Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lovely Urban Oasis at the US National Arboretum

Dogwood Alley.

I'm always excited to discover an urban oasis -- a place to retreat far from the madding crowd! In fact, I spent this past Sunday morning exploring just such an oasis: the U.S. National Arboretum. The National Arboretum is a garden, a park, and a research institution, part of the USDA. Its 446 acres include world-famous collections, such as its azalea, bonsai, and Asian plant collections.

It is green and lush and colorful. There are wooded walks and expansive meadows and quite a bit in between.

Because it's about to be the peak for azaleas, I headed first to the lovely Azalea Walk. Many of the azaleas hark back to the late 1940s, when Arboretum staff planted more than 15 thousand azaleas on the south side of Mount Hamilton, the highest point in the Arboretum. These first azaleas were all hybrids developed by B.Y. Morrison, first director of the Arboretum. He bred these azalea varieties for larger flower size, a wider range of plant color and bloom times, and hardiness for the Washington, DC area. A landscape architect by trade, he arranged the bushes into large sweeps of overlapping color and times of bloom. The "back part" of the Azalea Walk is cordoned off at the moment, to allow two bald eagles some privacy to raise their young.

There is both a woodland walk through the azaleas and a formal, hardscaped garden, dedicated to Morrison. Throughout both, there are thousands of azalea bushes, which will bloom through June.

The Arboretum offers some surprises -- stately and mysterious columns rising out of the meadow, like Greek temple ruins. As you travel around the grounds, you enjoy different views of the columns. The arrangement of 22 Corinthian columns, originally from the US Capitol building, are placed amid 20 acres of open meadow, known as the Ellipse Meadow.

Base and capital for one of the columns that used to be part of the east portico of the Capitol Building.

The columns were originally built as part of the east portico of the Capitol in 1828, long before the familiar Capitol dome was completed. However, when the dome was completed in 1866, it appeared inadequately supported by the columns, because the iron dome was significantly larger than the dome that the designer envisioned. To correct this visual illusion, an addition to the east side of the Capitol was constructed in 1958 and the columns were removed.

On the grounds is a camillia row, featuring a variety of camillia hybrids. In the 1970s, there used to be more than a thousand camellias there, but a series of really harsh winters killed all but a few. Arbortetum research geneticists recognized this as an opportunity, and crossed the survivors with the more showy but fragile camillias, to develop more winter-hardy cultivar, which now grace camillia row.

There is the Asian Collections, leading down to the Anacostia River along a dramatically landscaped hillside. I noticed several iris, many varieties of hosta (one of my favorite garden plants), and more
than a few trees and flowers I do not know the name of, but which added to the overall beauty of that particular area of the Arboretum. In fact, the hosta is an example of one ornamental plant that was introduced to the United States from Asia and has now become commonplace. The original hostas were planted in the sheltered slope of the Asia Collections to determine its "garden worthiness" for this country.

In addition, there is Fern Valley, dedicated to native plants, and planted with native wildflowers, ferns, trees and shrubs. This is where many of the smaller wonders hid -- a fern still unfurling, delicate wild flowers.

Ultimately, I made my way to my goal: Dogwood Alley, an expansive lawn surrounded by a variety of pink and white dogwoods. Here, as elsewhere in the Arboretum, there are benches strategically placed to offer a few moments of rest and solitude, an opportunity to contemplate and appreciate the tranquility of the grounds and the beauty surrounding you.

Know before you go 1: Bring a bike, but if you do, bring a lock because there are a few trails that don't lend themselves to being biked over, and you'll want to park it and know it'll be there when you return! Or wear good walking shoes. And a hat, because not every path is shaded. Also, there are several places that are great picnic sites, so bring a cold picnic as well (there is no place to grill or barbecue).

Know before you go 2: So, when is the best time to go? Just about anytime in the spring, summer and fall -- there's always something blooming. Find out is in bloom on the What's Blooming page.

Getting there: 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. almost every day except Federal holidays; admission is free.

Dogs: Yes! (Just not in the Bonsai museum.)

Website: www.usna.usda.gov/

Updated May 2018.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Eagles at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of my favorite places to visit. Recently I unintentionally visited while exploring the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, retracing some of the important places to the African American community in the 1800s in Dorchester and a few of the stops along the Underground Railroad. The driving tour led us, naturally, through the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge.

