I am not a winter guy. I much prefer the warmth of summer. But climate change has softened our Maryland winters which, if truth be told, are really not that bad anymore.
Back in the 60s we would play epic hockey games on the frozen Severn River with a cast of hundreds and then gather around giant bonfires on Weems Creek at night. Those days are long gone.
Our mid-Atlantic winters now resemble Scotland with gloomy wet days and temps in the low 40s sprinkled with a few snowstorms—just enough to keep us on our toes.
That means there really is no excuse for any of us not to get outside and enjoy wintertime around the Chesapeake. To make it easy for you, I present three different types of outings that are inexpensive, require no particular skill or fancy equipment and can be done with the whole family.
Get Thee to a Park
Visiting a Maryland state park in winter is big fun. Many times you will practically have the place to yourself. It’s not oppressively hot and humid, and there are no bugs or poison ivy to contend with.
We are lucky to have a wide range of hiking options throughout the Baltimore-Washington area like Patapsco Valley State Park with its 170-miles of woodland trails and the historic industrial river that helped win the Revolutionary War; North Point State Battlefield Park, the place where America finally turned the tide during the War of 1812; the Severn Run headwaters, where herons and bald eagles are always on dynamic display; the forested peninsula of Franklin Point State Park, with Deep Creek and Flag Pond providing the dripping eye candy; Rosaryville, home to the historic Mt. Airy Mansion and some of the finest mountain biking in Maryland; Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, a virtual bird lovers paradise; Smallwood State Park, bass fishing central and Revolutionary War General William Smallwood’s family estate; Calvert Cliffs, with its five million-year-old fossil beds; and Chapel Point, our state’s newest park on the sylvan shores of the Port Tobacco River.
If you visited just one of these parks each week, starting this weekend, it would be mid-April before you saw them all and spring would be here.
My old friend Jimmy Martin and I recently spent an amazing afternoon exploring Sandy Point, Maryland’s most popular state park. We paid the $6 entrance fee and headed for the beach. The vast parking lot that usually fills by mid-morning in the summer was empty.
Our plan was to hike a two-mile loop, beginning with a stop at the stone fishing jetty overlooking the Bay Bridges and then follow the shoreline north. The beach was lined with a mob of Canada geese, staring out at the bay with nervous energy, like spectators at a surfing contest. Beyond the point the shoreline was interspersed with rock jetty pools where comical little ruddy ducks dove for food. The water was especially clear and the sandy, wave-scalloped bottom resembled a glass painting.
We passed several woodland ponds where the occasional great blue heron stood statue-like, waiting for its next meal to swim by. Before long, we came to the East Beach area of the park dotted with large pavilions, bathhouses and playground equipment. We took a long break at a picnic table watching a ginormous tanker pass perilously close to the Sandy Point Shoal Lighthouse, sitting just offshore at the mouth of the Magothy River. The wind was picking up, so we ambled over to the vast marina complex along Mezick Pond, where police boats were tied to the dock and bridge barges sat silently at anchor. And as we headed back to our car, we marveled how Sandy Point can be so incredibly crowded in the summer and deserted in winter.
Winter Wildlife Watching
If you want to combine a little hike with a chance to learn more about the natural world around you, I recommend you try birding.
Now, I know a lot of people will read this and say, “I don’t know anything about birds and wouldn’t even know where to start.”
The thing I like most about the AABC birders is how much they enjoy taking you under their wings. Their enthusiasm is infectious and they take great pleasure in helping you master the wonderful world of birds.
And wouldn’t you love to be able to spot a bird bobbing in your local waterway and turn to a friend and go, “That’s a bufflehead.”
A recent three-hour AABC field trip around the Annapolis Neck Peninsula involved carpooling to some of the area’s best birding spots, like Hillsmere Beach along the South River, the neighborhoods of Arundel on the Bay and Oyster Harbor, Thomas Point (tundra swans!), Black Walnut Cove behind the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and a slow cruise around the Bay Ridge peninsula.
Our big cities can be equally enjoyable in winter. I am always amazed at how few people around Annapolis will make the drive to Washington, D.C. It’s less than an hour away and on weekends it’s easy as pie to drive or take the Metro right into the heart of the city. Winter is a great time to go because the throngs of tourists are still waiting for it to warm up.
For years I have been leading short (two-mile) urban walks around our Nation’s Capital, following a treasure book called Washington On Foot. There is Hains Point along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers; the Sixteenth Street/Meridian Hill corridor with its historic mansions, churches, statues and a little-known national park; Kalorama, home to four former Presidents, stately embassies, and mammoth old apartment buildings that resemble the Upper West Side of NYC; and the Foggy Bottom area where you will find George Washington University, stunning historic homes, Watergate and catch a free performance at 6 every evening at the Kennedy Center.
My wife Inna and I drove into D.C. one recent Sunday and parked in a free space in front of the Natural History Museum. The plan was to hike the four-mile loop around the National Mall, stopping at whatever museum caught our fancy whenever we got hungry or cold. We began our urban hike walking clockwise around the Mall, past the two National Galleries of Art and proceeding on to the Capitol before popping into one of Washington’s true gems, the Botanic Garden, where we sat for the next half hour in the humid warmth of a lush tropical rainforest.
Back outside we dodged the renovations at the American Indian Museum and the Air and Space Museum and stopped briefly at the Hirshhorn’s wind-sheltered sculpture garden before checking out the Visitor Center and cafe in the Smithsonian Castle. From there it was a 10-minute stroll to the Washington Monument which has recently undergone a major facelift. We sat for the next 15 minutes on the new white granite benches and enjoyed the breathtaking views of the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
Next, we walked past Washington’s newest museum, the striking brown-metal building inspired by the three-tiered Yoruban art crowns from West Africa that is home to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We did a quick look-see at the big bull elephant in the lobby of the Natural History Museum before our final stop at the Sculpture Garden and Ice Rink next to the West Building of the National Gallery.
What a great way to spend a winter day!
We live in a winter limbo. It isn’t snowy or bitterly cold as a general rule. It may feel like a bleak daily grind where the occasional sunny, 50 degree day can turn our hearts and minds to cherry blossoms. We dream of summer, when we can complain that it’s too hot to do anything outside. Satisfaction is elusive.
But we can’t let the blahs of winter get us down. Adapt by donning some warm clothes and heading outside where, believe it or not, there really are some beautiful things in bloom.
Whether it’s a patch of psychedelic-green skunk cabbage pushing up through the marsh mud, or a flock of cedar waxwings zipping by in Batman formation, or a solitary forsythia bush in front of one of the Smithsonian museums getting a yellow head start on spring, Mother Nature is always calling. Will you answer?