Every year, Otter Point Creek lures thousands of families — perhaps to glimpse a rare, long-billed king rail, kayak past turtles soaking up sun, or get goosebumps during a Haunted Hike.

Teeming with wildlife, the lush forests and marshlands are prime fresh-air recreation spots, but they’re also a hub for environmental research and education. The same families who visit for the blooming wildflowers and sunset canoe trips are also learning about the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a critical natural resource, thanks, in part, to the efforts of the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center.
Tucked away in the woods along a curve of the Bush River in Abingdon, the center sits on a park of nearly 100 acres in a crucial slice of Harford County watershed.
“The center sits right at the elbow of Harford’s Development Envelope,” explains Park Manager Kriste Garman. “That means runoff caused by all that development flows right into the Winters Run watershed. It puts our center in a unique position to study how all that development is affecting aquatic life and the health of the bay.”
As the research and education facility for the Otter Point Creek component of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Maryland, its mission is to increase public awareness and education around estuaries — areas where salt water and fresh water meet — but it also recognizes the need for a healthy dose of fun.
“Anita Leight Park is doing environmental research, but we’re also about getting people to care, getting them out on the water and enjoying all the activities,” Garman says.

Riverbank recreation

Leight Park, owned by Harford County’s Parks and Recreation Department, borders Otter Point Creek, an important part of the Chesapeake Bay’s complex ecosystem. The Estuary Center is also allowed the use of the Bosely Conservancy, another 350 acres of wetlands owned by the Izaak Walton League’s Harford County Chapter.
Along the banks of Otter Point Creek, wild rice attracts rare birds like the king rail — a leggy, long-billed marsh dweller — and milkweed draws hosts of monarch butterflies, increasingly rare because of their diminishing food supply. (The center hosts a Monarch and Milkweed Fest every spring.) Among the other inhabitants are several species of fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, deer, foxes, squirrels and, of course, otters.
The abundant wildlife draws about 11,000 visitors each year to these undisturbed wetlands for activities that range from hiking and bird-watching to kayaking and pontoon boat rides.
“We want people to come here and make that connection with the natural world,” Garman says.
Donna Johnson, a respiratory therapist at DuPont Children’s Hospital in Delaware, started out walking the park’s many trails with a friend six years ago. The friend encouraged her to try kayaking at the center, and now it’s one of Johnson’s favorite activities.
“I hardly get on my bike anymore since I discovered kayaking,” she says.
Garman says kayaking trips are among the most popular activities offered by the Anita Leight Center. “We have mostly tandem kayaks,” she says. “[Kayaks] are becoming the most popular because they’re small and easier to maneuver than canoes. They’re better for solo use — it’s easier to get it to go where you want it to go.”
Pontoon boat rides are another popular activity on Otter Point Creek.
“Sometimes you can go on a guided sightseeing trip on the pontoon boats and spot different kinds of birds,” Johnson says. She adds that she’s enjoyed the bird-watching trips so much that she joined the Harford Bird Club.
The Leight Center offers activities for all ages nearly year-round, and naturalists endeavor to combine education with entertainment.
“You can tell the naturalists really love what they’re doing,” says Lisa Micelli of Bel Air.
Micelli is the mother of three teens who’ve been attending events at Anita Leight since 2009. The children go on overnight camping trips at the center every year.
“The Camping by the Creek trip is $40 for the whole family,” Micelli says, adding that it’s quite a bargain.
The Micelli children are also fan’s of the center’s annual Haunted Hike, one of its most popular events, according to Kriste Garman. Micelli’s sons Jonathan, 15, and Alex, 13, enjoy the special themes at the Haunted Hike.
“One year they had a Harry Potter theme,” Alex recalls. “That was great.”
The center sponsors numerous smaller daytime hiking events year-round, as well as evening and nighttime activities such as canoe and kayak excursions.
“That’s really nice if you have to work during the day or just if you’re a night person,” Johnson says.
Upcoming summer activities include the Full Moon Paddle Series and the Sunset Paddle Series. Both are evening canoe rides open to ages 8 and up. Children under 13 must have adult supervision.
Micelli says that although two of her children are on the autism spectrum, she has never worried about their safety at Leight Center activities, including summer camps and overnight trips.
“The naturalists and volunteers have always worked well with the kids and been very respectful,” she says. “Plus, the activities get all my kids up and out of the house and away from the TV and computer.”

Powered by volunteers

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Managing the sprawling park territory and its visitor center (which includes hands-on exhibits and a 300-gallon turtle pond) is a big job, but the full-time staff of four and four part-time naturalists get help from nearly 1,000 active volunteers who participate in a wide range of surveys and research projects.
Donna Johnson has been volunteering at the Leight Center for four years, helping with annual deer surveys and bird banding.
“They catch the birds in nets, and each volunteer gets a chance to release one of the birds from the net after counting and banding,” she explains. “But you have to be careful. Some of the smallest birds can be really feisty.”
Garman, the manager, says the park can always use more volunteers for vegetation surveys. “People don’t get as excited about the plants as they do about animals, but surveying the vegetation is important for tracking climate change information,” she says.
Programs such as Invasinators give volunteers the chance to help naturalists remove invasive plants and replace them with native species.
“I’m pleased to see more and more young people who are aware of the issues and interested in them,” Garman says. “They come in and get excited and say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and then they want to do more to protect the watershed.”
“I like all the hikes because you get to learn about the estuary,” says Rose Micelli, 14. She adds that spending time at Otter Point Creek has made her consider becoming a naturalist. “I like helping with the animals at the center.”
The annual Wade-In Festival, now in its 18th year, offers more opportunities to learn about the bay while having fun. Held the first Saturday of June, the festival combines activities like free pontoon boat rides and face painting with an important environmental mission. In an activity inspired by former state Sen. Bernie Fowler’s “Sneaker Index,” participants are invited to see how far they can wade into Otter Point Creek while still being able to see their sneakers (or toes). Over the years, visibility in much of the bay has declined because of rising levels of sediment.
“But slowly, we have been making a difference,” Garman says.
See for Yourself

Fourth Annual Spring Bird Count
Saturday, May 9, 8 a.m.-noon
Count and record birds at the Estuary Center and the Bosely Conservancy with guide Phil Powers. Open to ages 13 and up. Free.

Mother's Day Sunset Pontoon Boat Ride
Saturday, May 9, 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
Celebrate Mom with bonbon ice cream treats while floating down the Bush River. $8 for adults, $6 for children under age 13.

Bird-tastic Scavenger Kayak Hunt
Saturday, May 16, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Celebrate Migratory Bird Day by paddling around the creek in search of feathered friends. $12 for ages 8 and up.

18th-Annual Wade-In Festival
Saturday, June 6, 1 p.m.-4 p.m.
Pull up your pants legs and wade into Otter Point Creek to measure water quality using former state Sen. Bernie Fowler's "Sneaker Index." Other activities include free pontoon boat rides, canoeing, face painting and decoy carving. Free.

Summer Exploration Nature Camps
Beginning June 22
Weeklong camps for children ages 5-17 are held throughout June, July and early August. Themes include "In, On and Through the Water," "Metamorphosis — Amazing Animal Transformations" and "Junior Naturalist Field Camp." $110-$135.

Many activities are discounted for members of the Otter Point Creek Alliance. Membership is $20 per year for a family or $12 per year for individuals or for a senior couple.
For a full calendar of events, visit: otterpointcreek.org/events
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