Discovering One of the East Coast's "Last Great Places"

The 28,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a paddling oasis on Maryland’s Eastern shore.
The 28,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a paddling oasis on Maryland’s Eastern shore. Malee Oot
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Every summer, countless Washingtonians speed through Dorchester County, located in the middle of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, on their way to the beach, anxious to sink their toes into Atlantic-lapped sands. But in their quest for the coast, these over-eager vacationers bypass one of the state’s most magical ecological treasures: the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Considered one of the "Last Great Places" by the Nature Conservancy, this protected area is home to nearly a third of the state’s tidal wetlands, including avifauna-loaded marshes, slow-rolling rivers, and shadowy groves of loblolly pine adorning the waterlogged landscape of the mid-shore.

Despite an obsession with zooming-in on every speck of green on Google maps in hopes of stumbling upon some inconspicuous, adventure-laden gem, until just a few weeks ago, I too was one of these oblivious vacationers guilty of racing through wetland-dappled Dorchester County. But on a morning in late August, I finally make it a priority to explore the 28,000-acre refuge spanning the Chesapeake Bay and the Nanticoke River. On the post-dawn drive from the historic town of Cambridge, I cruise through a quilted patchwork of agricultural fields, punctuated with copses of lofty loblolly pine, on the way to the boat launch tucked beside the Route 335 Bridge, two miles from the refuge’s main visitor center. Mine is the only car in the tiny lot, and I can’t see any other boats on the glassy water. I launch beneath a big sky scattered with a few wispy clouds, kayaking through calm water the color of instant coffee, tinted with tannin. I set out on the 8-mile Green Trail, one of three paddling trails threading the refuge, offering paddlers more than 20 routed miles to explore. I’m just a few strokes from shore when a pitchy shriek pierces the air. I notice an immediately recognizable profile on the lone branch jutting from a dead tree looming above—the distinctive dark body and snowy white noggin of a bald eagle. Today, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is home to one of the greatest concentrations of nesting bald eagles on the East Coast. The iconic species is now reappearing in its rightful habitat, removed from the endangered species list just over a decade ago.

But the refuge is a haven for more than just eagles, catering to a whopping 250 different types of birds, including 85 species that use the preserve as a breeding ground. Dubbed the “Everglades of the North”, the refuge was established in 1933 to safeguard the smattering of ponds and marshes fed by the Blackwater and Little Blackwater rivers—habitat vital for seasonally migrating avifauna. Everything from shorebirds to songbirds congregates at the preserve, including snowy egrets, green heron, red-tailed hawks, and indigo bunting—all checklist species for any birder worth their salt. Besides birds, muskrats thrive in the refuge’s waterlogged cordgrass, preyed upon by river otters anxious to make a meal of the semiaquatic rodents. Northern water snakes also slip soundlessly through the marshes, one of more than 35 species of reptiles and amphibians inhabiting the preserve. On dry land, the refuge is covered by some of Dorchester County’s most expansive tracts of forest, dominated by loblolly pine. The woodlands harbor common mid-Atlantic critters like white-tailed deer, red fox, and raccoons, plus rarer wildlife, like sika deer, an Asian species brought to the area more than a century ago, and the country’s largest population of the once-endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel.

The watery expanse trolled by birds of prey wasn’t always protected.

Before being designated a wildlife refuge, most of the forests tufting the landscape were harvested and sold as timber, and muskrat traps dotted the marshy habitat along the Blackwater River. Yet, despite centuries of changing land use, the ecosystems protected by the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge would still be familiar to the people who once worked the fields, forests, and waterways of Dorchester County—including a plucky slave by the name of Araminta “Minty” Ross, who would use this firsthand knowledge of the lay of the land to become one of the most legendary figures on the Underground Railroad.

Born in 1822 on a plantation in Peter’s Neck, along the western edge of what is now the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Minty Ross would later go by the moniker Harriet Tubman. As a child, Tubman was enslaved just east of the preserve, on a farm near Bucktown. She was regularly hired out to other area slave-owners, including a local planter who tasked the elementary school-aged girl with trapping muskrats along the Little Blackwater River in the dead of winter, when the rodent’s fur is lushest.

Tubman later worked as a field hand and then joined local timber gangs, cutting wood and hauling logs for transport to the Chesapeake Bay along the Blackwater River. While diminutive in size—described as “5 feet high” in an 1849 runaway advertisement posted in a local newspaper—Tubman prided herself on her physical ability to take jobs typically given exclusively to men.

This hard-earned grit would serve Tubman well. She eventually made her way to Pennsylvania on a solo journey by following the North Star, aided by the clandestine network of abolitionists scattered across Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After gaining her own freedom, Tubman returned to the Eastern Shore 13 times, leading more than 70 friends and relatives to liberty. Preferring to travel in winter, Tubman eluded capture every time, relying on her outdoor savvy and knowledge of the local landscape and earning the nickname Moses. In 1857, on one of her final forays to the Eastern Shore, Tubman rescued her parents, in their seventies, ushering them to freedom in Ontario.

After almost an hour of paddling, I pause to wipe the sunscreen-saturated sweat out my eyes. A shy, spotted turtle snout briefly breaches the water, then disappears again, sending out rings of ripples. Stopping just long enough to take a swig from my water bottle, I pause as my kayak drifts and swirls. I briefly lose my bearings—for a second, I can’t tell which direction I just came from. In the maze of marsh, it’s not hard to imagine the skill required to navigate a wetland this vast, especially at night. I can’t help but think of Tubman’s treks to freedom as I reorient myself.

Although it's largely a matter of speculation whether Tubman herself ever led runaway slaves directly through the forests and marshes of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, countless self-liberators undoubtedly used these wetlands as a route to freedom. Either way, the slave first known as Minty Ross is now memorialized at the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Historical Park, located just outside the refuge, and along the regional Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile route stringing together three dozen sites relevant to Tubman’s life.

Once I get my bearings, I start paddling again, pausing just a few seconds later to coast past a double-crested cormorant perched on a skeletal tree stump jutting out of the water. The cormorant is unperturbed by my gaze, and I’m in no hurry to get moving. I promise myself that from now on there will be no more mad dashes through the Eastern Shore. The next time I cross the Chesapeake Bay on the way to the coast, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge will be my first detour: a place to slow down and savor the natural beauty of this part of the world, and the fascinating and humbling history that goes with it.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated.

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