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the critical migration highway called the Atlantic Flyway. The marsh habitat at the refuge is a brackish tidal marsh -- a mix of salt water and freshwater. Tidal marshes serve many important functions. They buffer stormy waters, slow shoreline erosion, and absorb water pollutants and nutrients before they reach the bay. Tidal marshes also provide vital food and habitat, as well as offering shelter and nesting sites for migratory birds.

Whether you visit on purpose or by accident, keep your eyes peeled -- you're almost guaranteed to spot a bald eagle. Blackwater is the center of the greatest density of breeding bald eagles on the east coast, north of Florida, and sightings of bald eagles are fairly common throughout the year.

As we drove along the road, we noticed a bald eagle sitting in a tree. As we drew closer, with the intent of taking some photos, it launched off the branch. At first, I was disappointed, but then we watched this amazing sequence, of an adult bald eagle harassing and then chasing away two juvenile bald eagles.

Dorchester County is a lovely county, not least because it is home to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and the accompanying marshes and swamps. There is a lot of history here, but the refuge alone is enough reason to visit!

Know before you go #1: The Wildlife Drive takes visitors along the Blackwater River and offers excellent views of the Refuge. Visitors can drive, bike, or walk the approximately 4 mile paved road, and turnouts are available at different points to safely stop and observe the scenery. Brief stopping outside of the turnouts is permitted only when there are no other vehicles on the Drive. Walking and biking on the Drive is permitted in both directions; however, visitors must remain on the paved road and should abide by standard road etiquette.

Getting there: The refuge is located  approximately 12 miles south of the town of Cambridge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. From Route 50 in Cambridge take Route 16 West (Church Creek Road) until the blinker light (~5 miles), then turn left onto Egypt Road. Follow Egypt road for ~ 7 miles and it will dead end at Key Wallace Drive. Turn left for the Wildlife Drive, or turn right for the refuge office and the visitor center.

Hours: The roads that travel through the refuge are, of course, public access and open all the time. The Wildlife Drive is open from dawn to dusk every day, but may be closed during severe weather for safety reasons. The visitors center is open Monday - Friday 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. The Visitor Center is closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Website: https://www.fws.gov/blackwater/ There are biking, driving, and hiking maps available at the website.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

American Moses: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Born in Maryland in 1820, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 to become a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

During the Civil War, she helped the Union Army, working as a spy, among other roles. After the Civil War ended, Harriet dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly, establishing her own Home for the Aged. She really was an amazing woman -- not just for her time, but for all time.

That's why I was really excited when the Harriet Tubman State Park opened up in early April in Church Creek, MD -- just below Cambridge in Dorchester County.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center immerses visitors in her world through informative, evocative and emotion-provoking exhibits, explaining how the landscape of the Choptank River region shaped her early years and the importance of her faith, family and community.

The exhibits also feature information about Tubman’s life beginning with her childhood, her escape to freedom, her time as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and her continuous advocacy for justice. By the time Harriet reached adulthood, around half of the African-American people on the eastern shore of Maryland were free. It was not unusual for a family to include both free and enslaved people, as did Tubman’s immediate family. In 1844, Harriet married a free black man named John Tubman. Little is known about John Tubman or their marriage; it is notable that he chose not to go with her North when she escaped, and that he quickly remarried another, local girl.

Harriet escaped from slavery in 1849 via the network known as the Underground Railroad to travel the nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia. She crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled later: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

After exploring the visitors center, we headed toward Hoopers Island to Old Saltys Restaurant for what I believe may be the best crab cakes in Maryland (although admittedly, I have not surveyed every last crab cake). The crab cakes were notable for truly NOT having much filler -- unusual even when some restaurants claim they use little filler. The crab cakes were incredible. I definitely will be heading back. Although it doesn't look like much from the outside, if you're in Dorchester County, you should drive the few extra miles down Hoopers Island Road to go to this restaurant.

After lunch, we started the Harriet Tubman Byway, admittedly not in the order of stops listed. Incredibly, Harriet returned to the area repeatedly, risking her life and freedom to rescue both family members and other enslaved individuals in the Dorchester County region. In fact, she was the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, an elaborate secret network of safe houses organized to help enslaved individuals escape to freedom in the north.

