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TrekEast Blog 46: Running, Walking, and Photographing Maryland’s Gunpowder River

Shooting the Gunpowder

Early July 2011

Artwork courtesy of Kevin Raines; photos courtesy of Brooke Raines 

Rivers link land and sea.  Wide-ranging animals, from trout and salmon to eagles and bears and panthers, follow river corridors to go places and make a living.  Restoring broad buffers of natural vegetation along waterways is a top priority for reconnecting and restoring Nature throughout the eastern United States and beyond.

Critical to the work of protecting and restoring waterways is the Waterkeeper Alliance, a fast-growing network of river-, bay-, and lake-keepers who monitor conditions in their watersheds, educate local people about how to reduce pollution and protect wildlife habitat, and use the Clean Water Act (which the new, reactionary Congress is trying to gut) and other environmental laws to force major polluters to clean up their acts.  The Chesapeake Bay watershed is so critical to people and wildlife that it has nearly 20 river and bay keepers.  One of the best of these grassroots monitoring, education, and enforcement programs is Gunpowder Riverkeeper, ably led by Theaux Le Gardeur, owner of Backcountry Angler (backcountryangler.com) and Kevin Raines, landscape painter and art professor (kevinrainesart.com).

Theaux and Kevin and their friends are fiercely dedicated to Maryland’s Gunpowder River; and after a short while of exploring it with them, I see why.  Essentially, the Gunpowder is a mountain stream on the outskirts of Baltimore.  It actually drains an area of Piedmont north of Chesapeake Bay, but it flows so cold and clear and thick with trout that you feel you’ve returned to the mountains when you paddle its waters – even more so when you plunge in! 

The Gunpowder’s surprisingly good condition is owed to its watershed being largely protected as Gunpowder Falls State Park and as watershed lands for the city of Baltimore.  The river is dammed, to form two reservoirs providing drinking water to the people of Baltimore; so it is by no means pristine.  For much of its 53-mile length, however, the river flows freely over gravel beds that provide excellent trout spawning habitat and homes for innumerable stoneflies, caddisflies, and mayflies, which help feed these sleek fish.

Like almost every river in the eastern US, though, the Gunpowder faces sources of degradation, from large-scale mechanized agriculture to exurban sprawl to a massive rock quarry right near its banks.  When he’s not selling rods & reels to anglers and educating them about watershed issues, Theaux Le Gardeur is out patrolling the river in his green canoe, with the familiar sturgeon logo of the Waterkeeper Alliance (which formed on New York’s Hudson River, home of an imperiled sturgeon population) or talking with decision-makers about how to better protect the river and its nationally renowned trout populations.  The Gunpowder has native brook trout and introduced brown trout, and draws anglers from all over the country, for its catch & release fishing.

Theaux, Kevin and Kevin’s daughter Brooke (pictured above), my wife Denise, and I ambled along or paddled much of the Gunpowder’s length over the course of several days, taking pictures, fly-fishing, admiring insects on river-bottom rocks (there’s a whole new world of life down there, for the person picking up river rocks and looking carefully for the first time!), and talking about connections between uplands, streams, and bays. 

Ron Klauda of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources told us of the many battles his agency has with invasive species, including the gruesome algae Didymo – “rock snot” – which thrives in cold clear waters, ironically, and has smothered rocks in several parts of the Gunpowder River.  Other invaders in the Gunpowder watershed include: phragmites, which we saw along the banks of the river next to the rock quarry, likely brought in on mining machinery; Japanese knotweed, which lines the banks in places near roads, as it does now on so many eastern streams; hemlock wooly adelgid, which threatens a mature grove of hemlocks in the upper Gunpowder gorge; and emerald ash borer, which has already decimated ash trees across much of the Ohio Valley and has entered parts of Maryland.

We also explored some of the undeveloped lands and waters closer to the Chesapeake Bay itself.  One of largest and formerly one of the richest estuaries in the world, Chesapeake Bay now suffers from pollution generated by agribusiness, industry, and the burgeoning human population. The biggest culprit, arguably, in the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay is the factory farm poultry industry.  As one local conservationist put it, “Americans have traded the Chesapeake for cheap chicken.” 

Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups have worked hard for decades to reduce runoff and other pollution associated with development and have enjoyed some significant gains, perhaps most important the successful reseeding of oyster beds. Oysters are a keystone species, which – in healthy numbers — filter and clean prodigious amounts of water, but are severely depleted by decades of smothering from sediments, added to heavy harvesting.

It might strain credulity to suggest that the Chesapeake Bay – bounded as it is by millions of people and their machines – could be part of an Eastern Wildway.  Some of its tributaries, though, including the Gunpowder River and in some of its upper reaches the Susquehanna, can continue to provide wild river habitat.  At the same time, the many small parks and Nature reserves can continue to provide habitat for many of the native plants and animals that can abide a fairly heavy human presence. 

We found small but vital remnants of the Chesapeake’s once great abundance and diversity at Marshy Point, near the mouth of the Gunpowder River; Jug Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, on the Patuxant River; Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, home of one of the northern-most stands of bald cypress; Calvert Cliffs State Park,with its miles of fossil-rich seaside bluffs; and Parker Creek Preserve, where the American Chestnut Land Trust, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has managed to piece together several thousand acres of riparian and upland forest habitat. 

Equally encouraging, we saw hundreds of people out walking, paddling, swimming, bird watching, botanizing, and otherwise finding peace and quiet in the woods and waters of this otherwise busy area. Everyone ought to have access to Nature, for physical recreation, spiritual renewal, and natural history education.  Good groups like Gunpowder Riverkeeper, American Chestnut Land Trust, and Chesapeake Bay Foundation are striving mightily to achieve this ideal of protecting natural lands and waters and enabling people of the region to enjoy them without overwhelming them.

For the Wild,

John

 

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