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According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2018 State of the Bay report, the health of the Chesapeake Bay dropped one point, lowering its score from a C- in 2016 to a D+ in 2018. The Bay is a far cry from its pristine state when Captain John Smith explored it in 1608. I’ve often wondered what things might have looked like had they remained untouched by European colonizers. I received my answer when I took part in a Potomac Riverkeeper event earlier this summer.
The Potomac Riverkeeper Network describes RiverPalooza as a “season-long annual event designed to provide families and river enthusiasts with memorable on-the-water experiences that build a deep and enduring appreciation for our rivers…[It is run] with a single goal in mind: the more people experience and enjoy our rivers, the more they will value them.” On July 20, 2019, I joined the American Indian Picataway Kanoi Tribe Paddle, a unique RiverPalooza event on Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, Maryland, which focused on the history and culture of the area.
About 30 of us met at Mattingly Park which was a great turnout considering the forecasted high temperature of 99 degrees with a heat index of 114. We were greeted by Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper. Next we were introduced to our trip leaders: Francis Gray, the Piscataway Conoy Tribal Chairman, and Kimberly (Kim) DeMarr, the outfitter owner.
Paddling upstream on Mattawoman Creek, it didn’t take long before we were in a place where we could appreciate the natural beauty of the area. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, “A tributary of the Potomac River, Mattawoman Creek sits just a few miles south of Washington, D.C., but is one of Maryland’s healthiest waterways.” It was here that Francis told us about the various native plants that his people once harvested for food:
Wild rice, photo by Saki
This section of Mattawoman Creek is called a "breadbasket marsh" because of the high diversity and concentration of edible plants. Francis is working to pass on the identification and preparation of these and other edible plants to younger members of his tribe.
Francis Gray, the Piscataway Conoy Tribal Chairman and guide, photo by Saki
Francis also mentioned how the Piscataway fished for rockfish, and how even today, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, “the 30-mile [Mattawoman] creek is nationally-renowned for its fish habitat: fisheries biologists have called Mattawoman the most productive tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and it is considered the best nursery for migratory fish in the Bay region.”
One plant that many of the kayakers found intriguing was the American lotus. According to the Mattawoman Watershed Society, this is “the only site on Maryland's western shore with natural populations of the American Lotus.”
American lotus, photo by Saki
We paddled to the Mattawoman State Natural Environmental Area on the south side of the creek where Kim said some old barges lay just below the surface. I think our guides brought us there so we could rest in the shade.
After our break, we passed the islands near Nelson Point, where I saw the 13-mile Indian Head Rail Trail just ahead. If seeing the Mattawoman from boat is not an option, catching a glimpse of it while walking or bicycling on the rail trail may be the next best choice.
In a small inlet, we saw the remains of a beaver lodge and further away, an osprey nest with occupants. Here, Kim gave us a lesson on osprey:
In addition to osprey, we saw a few egrets in the distance. We were hoping to see bald eagles but Francis thought that was unlikely given the high heat.
On the return trip, I found a few empty shells of mystery snails, a non-native species from Asia, along with a couple exoskeleton molts of dragonfly nymphs.
Francis mentioned how, unlike several other waterways in the area, Mattawoman Creek has retained much of its scenic beauty, having changed little over the last 400 years. According to the Mattawoman Watershed Society, it is as “near to the ideal conditions as can be found in the northern Chesapeake Bay” and “what a restored Chesapeake Bay would look like.”
The majority of the American Indian tribes in the Chesapeake, including the Piscataway, spoke Algonquian languages – a family of languages widespread among native peoples from northern Canada to the Carolinas. According the Mattawoman Watershed Society, the Algonquin name for Mattawoman has been variously translated as “where one goes pleasantly” and “a place to go quietly.” I would like to think that the peace and tranquility associated with the original name is as valid now as it was back then.
Note: A self-guided paddle of Mattawoman Creek can be found on Paddle the Potomac’s Going Pleasantly Along Mattawoman Creek at Smallwood.
As an American Heritage River and with 300 miles recognized as a National Recreation Trail, the Potomac River is closely connected to our Nation's history and rich in recreational opportunities. Beginning at Jennings Randolph Lake to the mouth of the Potomac, you may choose to paddle the 355 miles to the Chesapeake Bay or take a single or multi-day trip; all will give you a different view of the ways that previous residents used the river and its banks for their livelihood, transportation and recreation.