I recently had a beautiful dream for a Riverkeeper. The beginning was very short, I think because the content was so startling that it woke me up. I was looking down at the surface of the Sassafras River, and the river was as transparent as a glass of water, and as emerald blue as the waters of the Florida Keys.
As I eased back into sleep, I was thinking about what I had just dreamed. I wondered if the water in the river had ever really been that clear and beautiful. As I drifted back into my dream, I found myself on a sailing vessel, at the northern end of the “Great Shellfish Bay” as the natives called the huge estuary, using a word that sounded like
Chesapeake to the English explorers and colonists. The year was 1608, and our ship’s Captain, John Smith, and the crew were engaging in an effort to explore and map the
tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Captain Smith was drawing maps that were to be used by explorers and colonists for generations to come.
I peered back down at the water, and realized that I could see the bottom, which was covered in oyster reefs. The oysters were so plentiful and grew so high into the water column that we regarded them as hazards to navigation in some areas of the Bay. Between the oyster reefs, I saw beds of sea grasses in thick abundance.
There were enormous schools of fish of all description. Striped bass, Atlantic and Short-nosed Sturgeon, Spanish mackerel, Sea Trout, and Bluefish were boiling the water as far as I could see while feeding on a never ending mass of Atlantic Menhaden, white and yellow perch, and a variety of tiny minnows. Blue crabs virtually covered the oyster reefs, creating a moving mass of blues and greens- with occasional flashes of the red painted claws of the females. I looked toward the shoreline, and saw forests, tidal wetlands, and grassy meadows. “This is pretty close to paradise”, I said to myself.
We sailed several miles up a river, past the steep orange banks along the shorelines, and met a group of people who lived in a palisaded village on the banks of what possibly was today’s Turners Creek. They called themselves Tochwoghs, and they welcomed us as friends. As we explored the land around the village, we were awed by the massive forests of oaks, black locusts, and groves of sassafras trees. (To read Captain Smith’s journal of “voyage #2”, click here)
It occurred to me that I was in a place where there were no roads, no cleared land for systematic agriculture, or neighborhoods, or shopping centers with hard surfaced parking lots, or airports or golf courses. There was only the intricately complicated – and yet inherently simple - natural ecosystem, and a group of people who lived in harmony with nature. I saw clean water, lush green trees and bushes and grasses, in a perfect habitat for nature’s plants and animals. Rain water was absorbed into the ground where it landed. Every inch of the soil was crowded with roots - anxiously drinking every drop of water that landed on the ground.
As I slowly awoke and transitioned into the realization of who I am, and where I live, and the time in which I live, I was reminded of the reasons why the Sassafras River is no longer clear and blue. Rain water is now washed into the river from cleared land, residential and shopping center rooftops, paved parking lots, roads, and fertilized lawns and gardens. During rain storms, not many drops of water are absorbed into the ground where they fall. Instead, storm water sheets across all the impervious surfaces and gushes in great torrents into the river, bringing mud and nutrients, and clouding the water with sediment and algae and bacteria. It is a very different world than the one in the life of the Tochwoghs.
But there is good news. People today have come to realize that we are the cause of the problems in our creeks and rivers, and we are forming groups like the Sassafras River Association and many others to correct some of our mistakes. We are joining together and taking positive actions to mitigate our negative impacts on our waters. Humans may never again experience clear, blue water when we look down into the Sassafras, but we are learning to reduce the amount of damage that we inflict on our rivers. And we are making progress.
Someday, our children and grandchildren will not merely understand the importance of the work we are doing for our rivers and the Great Shellfish Bay - they will actually experience what for us simply began as a beautiful dream.
Captain Emmett Duke