Water Trail Revisits Capt. John Smith's Voyage A new water trail commemorates Capt. John Smith's historic 2,300-mile exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. Guided by electronic buoys, visitors on small boats learn about the bay and the native Indians who lived along the country's Eastern Shore.
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Water Trail Revisits Capt. John Smith's Voyage

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Water Trail Revisits Capt. John Smith's Voyage

Water Trail Revisits Capt. John Smith's Voyage

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Now, a story about a more primitive mode of transportation in an area we all hope stays green.

Four centuries ago, the British men who would become the first permanent colonists in the new world spent four long months at sea before landing on the Eastern shores of North America. When they did, they surely found a pristine wilderness of marshland, much like the one I visited on a recent autumn morning.

The water is a blue-gray of the steely color. The marshlands are green turning to brown and yellow with the fall. The sky is just absolutely pure blue, not a single cloud in sight. And what do you see?

Mr. JOHN PAGE WILLIAMS (Senior Naturalist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation): Pixie's(ph) sunflowers. Little golden flower, there's more of it further up and it would have been an absolute golden carpet here a month ago. The Latin name for this Bidens laevis, but what they call it here is butterweed.

SEABROOK: Butterweed.

John Page Williams and I are standing in a small open motorboat in the middle of the Patuxent River. Williams is a long-time field guide for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He spent decades on this water and he's brought me out here to show me something completely new.

Mr. WILLIAMS: What we are on right now is America's first national historic all-water trail.

SEABROOK: So think the Lois and Clark trail or the Pony Express trail, except this one is all on water and traces the path of one of North America's earliest and arguably most colorful explorers: Captain John Smith.

Williams is taking me on a tour of the land that John Smith saw when he was send by the Virginia company to survey the new world.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They wanted them to explore and map the area. And so he left with a crew of 12 early in June to see where they went and what was there. And that was the major exploration that led to the map.

SEABROOK: In two years between 1607 and 1609, Smith traveled 1,800 miles by boat. Think about that. The Chesapeake Bay is only 200 miles from head to mouth, but Smith and his men snaked into just about every little creek, every tributary that fed into the bay, all along plotting a map so precise, William says, you still use it today.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's how accurate he was and the implications of that map are huge. We take maps for granted today. Google Earth on a computer.

(Soundbite of laughter)


SEABROOK: Zooming on your own house.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The implications of this accurate map which Smith published in Oxford, England in 1612, this was the blueprint for virtually everything that happened here in the 17th century, which is the foundation of…


Mr. WILLIAMS: …what we got today. We can start the engine.

SEABROOK: All right.

(Soundbite of engine starting up)

SEABROOK: The country is not mountainous, John Smith wrote in his journal, nor yet low but such pleasant plain hills and fertile valleys, one prettily crossing another and watered so conveniently with fresh Brooklyn springs, no less commodious than delightsome.

John Page Williams points across the marsh plants to a shallow box sticking up on a pole.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They're marvelous animals. I love to watch them dive, fishing. There's an osprey platform. All summer, there are ospreys are all over here. They are still wonderful. But you see an osprey come up with maybe even a 12-inch fish in its talons and it will get up 30 feet off a water and stop in mid-air and shake like dog.

SEABROOK: The osprey have been fishing these waters in the summer for thousands of years. John Smith surely saw them as he explore the bay. As we followed Smith's trail, we see grape-blue herons with a wing span of six feet, exploding out of the tall grasses, ducks and geese, beaver dams. But this place is more than just something pretty to look at, says Williams. It is a piece of a living history, a record of what this land was before it became America.

John Smith, says Williams, was just the man to explore it, a brave adventurer.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Stocky tough. He was a mercenary. Finding the Spanish in the Netherlands and he came back at the age of 18 or so with money in his pocket and moved off into the woods, (unintelligible) like to read the complete works of Marcus Aurelius and some of Machiavelli.

SEABROOK: What a guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: By 25 years old, Smith had fought against the Ottoman Empire, won duels and killed commanders. He'd been wounded, captured and enslaved. A Turkish princess fell in love with him and released Smith, who made his way across Europe back to England. In short, Smith was perfect for a job with the Virginia Company of London, helping to lead a daring, dangerous expedition to colonize the New World.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Tough as nails. He knows how to lead people. He's very good at picking up languages and he does not suffer fools gladly and, unfortunately, the Jamestown colonists include more than it share.

SEABROOK: It was Smith who famously warned this bunch of aristocrats, he who does not work will not eat.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We're going to slip down here around in this corner and not let a wind and the tide kind of take us down, pace around through the waters and maybe find a duck or two.

SEABROOK: Williams stops the boat and pulls out a round nylon, string net, maybe five or six feet across. It's got lead weight around the edges and he sticks one of this in his mouth, grabs the opposite edge and hurls it like a Frisbee.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

SEABROOK: The net sinks into the green water. Williams pulls at center rope hand over hand into the boat. Among his catch is a small, silvery herring, just a few inches long.

Mr. WILLIAMS: If you look at that fish, it is bullet shaped with a very compressed body. It's very narrow and this is the body of a marathon runner. This is a long-distance migratory fish.


Mr. WILLIAMS: This fish's parents came into here from the Atlantic to spawn, very important for a large fish, very important just part of the biomass and part of the extraordinary run of silvery fish that come up this river in the spring of the year by the zillions.

SEABROOK: The numbers of these critical species have dropped says Williams. Modern fishing technologies mean populations of the herring have been decimated. Hundreds of years ago, the Powhatan, the Mattaponi, the Chickahominy all likely survived eating this same herring. John Smith and the first colonists learned to eat and survived here from the Native Americans. And later generations including George Washington, netted herring, salted the fish down and shipped them by the bushel. And so, says Williams, these little silver fish are not just a matter of biology.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's a really profound point of view where you blend ecology and the economy. We're blending human history and natural history and it's fascinating to look at how the one affects the other. I mean, why did people come out here? Why did they do when they were here? How did the river affect the way the lived? How did they affect the river? Let's slide back across a little ways. This motor just do a nice job. We have not yet (unintelligible) a quarter fuel.

SEABROOK: John Page Williams turns his boat, stirring it across the Patuxent and back to the dock. Captain John Smith was contemplating much the same landscape in 1608 when he wrote in his journal: Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: The Captain John Smith National Historic Trail officially opened earlier this year. Though Williams points out it's been opened for a lot longer than that. And how do you hike the water trail, you ask? Find out at npr.org.

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