Technology offers 'hidden gems' to paddlers on Maryland water trail

Chuck McMillin reckons he uses the Magothy River more than almost anybody else.

The avid kayaker has been exploring the 67 miles of shoreline for more than a decade. But even he learned about new spots after the Magothy River Association recently launched an online water trail guide.

The map denotes 30 points of interest along the trail, as well as “hidden gems” that may ordinarily be obstructed from view. Seventeen accompanying videos on the association’s website give visitors facts and tips on how to access these spots.

McMillin, who organizes kayak trips, said one of those videos taught him how to get to a tucked-away cove through a small opening in the grass. He had been in the area before, but never approached at the angle necessary to notice the opening.

“I think the map is making more people aware of the Magothy and these hidden spots,” said McMillin, 60. “That will make people appreciate the river more, and if they appreciate it more, they will respect it more and want to protect it more.”

Water trails have surged in popularity in the last few years, said Lisa Gutierrez, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ office of public access, water trails and recreation planning. The state is home to more than 600 miles of designated water trails, according to the department website.

A few have incorporated videos and technology into their guides, Gutierrez said. The corresponding videos at the Magothy provide a bird’s-eye view using drone footage; they were funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

On the water trail’s website, an old-fashioned map outlines the path kayakers can take, with a mileage chart that shows how far each highlight is from another. Each point of interest is described beneath, and the user can keep scrolling down to find a companion video.

The videos are usually two to three minutes long, so that explorers can easily pull them up and learn something new while they’re out on the water.

“When you’re in a kayak, it looks a lot different than if you’re in a big boat,” frequent kayaker Lisa Arrasmith said. “When you have these videos that show you what to look for, it’s a nice preview so you can spot the landmarks.”

The videos tell people kayaking or canoeing on the river what spots to check out, and provides them information about surrounding historical sites, local wildlife and potential obstacles. Some also link to an ongoing initiative by the Magothy River Association, the Living History Project.

The project aims to tell the stories of longtime residents of the watershed, through interviews and photos. One woman, who has lived near Cattail Creek since 1947, discussed how the area has changed over the years as houses were built on what was once open land. The group is hoping to add more videos throughout the summer.

“By recording what people remember about the river, it’s an indication of how far we need to go to restore the river to what it was like in the day,” said Paul Spadaro, the association’s president.

The health of the Magothy River has been declining in recent years. In 2016, the association gave it a “D” grade based on water clarity, dissolved oxygen and acreage of submerged aquatic vegetation. The health index dropped five points from the year before.

“Our main goal is to do everything we can to protect the Magothy River,” said Andrea Germain, who sits on the river association’s board. “Our thought is that, with the water trail, if we can make it available to more people, they’ll become stewards. After seeing the beauty, they’ll do whatever they can to protect it.”

Last month, the association held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to announce the availability of the water trail guide in a newly built kiosk at Spriggs Farm Park. The park is one of two places, along with Beachwood Park, where the public can launch their kayaks into the Magothy.

“This was a big win for us to be able to work with the county and create these two new launch sites for public access to the water,” Germain said. “It should be open to the public, whether you live on the water or not.”

Improving public water access is a priority for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, said his spokesman, Owen McEvoy. The kiosks, guides and videos provide a road map for people who may not be familiar with the water, he said.

Going into the summer’s hottest stretch, the Magothy water trail guide is “another feather in our cap when it comes to engaging people to get out on the water in Anne Arundel County,” McEvoy said.

Christine Burns created an interactive, online map of the Kings Creek Water Trail in 2015 while serving with the state’s Chesapeake Conservation Corps. The map, which is also printable, takes visitors through various spots along the trail, introducing them to local wildlife and historical facts.

Burns said technology is a good way to make the water trails more accessible, and deepen the connection between the visitors and the river.

“If everyone already has their phone out to take selfies and pictures,” Burns said, “they might as well learn something.”

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