above us. Several more adolescent and adult eagles glide on the breeze or beat their wings in flight overhead, their music-box call echoing down to us on the water.
While we paddle, Jamie treats us to a bit of local folklore: the Legend of Big Lizz. Big Lizz, she tells us, was an enslaved woman whose master suspected her of operating as a Union spy. Fearing for his Confederate treasure, he forced Big Lizz to carry a heavy trunk deep into the nearby Greenbrier Swamp, where he commanded her to dig a hole wherein to hide the treasure. When she finished the backbreaking work, he promptly decapitated her — and her headless spirit still haunts the swamp today.
“If you go to the swamp after dark,” Jamie says, “and turn off your car, honk your horn three times and flash your lights three times …” A heron slicing through our paddling party momentarily interrupts her. “… Big Lizz will appear, holding her head, and your car won’t start back up.”
In the security and confidence of broad daylight, we decide we’ll probably test the legend tonight.
A white egret flies high above our heads as we continue paddling. Jamie tells us about the various wildlife that thrives in the refuge, including muskrats, which the locals eat. In reaction to our surprise and revulsion, she admits she can’t understand the craving either, but is adamant that people she knows relish muskrat meat. We ask her what it tastes like.
“It’s hard to say what it tastes like,” she tells us. “It’s unique. It tastes like … muskrat.”
A little wind has kicked up in the later part of the afternoon, and we strain against the small waves it generates as we make our way back to the harbor at Blackwater Adventures. A little chop smacks at the nose of my board as I paddle, sending rivulets of water across its surface, wetting my dogs’ feet and the bottom of my paddling bag.
Jamie tells us about the invasive snakehead fish that have infiltrated the Little Blackwater. They make a delicious meal, so fishermen are eager to catch and eat them. Two fishermen are out on the water today, and one has caught a 22- inch snakehead. He opens a small tank on the side of his kayak and holds it up for us to see. He’ll eat it for dinner tomorrow.
After an effort much more strenuous than anticipated, we arrive, somewhat winded, at Blackwater Adventures. Tonight, we will take a self-guided driving tour of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and maybe try to conjure Big Lizz.
A REFUGE DRIVE
As the afternoon wanes and the sun begins to sink toward the horizon, we pile back into the car for the 10-minute drive to the wildlife refuge. We pay our $3 vehicle entrance fee, and begin to drive slowly along the paved, nearly 4-mile route.
I put the car in reverse when a bird I don’t recognize lands on a sturdy stalk of nearby grass. It’s black and gray and orange, about the size of a robin. Ashley uses her Audubon app to identify it: probably a northern parula.
As we continue the drive, an indigo bunting, some bluebirds and several swallows flit across the road. Bald eagles call to each other overhead, and we stop the car to admire two perched on dead trees in the middle of a grassy marsh, their white heads almost glowing in the evening sun.
On a wooded part of the trail, Ashley and Stephanie exclaim about something they see in the trees. I slowly back the SUV up and see … a squirrel. Stephanie and Ashley are convinced it’s something else; it’s so much larger and lighter in color than the squirrels we’re used to at home.
Sarah and I are convinced they’re under the influence of the magic of this place, their yearning to see something novel making everything they see novel. Later, we learn that Stephanie and Ashley were right. It was a Delmarva fox squirrel, not the run-of-the-mill, gray squirrels we have at home. We see a few more before the drive is over.
When we reach the stop sign that signals the end of our route, the sun is low and the shadows are long, but we all agree there’s enough daylight to do one more loop on the wildlife drive before it closes at dusk.
“And then,” I say, “maybe we can try to find Big Lizz.”
“But if the car won’t start after she appears,” Sarah says, “how will we get home?”
“Well, it’ll start back up at some point, I’m sure,” I say, turning back into the refuge.
On our second tour, we enjoy seeing a snake zigzag across the road; several monarch butterflies, wings aflame with ruby sunlight; a great egret; a solitary deer, blazing sorrel in the rosy sun; an eastern kingbird; a lizard and a raccoon.
The raccoon lumbers and lilts along in front of our car briefly before stopping in some grasses along the shoulder to turn and look at us with his deep, black eyes. A gray fox dashes across the pavement, and trots along a mowed path to our left, causing a flurry of excitement in our car.
It is almost dark when we leave the refuge — the perfect time to go looking for Big Lizz. But nobody mentions it, and I don’t bring it up. I’m too tired and hungry.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself.