Chesapeake Outdoors
Roadside Wildness
by C.D. Dollar

The excursion was born out of desperation to escape the computer and rejuvenate myself in the outdoors. But time was short, so my destination had to be close to home.

I loaded my canine partner into the truck for the four-mile trip to the mitigated wetland at the Route 50-Cape St. Claire Road interchange. This marsh, created about a decade ago in Governor "Willie Don" Schaefer's "Reach the Beach" campaign, borders eastbound Rt. 50 and Whitehall Road.

The onslaught of new development and never-ending traffic still threatens the health of Whitehall Creek, but at least this stretch of it is healthier in its new incarnation as a functional wetland. Gone are the dirt bike trails and mounds of trash, appliances and other human debris. In its place is a carefully planned natural water treatment facility. It is also a haven for native plants and animals.

The first leg of today's little jaunt had Finn and me following Whitehall Creek from the wetland area down through the woods, conducting an informal survey of the water's health. We (mostly me; okay, only me) turned over stones, looking for macro-invertebrates and other small creatures that might indicate good stream health. In previous pulls of a fine seine, I have turned up several species of aquatic insects, small fish and elvers (juvenile eels) that had made the epic journey from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, always pressing forward toward fresher water.

When the canopy of briars and low-hanging branches stopped our momentum, we backtracked until we came to where we started, then passed under the road through a culvert to the main part of the wetland. A four-foot concrete retaining wall to keep flood waters from washing out the stream brought us to a stop, but some enthusiastic coaxing had the dog over the wall in short order.

We meandered along the path on the berm that separated the two wetland ponds, a main pond that flowed directly through the culvert to Whitehall Creek and the other an overflow, retaining basin. Marsh alder, white oaks, hollies and small maples held to the banks, and in spite of the roaring sounds of tractor-trailers only several hundred yards away, it was quite a pleasant place to walk. In our clumsiness we startled a great blue heron having a feed, and a pair of nesting mallards fluttered to the other side of the pond, the volume of which was curiously higher.

We pressed onward, down the berm, and then entered an even more imposing culvert, this one capable of handling the flow of water from a hundred-year storm. Now parallel to Rt. 50 eastbound, we emerged into another wetland. In the tea-stained water, where lilies and algae and other aquatic plants were beginning to grow, we saw the first signs.

The tip-off should have been the enormous amount of water that had accumulated in areas that had been grass and reeds the previous year. On the banks of White Creek was a crude but formidable hut, made of earth and sticks replete with a water entrance. To the west, small alders were strewn along the banks, the water a mere trickle. Rounding a slight bend, we came upon the dam, a precisely engineered obstruction that prohibited the natural flow of water to such a degree that water flooded both sides of the marsh. Finn tested the dam for structural strength, and it passed admirably.

Farther west, more trees waited for future use. Or perhaps they were the result of the beavers' need to keep an edge to their prodigious chompers even if the project had been completed. On the far bank, rising from the cattails and marsh grass, was a large den at least twice as big as the previous den, which perhaps was merely the beaver family's vacation cottage. That, too, was subject to Finn's engineering stress test, and again passed easily.

The natural contradictions of this scene were very clear. The beaver's purpose is to create a still pond in which to raise their young, which is achieved by building dams. This is a busy time for a pair of beavers, mainly because this is the time they start their family. Between April and July, an average of two to four kits is born to beavers. The impoundment creates deep water that also provides protection from predators and enables the beavers to float logs and food to the lodge.

But this natural process of dam building can sometimes compromise the health of the stream, removing trees that contain erosion and shade the water from summer's hot sun. The flooded areas also trap sediment and create havens for waterfowl and fish.

So which is more important? Perhaps each has its place, and I am glad that beavers have this place to contribute to the grand scheme of the Bay's wildness.

| Issue 13 |

Volume VII Number 13
April 1-7, 1999
New Bay Times

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