Beyond Jamestown

After the colony was founded, 400 years ago this month, Capt. John Smith set out to explore the riches of Chesapeake Bay. With Smith’s journals to guide him, a modern-day sailor retraces that historic voyage

The British colonists who settled a bit of land they soon named Jamestown (depicted in a 19th-century engraving) gave England its first enduring encampment in the New World--and, not incidentally, began our national narrative. (The Granger Collection)
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Back in the whaler, we continued upriver toward Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was drop-dead gorgeous on this September day. More than a dozen bald eagles soared above the steep, forested right bank, ospreys dived for fish in the river and great blue herons and egrets stepped delicately among the wild rice and other grasses in the marsh.

The river looked lovely, but that is what is so deceptive about the Chesapeake watershed generally: its very beauty masks its ecological problems.

In John Smith's day, this river would have been clear and filled with rockfish, sturgeon, American shad and herring. Today, only the rockfish and a few other species abound in its cloudy waters, and they are thriving largely because of severe limits imposed on fishing in the latter 1980s.

Bay-wide, the statistics on key environmental factors in the Chesapeake are discouraging. For example, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that in 1607 there were about 400,000 acres of underwater grasses in the bay. Today, there are only about 70,000. Wetlands, which the foundation calls the bay's "lungs and kidneys," amounted to 3.5 million acres. About 1.5 million acres remain. Virtually the entire watershed was forested in 1607, constituting a "great, green filter" for the natural runoff into the bay. Much of that has been cleared for agriculture and development. And the oyster population, which once could filter all the water in the bay every few days, is less than 4 percent of its historic high.

Each year, the foundation produces a State of the Bay report, which measures 13 key indicators of the Chesapeake's health, from pollution to fisheries to crabs. Using the bay in John Smith's time as an index of 100, the foundation rated the bay last year at 29, up two points from the year before, but still perilously low.

That's a failing grade, given the pledges of federal, state and District of Columbia governments over the past two decades to spend the billions necessary to clean up the bay. In 2000, the leaders of those governments signed an agreement committing to restore the Chesapeake's health to a rating of 40 by 2010. Now, meeting that goal seems unlikely.

The problem is not a lack of knowledge of what needs to be done. "The bay is one of the most studied, analyzed, examined bodies of water on earth," says the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory's Boynton. "We scientists are doing a great job chronicling the demise of the bay. What is lacking is the political will to halt that demise."

On the bay's western shore, at the head of the Rhode River, Anson (Tuck) Hines, director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, has tracked the changes for 30 years. "We are at the tipping point," he says. "Global climate change, the pace of development, the decline of the fisheries—everything is happening so quickly that I worry about the next 40 years, much less the next 400."

A shared sense of alarm about the bay is what motivated John Page Williams, the Conservation Fund, the National Geographic Society, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others to push Congress to authorize the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

The trail recognizes Smith's route as an important chapter in America's early history, just as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Oregon Trail and 14 others mark other pioneering achievements. Once fully laid out by the National Park Service, both land sites and interpretive buoys will offer historical and scientific information at key points along Smith's circuit. Boaters and others will be able to trace his voyages and access information via cellphone and the Internet to contrast the bay now with what was known about it in his time.


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