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Landfall Along the Chesapeake

By George Olsen

"Landfall Along the Chesapeake" - Susan Schmidt

New Bern, NC –
INTRO - In 2002 a Beaufort resident undertook the task of re-creating with a few modern twists a 100-day trek taken in 1608 by Captain John Smith, circling the Chesapeake Bay as he helped to establish the first English colony in the New World. George Olsen has more.

Susan Schmidt can boil down her reasons for her journey to one which many a sailor would recognize.

00:22 Essentially retracing John Smith was a good excuse for a boat ride.

But there were other reasons, some sentimental Schmidt wanted to revisit ancestral lands where she had grown up and family remains and others historical a desire to see what changes have occurred in the nearly 400 years that have passed since John Smith took his voyage.

Reads from page 223-224

Captain John Smith's time in Virginia as well as New England resulted in several publications. Susan Schmidt's voyage had a similar result the recently published Landfall along the Chesapeake: In the Wake of Captain John Smith. The differences from Smith to Schmidt, not surprisingly, are striking. She notes that Captain Smith spoke of 14-foot long sturgeon in the Chesapeake, whereas today she says the biggest difference between her eastern North Carolina home and the Bay today is that fishermen here can still earn a living. But she also sees some hope for the Bay's future in the youth she would speak with during her trip at various educational and environmental centers, and even in some of the Bay's old-timers. She quotes in Landfall a conversation she had with Captain Lane Briggs.

41:14-46:13 Reading from page 51-52

The changes are incremental. Briggs, who died last year at the age of 76, also told her that as a diver in 1958, he couldn't see past (his) eyeballs. At the time he spoke with Schmidt, he said visibility was 5-to-6 feet. In Brigg's words

41:14-46:13 Reading The Clean Water Act is slow but it's working.

But there's still much work to be done to reclaim the Chesapeake.

7:44 One of the scientists David Secord told me 400 years ago the fish that were on the Chesapeake bred on the bottom, they were benthic fisheries, because there were so many oysters there was a hard bottom. Now 400 years later with the bottom of the bay soft because most of the oysters have died out and most of the fish that breed and are successful now like rockfish are born and live in the water column, they're pelagic fisheries. The water quality is not so good in the summer because of so much nitrogen run-off from farm fields and run-off from asphalt, the nitrogen causes algae to bloom, algae when it dies uses up oxygen and so deeper than 20 feet in the Chesapeake Bay ship channel during the summer there are whole bodies of water that have no oxygen deeper than 20 feet, nothing lives there, anything that swims in dies.

Somewhat oddly, after 100 days on the water, it wasn't water quality that most raised Schmidt's concern.

14:44 I come from the Chesapeake Bay and I remember beautiful blue skies, blue crabs and the most alarming thing to me, the grief that I felt, was the code red air quality, the summer haze on the Rappahannock River, from the bluff where my father lived, I couldn't see the Rappahannock Bridge just two miles away. Even in the country the bad air blows in.

Nevertheless, Schmidt says when she traveled the Bay there were times she felt that what she saw was what Captain John Smith saw 400 years ago as well.

28:01 There was an oak tree growing in Powhatan Creek behind Jamestown that I'm sure was at least 450 years old. The place that gave me the most pleasure that I remember fondly was the Mattaponi River, the cleanest freshwater river on the east coast, and on the Mattaponi I met tribes that were descendants of the tribes that John Smith met the Mattaponi Indians, the Pamunkey Indians, the upper Mattaponi Indians When I was sitting on a cliff above the Mattaponi looking at the Mattaponi river marshes, I was able to think about the holy temple of the Algonquin speaking people at Uttamusak where John Smith visited when he was taken on his captive march, and native priests were laying circles of corn to conjure the future to see what these Europeans intended, and if in fact they wanted to stay what would happen to this beautiful world if they did stay. So sitting on the Mattaponi sitting on the cliffs watching the soaring hawks I probably pretended I was in John Smith's time.

Schmidt didn't exactly recreate Smith's journey Smith made two rotations of the bay, Schmidt took one counter-clockwise spin, and, of course, there's the matter of the fact she had a motor and was able to make the trip with only one steady crew member her Boykin Spaniel Molly Brown. But an exact reproduction wasn't Schmidt's ultimate goal. In some ways, it was the classic response to the question of why someone does such a thing because it was there.

14:44 One of my primary objectives in spending 100 days on the water was to see the beauty, to really be aware, waking up in the morning to the watermen's engines at sunrise, watching the birds in the marshes, watching the sunset, seeing the moonrise, going up the creek in a kayak to see the marshes, the first objective was to see the beauty, be aware of it, and not for me to just tell people what I saw was beautiful but to tell other people to go out themselves to see what's around them. But they might say I don't want to take a 5-month boat ride and I tell them go wading, take a kayak out for an hour, the first most important thing is to see where you live and become aware of it.

Landfall along the Chesapeake: In the Wake of Captain John Smith by Beaufort resident Susan Schmidt is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. I'm George Olsen.