I have crossed the Bay Bridge many times over the years, mostly to enjoy a sun-drenched day at the beach. But thanks to a growing interest in kayaking, I’m newly aware of the many exciting areas on the Eastern Shore to explore by water, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is described as the “Everglades of the North” and has an incredible range of wildlife and surrounding marshland. Discovering the refuge opened up possibilities to explore the surrounding area of Dorchester County and take in the landscape from many angles. I sketched out a 3-day trip where I could combine outdoor adventures with visiting historical sites and small towns.
As with all good adventures, my first stop was to try a local restaurant along the drive. I scoped out a spot in St. Michaels called Gina’s Cafe. They had a great patio area and a friendly community feel. The salsa, nachos, and tacos were all freshly made, and you could tell there was a lot of care and pride put into the meal.
My next stop was to go to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park. The exhibits walk you through Harriet Tubman’s life story, showcasing experiences in her childhood and in-depth stories about her fight for freedom and her determination to help enslaved people get north so they could be free. The film and other interactive parts of the exhibits helped bring to life her legacy as one of the most important leaders in the Underground Railroad.
The landscape surrounding the museum is mostly fields and is untouched by development, which makes for a powerful setting for reflecting and taking in history. You can imagine Harriet Tubman’s life here and see connections between the stories you just learned about and the setting in which it happened.
Over the next two days, I began exploring the natural landscape of this area by diving into all that the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has to offer. The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has 20,000 acres open for public recreation and, since its founding in 1933, has been an important sanctuary for migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway, which stretches from Canada to Florida. It is known for having one of the highest concentrations of nesting bald eagles along the Atlantic coast.
I started my explorations at the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is full of interesting facts, offering exhibits on birding and wildlife in the refuge. They even have an Osprey Cam and Eagle Cam to see some live footage of the birds in action!
Next, I headed out to explore the hiking trails. I came across wooden lookout structures that blend into the colors of the landscape and offer a special way to observe the marshland.
I saw a flurry of activity: one of the birds I learned about in the Visitor Center swooped down into the water for a snack, an egret standing tall looked out on the horizon just ahead of me, and a family of turtles bathed in the sun.
Exploring Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge by foot made me even more excited to explore by water. I walked along, passing marshland surrounded by pine forest, and stopped at Blackwater Adventures to ask about their equipment rentals. Due to the wind, they recommended I go for a bike ride throughout the refuge and save kayaking for the next day. They walked me through the various bike routes (anywhere from 4 to 25 miles) and set me up with a bike and helmet to hit the road.
I had not even thought about biking in the refuge, but with miles of quiet roadside up against marshland on either side, it became one of my favorite parts of the trip.
I rented kayak equipment the next day and headed out on the water. I spent hours listening to the gentle sounds of the paddles pushing the water back as I explored the openness of the water that lay ahead. I saw the Bald Eagles resting in the nests and sat quietly in the kayak, noticing how special it felt to be in their presence. Exploring the refuge by water helps you get closer to the marsh vegetation and the range of life that makes up this ecosystem.
My three-day trip ended with a stop by Emily’s Produce, a family-run produce market a few miles from the refuge. It was such a highlight of this trip that I actually went twice! I filled my basket with treats to enjoy during my stay and found gifts to bring back for family and friends. They had much to offer, including an incredible deli with fresh sandwiches, homemade salsas and sauces, country loaf bread, and stacks of local fruits and vegetables.
They also offer some fun events and activities, including “U-Pick Patches” where you can get into the patches next to the shop and gather whatever is in season.
As I made the journey back across the Bay Bridge, I thought about the different ways I explored the landscape of this region. I felt grateful to learn about Harriet Tubman’s life, witness wildlife by foot, bike, and kayak, and enjoy tasty foods. I’m looking forward to returning to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and experiencing it in different seasons.
Lead Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com
About the Author
Kelly Henderson is a thoughtful explorer who enjoys creating opportunities for adventures both near and far. She loves hiking, wandering walks through small towns, supporting local farms, artists, and bookshops, and discovering new spots for picnics along the way.