Fading light brings shore life at Piney Run into focus

Jon Sham
Contact Reporterjsham@tribune.com

It's practically a perfect evening for a Saturday sunset tour by kayak of Piney Run Reservoir, a 300-acre lake in Sykesville, just south of Liberty Road.

As kayak instructor Joel Beckwith hauls his gear down to the waterfront, a small group of four assembles by Piney Run Nature Center's Yak Shack.

Beckwith has each sign a waiver, pick out a life jacket and kayak, and they embark.

The small fleet emerges from the cove into the main stretch, moving at a leisurely paddle.

"It amazes me how many people have never seen an eagle in the wild," said Beckwith. "We're a society that really doesn't get out that much."

But that was the plan on Saturday, Aug. 16, as Beckwith led one of the $30 evening tours offered by the nature center three times a month this summer. He also led monthly nightime tours, 7 to 10 p.m., and twice weekly early morning sunrise tours this summer.

One of the participants was Jeanne Reilly, of Sykesville, who started taking kayak lessons in a 50+ group with Beckwith in May and has since done several tours.

"I kind of fell in love with kayaking," says Reilly, who also enjoys the lessons in local wildlife that are an integral part of Beckwith's tours.

Beckwith started at Piney Run as a part of L.L. Bean's Outdoor Discovery program. When the L.L. Bean in Howard County closed, Piney Run asked him to stay on as the kayak instructor.

"As a naturalist, he is so knowledgeable, particularly of the animals here in Piney Run," she said. "He's traveled all around the United States, so it's fun to hear some of his other adventures, from Maine to the Everglades."

On occasion during the trip, Beckwith would drop in an anecdote.  

The kayakers hugged the curves of the long, thin lake, peering into the woods along the shore for movement. Most of the animals seemed to be hiding this evening.

Finally, from a few hundred yards away, Beckwith spotted a great egret perched on a piece of wood, too far for a good look, but close enough to appreciate.

Then, two small turtles appeared, drifting by on a log.

Minutes later, a large flock of geese noisily took off — usually a sign that there's an eagle nearby, Beckwith tells them.

"I try to interpret what they're seeing," he said. "Give them the life history of the different critters."

Other critters out that evening included a green heron lurking by the shore, and a large beaver that swam out into the lake.

Beckwith told them about beavers' ever-growing teeth and dam-building abilities, and fielded questions.

Now nearing 8 p.m., the group waded into a cluster and faced the western shore of the lake just in time to catch the sunset.

Beckwith knew the best spot to park the kayaks to watch, and with no apparent wind or tide, it was easy to stay put. The sky turned from orange to red to blue as the sun descended.

The three-hour tour was nearing an end, with one more stop along the way.

Beckwith led them further south in the lake until he spotted the park's eagle nest, a hive-shaped aerie suspended high up in the trees.

A few branches away, just visible by close inspection, sat its owner. The bald eagle looked keenly out in the distance for a few minutes before flying off into the darkening sky, and all kayakers knew the adventure had ended.

It was after 8:30 p.m. by the time they arrived at the Yak Shack and packed up their kayaks.

"The water was calm, and we saw a lot of interesting wildlife," said Bill Matejka, of Abingdon.

His favorite part was seeing the eagle at the end. "It was just an idyllic experience," he said.

The tranquility was a popular theme among the kayakers that evening. And that's what keeps Reilly coming back.

"The peacefulness of it," she said. "In here, you can rent a kayak, and go out for an hour or two, and just have perfect peace and quiet."

And she hopes others will come to discover Piney Run.

"As much as I'd like to keep it a secret, I'd like to keep it open," she said. "It's such a hidden little gem here."

Piney Run Park is open from April through the end of October, from 7 a.m. to sunset.

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