Hidden History: Trail Blazer

Plan a trip this summer that retraces Captain John Smith's adventrous path.

The warm weather’'s here. The days are stretching out. And while the calendar doesn’t make it official until June 21, summer has undeniably arrived. That, of course, means it’s time to give yourself a well-deserved vacation. If you decide, like the fearless folks on page 41, to take a road trip this season, you’re following a really long local tradition, one that has thankfully become much easier in the last few years.

The region around the Chesapeake Bay has always lent itself to mini-vacations. Indians traveled a lot to hunt, fish and trade. European settlers were likewise constantly on the lookout for new adventures and opportunities (some might say lands and people) to exploit. Shortly after the English established a settlement at Jamestown in 1607, the audacious explorer John Smith, one of the colony’s leaders, set out with a crew of 15 for his own regional road trip. Smith’s goal was to circumnavigate the Chesapeake Bay.

His vehicle was a shallop—a squat, wooden boat powered by wind and oars, big enough only for Smith’s gang and not much else.

Thankfully, Smith kept journals of what would become two trips around the bay, accounts that have an entertaining flair for the dramatic. For instance, near the end of his first journey, Smith and the crew were amusing themselves in shallow water running through cownose rays with their swords. When Smith lifted a skewered ray out of the water for an inspection, it stung him with its tail. Smith’s whole arm swelled up. The pain was unbearable. He ordered his subordinates to dig his grave. But the swelling and pain subsided, so Smith took the next rational step: he ate the fish for supper. (This, by the way, is the reason for the name of the Middle Peninsula’s “Stingray Point.”)

Now, thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service and numerous other companion groups and organizations, it’s as good a time as any to follow in Smith’s paddle strokes. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail turns five years old this year. It’s the first national water trail—3,000 miles that trace the paths of John Smith’s two

Chesapeake voyages. Much of the Smith Trail is especially well suited for kayaks, canoes and other small boats. There are more than a dozen different sections of trail with public boat ramps that allow the public to get personal with the waters of the Chesapeake. In some places, there are interpretive buoys strategically placed along the trail, too, their information accessible by cell phone. No boat? No problem. Along the trail are scores of sites on dry land—parks, museums and wildlife refuges—that commemorate not only Smith’s journey, but the rich natural history of the region as well.

It’s getting harder to see the Chesapeake as Smith did—the bay and all its tributaries and the vast stretches of wilderness altered only by the Indians who trod lightly upon it. By 2020, there will be an estimated 18 million people— and all their attendant development— living in the bay’s watershed. But it’s still possible to encounter Smith’s virgin landscape, and that’s one of the trail’s attributes: there are places along it where you can lose yourself in time, find a place that seems remote and unspoiled.

Personally, I’ve visited several trail sites near my home in Williamsburg. I’ve paddled the tidal marshes of the Chickahominy River and Powhatan Creek and hiked along the wooded bluffs of York River State Park. And in certain spots, it’s possible to stop and look around, surrounded only by nature, and get some sense, if only a small one, of the Chesapeake Bay that Smith encountered. These places are everywhere, from the Eastern Shore to Great Bridge to Mathews and every place in between.

Visit the Smith Trail’s website—you can find water trails and sites near you and check out the new boater’s guide that’s just been published. Make that road trip happen, whether it’s on water or on land. Just watch out for those pesky rays.

The official website of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is www.smithtrail.net.

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