Years later, she said of her time as a conductor for 8 years on the Underground Railroad, "I can say what most conductors can't say -- I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."

Because we were coming from Hoopers Island, to start our driving tour on the Harriet Tubman Byway we headed up Smithville Road to stops 11, 10, 9 and 8 first. First, and noteworthy, the drive through the marshy countryside is beautiful and amazing. The swamps and marshland of Dorchester County are some of the loveliest, and as I've noted before in this blog, also eerie in their desolate beauty. 

We also saw the remnants of Dorchester County's history -- old and faded churches, abandoned old homes now crumbling into the earth. Being me, I stopped to photograph almost every one of them, as I wondered who had lived there, what their lives had been like...

We easily found the New Revived Church (stop #11), which wasn't even there in Harriet's time. However, it is noteworthy because it exemplifies the life of faith -- and the community and support that that religious faith provided African Americans both during and after slavery. Following the Civil War, several Methodist churches, such as the New Revived Church, opened in the area, although after World War II, they shut down one by one, and now form the congregation at the New Revived Church.

New Revived Church

Sometimes the driving tour was frustrating. Stop #10, Parsons Creek, is inaccessible completely unless you wish to canoe or kayak to it (a possibility for another blog post).

At Malone's Church (stop #8) we got out to take photos, noticing some very old gravestones in the back of the church yard, and made our way back. We saw there were Tubmans buried there: Moses and Evelina. We wondered whether Harriet had known Moses and Evelina, whether they too had been enslaved or free, like John Tubman. Were they related to her husband? What were these people to her? Before her escape to freedom, did she laugh and dance and gossip with them? I wanted to know more.

Then too, the guide notes that Harriet had probably been born on a farm on "nearby Harrisville Road" but that the farm is currently private property. I wondered why -- since the driving tour takes us past other sites on private property -- they didn't at least have a drive by? I was tempted to look for Harrisville Road ourselves, but then figured, without knowing the location of the farm, it was pointless. Furthermore, any buildings that she would have been in back then have long since disappeared. It's only recently that Maryland has been interested in preserving the physical artifacts of its enslaved community.

NOTE: After this post was published, a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway representative more fully explained why Harrisville Road is not on the driving tour: "The site is on private property down a rutted dirt road, and for privacy and safety reasons, we don't feel we can safely send tour buses and visitors down that road." So disappointing as it is, the explanation is reasonable. 

Malone's Church; this church haunts me, even several weeks after visiting it. It's not a particularly lovely old church, but more than some of the other places I photographed that day, this is the one that sticks in my imagination and dreams.

We looked at the surrounding fields. Were these paths here when she trod this ground? What thoughts went through her mind? Of course, there's never any answer to questions like these, although I've added her biography to my already too long reading list.

We took a few wrong turns. The byway will lead you through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (stop #14). Keep your eyes peeled -- you're almost guaranteed to spot a bald eagle. We watched this amazing and dramatic scene of an adult bald eagle harassing and then chasing away two juvenile bald eagles, which I will feature in next week's post.

The forests, marshes, and waterways that comprise the refuge are pretty much the same landscape Harriet would might have seen during her lifetime.

The adult bald eagle, to the right, flies in to harass two juvenile bald
eagles in a spectacular scene that we got to watch unfold.

We headed home after stop #24, Choptank Landing. We certainly learned more about Harriet Tubman, but I still felt she was a mystery. How did she come by that force of will that led her to her freedom, and then back into the extreme of danger so many times? What indications were there as a child that this woman would become the American hero she turned out to be?

The Harriet Tubman Byway is well worth your time, however. The beauty of Dorchester County reveals itself, as do some of the experiences of the African American community that lived in the county throughout this country's history. The history of the enslaved individuals in America, and their lives and communities post-emancipation is a history that has been sadly neglected by our history books.

Fields that were part of the Brodess Farm; Harriet Tubman had been initially enslaved by the Brodess family.
The dwelling currently on the modern-day farm was built well after the Civil War. No trace remains of the actual
Brodess dwelling, which once sat near the existing house at the end of the long driveway.

