Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Words and Photos by Jeff Kinney

Sweat spiked with sunblock dribbles down my face and stings my eyes as the sun hammers me and everything else in Eastern Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It’s 96 degrees, and the air is so saturated with moisture that I just might need gills.

But the searing heat isn’t my only problem; I’m also quite lost in this 27,000-acre preserve of tidal marsh on the Chesapeake Bay about two hours east of Washington, D.C. The refuge is starkly picturesque, with miles of freshwater ponds, deciduous and evergreen forests, and grassy meadows, all of which shelter abundant wildlife. But the homogenous landscape can make paddling tricky, especially if, like me, your navigation skills are less than stellar.

In my nascent panic, I recall a conversation I had with someone in the visitors center a few days before, as I thought about tackling one of the refuge’s three marked paddling trails. “It’s really hard to get lost,” she said in a sooth-the-nervous-tourist voice. “It’s not like you’re miles from civilization.”

True enough. This isn’t Alaska or Timbuktu. Still, the correct route through the maze of mangroves and marshes back to my car refuses to present itself. I haven’t seen a trail sign in at least an hour, and the ubiquitous low-lying, tree covered islands are starting to blend into a uniform, leafy collage. Rule number one for lost hikers is to stop where you are to avoid losing yourself further. That doesn’t always work so well for paddling, but today it seems like the best thing to do. So I pull my blade from the water, lay it across the bow of the kayak, and ponder my next move.

As one of over 540 units in the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Blackwater refuge contains more than one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and is an oasis of tranquility for harried D.C. strivers. The refuge is home to more than 250 bird species, including the largest breeding population of bald eagles on the East Coast north of Florida. Not to mention 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, tens of thousands of geese and ducks, 165 species of threatened or endangered plants, and a variety of mammals like the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.

But this little slice of paradise is under siege from an army of ecological threats. Most ominously, it has lost more than 8000 acres of wetlands since the 1930s because of sea level rise from global warming, which means birds don’t have as much room to feed and nest. On top of that, invasive species like nutria (a South American rodent introduced for fur farming) have wiped out native plants at an alarming rate. The good news is that a number of restoration efforts are underway, and development near the refuge is being scaled back to curtail pollution. Most recently, a large residential/retail complex slated for the banks of a nearby river was downsized and moved further from the water’s edge.

As I float here on the Blackwater River in the sweltering June heat, no development in sight, some of the refuge’s hidden treasures start to materialize. An eagle flaps languidly above the treetops, riding a thermal like an ocean swell. A fish pierces the water’s surface with a tiny splash, pockmarking the tannin-stained liquid that was glass-smooth and still moments before. Two dragon flies lock in an awkward aerial mating dance, one behind the other, making me wonder who is driving. A faint, tepid breeze ripples the knee-high grass on an island off my bow.

Most of all, I notice the silence. This, more than anything, is what draws me to Blackwater. The silence rejuvenates me, allows me to think, to escape a capitol city that turns so many people into neurotic, status-obsessed over-achievers who live to work, but somehow miss the living part. People who run up the Metro escalators on their way home from the office. That’s me, if I’m not careful. Paddling at Blackwater, where I can talk to God and marvel at nature’s bounty, helps ground me in what’s important.

I’m much calmer now, and suddenly I notice something else: a trail sign. Maybe it’s been there all along, or maybe the slight current has carried me to it. No matter. Gratefully, I dip my paddle into the coal-black, sun-dappled water, and stroke for home.

If You Go

From Washington, D.C. follow U.S. 50 East to Cambridge, MD. Blackwater is about 12 miles south from there. Camping is not allowed on the refuge, so plan on a day trip or visit the Dorchester County tourism site ( for information on nearby camping and lodging.

Call or stop by Blackwater’s visitors center (410-228-2677) for general information, including a map and descriptions of the Orange, Purple, and Green paddling trails. The purple trail is closed from October 1 through March 31, but the orange and green trails are open all year. As I discovered, submerged mudflats, unmarked channels, and tidal changes and play havoc with navigation. “Maze-like” is how the refuge’s website describes it, which is a bit overblown, but not much. October and November bring cooler weather and as many as 50,000 migrating geese, ducks, and tundra swans.

Paddling is free, but a daily permit ($3 per vehicle) is required to visit Wildlife Drive, a scenic road that intersects several short hiking trails with great views of the water. The refuge and surrounding area also offer several flat, scenic biking routes (try the 25-mile route on smooth county roads), as well as in-season fishing and crabbing.

Blackwater Paddle and Pedal Adventures (410-901-9255) (

Chesapeake Outdoor Adventures (410-745-9546)

Eastern Shore Adventure Co. (410-820-8881)

Survival Products (800-269-4294)

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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