Tuesday, October 7, 2008

John Smith water trail advances

From the Bethany Beach Wave@delawareonline.com
By Molly Murray • The News Journal • October 6, 2008

SEAFORD — For a moment, forget the houses, the barges and the signs of the 21st century on the Nanticoke River.

Instead, look at the thick woods, the bald eagles flying overhead, the deer running through the dense vegetation. See the wide sweep of marsh and the great blue heron as it snares a fish.

It is this world that Capt. John Smith saw in 1608 when he and a crew of 14 set sail from Jamestown, Va., in a 30-foot-long shallop to explore the Chesapeake Bay and some of its tributaries.

Of all the places Smith explored during that 2,500-mile journey, the two places that have changed the least since then are the Pocomoke and Nanticoke rivers, said Jim Rapp, executive director of the Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences, an organization that is working to expand low-impact ecotourism on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Now local groups, individuals and municipal and state officials in Delaware and Maryland are working with the National Park Service as the federal agency plans the new Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Once completed, the trail will be the nation's first national water trail.

Rapp believes it could do for the Chesapeake watershed what the Appalachian Trail did for the vast mountain range that stretches from Maine to Georgia.

Last week, National Park Service officials started a series of meetings to get people throughout the region involved and to outline what they are looking at as they develop a comprehensive management plan for the John Smith trail.

The first of those meetings was held in Seaford. Although Smith never made it as far as modern-day Seaford when he came up the Nanticoke, he made a brief foray into Delaware when he meandered off the Nanticoke into Broad Creek and landed at what is now Phillips Landing.

Seaford could play an important role in the development of tourism-based activities linked to the trail, Rapp said.

John Maounis, superintendent of the John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, said work on the plan is just beginning.

"We really want to hear from everybody," he said.

What parks officials are looking for now is public input on several fronts. First, Maounis said, they want to know how people anticipate using the trail. Will they paddle or boat along Smith's routes? Are they interested in organized boat tours? Will they visit sites on land by following an overland route that closely matches the places Smith explored during his journey? Will they bike or walk some overland link to the water trail?

"One of our quandaries," Maounis said, "is there are so many opportunities."

Park officials know some visitors want to connect with an earlier time and are looking to see a world much like the one Smith encountered. That experience isn't very likely along some of the routes Smith took, but along the Pocomoke and Nanticoke, the landscape in some areas is less changed than along other tributaries, Rapp said.

Some trail users might be most interested in the American Indians that Smith encountered on his journey. The Algonquin Indians, led by the great chief Powhatan, had a complex society. Smith also encountered the Nanticoke Indians and was told of "a great nation called Massawomeck."

Essentially, parks officials are looking at three broad themes: where Smith went, American Indian life at the time and how the Chesapeake has changed. Sometime next spring, parks officials hope to have a series of options and will host another round of public meetings to get input, Maounis said.

Delaware and Maryland officials already worked together to produce a map aimed at attracting trail-based tourism to the Nanticoke.

The map, called "The Nanticoke River, Explorers Welcome," highlights natural areas such as the Ellis Bay Wildlife Management Area in Maryland and the Nanticoke Wildlife Area in Delaware, pinpoints public boat launching areas along the river and highlights many of the places visitors could see -- from Seaford and Bethel to Mardela Springs.

There are already dozens of attractions, from museums to parks, that people could visit, Rapp said.

The weak link is in the infrastructure to support the trail -- inns, camping and other accommodations and the transportation network that would get people in boats, canoes or kayaks from the water trail to points of interest or accommodations on land.

Rapp said there are several models local residents could explore to keep private land off limits or to allow some public access.

And there will likely be opportunities for good outfitters and historical interpreters or guides, Rapp said.

"You can't PowerPoint this stuff," he said. "There are all these rich stories."



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