Know before you go #1: Download the Harriet Tubman Byway app before you leave home (when you can download all the data on your wireless internet)! Cell service was spotty at the visitor's center and it all but disappeared several times along the drive - which means, you'll definitely want a hard copy of the Underground Railroad driving tour!

Know before you go #2: Bring a navigator to help spot those hard to find turns and Tubman Byway sign posts.

The general store in Bucktown played a significant part in Harriet Tubman's life. 
Hours: The visitors center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for major holidays.

Getting there: The visitors center is located at 4068 Golden Hill Rd, Church Creek, MD 21622; at the visitors center, pick up a brochure and map for the driving tour.

Website: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/eastern/tubman_visitorcenter.aspx and for the byway: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/eastern/tubman_byway.aspx

The Leverton House's current owners have planted privacy trees obscuring all view of the house from the road, as well as shrubs that have grown over the Harriet Tubman Byway signpost, making it difficult to read.

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Choptank Landing is the site of Harriet's dramatic rescue of her father, Ben Ross. In March 1857, Ben was suspected of helping eight enslaved individuals, who were referred to collectively as "the Dover Eight," escape from slavery. Harriet rushed to the Eastern Shore to rescue her parents, who were themselves active in the Underground Railroad, at great risk before her father was arrested. Cobbling together a makeshift, 1-axle wagon, she rigged up a horse with a straw collar and drove her parents to Delaware. They eventually made their way to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Exploring Kent Island's Cross Island Trail

Just over the Bay Bridge in Maryland, the Cross Island Trail is a rail trail in Queen Anne's County occupying a section of the abandoned Queen Anne's Railroad corridor that travels the width of Kent Island.

The trail begins in Terrapin Park, near the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and brings you through both Terrapin Park and the adjacent Chesapeake Bay Business Park.

It then crosses Love Point Road through the property of Kent Island High School, then into Old Love Point Park. After Old Love Point Park, the trail enters its original section and the former rail bed of the Queen Anne's Railroad.

Along the railbed, it goes in a straight path until reaching the end of its original section at Castle Marina Road.

This is about where you encounter first road noise from noisy Rt 50, nearby, and then you can see it, although sometimes the view to the road is nicely obscured by tall grasses. It frequently is deeply shaded, even when you can see through the few trees to the highway beyond. Proximity to the road means road noise, and is exactly what I'm trying to escape from when I go biking or hiking. For this reason, I'm not sure I'm keen to return to this trail -- I'm not sure it's a destination trail. But for those NOT bothered by road noise, then this trail would be very enjoyable, and there are some lovely views.

After crossing Castle Marina Road, the trail mostly parallels Piney Creek Road and U.S. Route 50, before ending at the Chesapeake Exploration Center in Kent Narrows. Here, however, I recommend veering left along the marina to Ferry Point Park, adjacent the Chesapeake Exploration Center. Although not as well groomed a trail, it's well worth a few minutes of your time heading out on the peninsula. You'll be rewarded with some lovely views of the water and almost guaranteed solitude, except for squirrels, biting bugs, and osprey.

The name Ferry Point came from the ferries that once crossed Kent Narrows to link Kent Island with the mainland. Signage points out that Kent Island served as a base of operations for the British invaders during the War of 1812 and was fully occupied by up to three thousand British troops in August 1813. The Brits took over the Kent Island-Annapolis Ferry and used the island as a base of operations to conduct raids in the middle Chesapeake Bay. They terrorized the fertile farmlands and raided the wealthy Delmarva plantations, destroying many of them, especially those on Kent Island.

A continuation of the trail uses the Kent Narrows Bridge on Maryland Route 18 and connects with the rest of the American Discovery Trail.

Know before you go 1: There is parking in Terrapin Park, but as I was leaving on a summer Sunday morning (granted, a beautiful, not humid, not as hot as usual Sunday), there were only a few spots left at 10:30. However, at the other end, at the Chesapeake Exploration Center, there is quite a bit of parking.

Know before you go 2: The trail goes through some well-shaded areas, but you're frequently exposed to full sun, so ensure you put on sunblock.

Getting there: Terrapin Park is located at 191 Cross Island Trail, Stevensville, MD 21666; the Chesapeake Exploration Center is located at 425 Piney Narrows Rd, Chester, MD 21619.

Dogs: Saw lots of them on the trail, all wagging their tails!

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

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