Getting educated on the Severn Classroom: A trip on the river yields a trove of information. The waterway is better than it was 10 years ago, a Chesapeake explorer and author says. It's a rebirth.


IT'S A MID-AUGUST morning, shortly after sunrise, time to paddle the Severn River with John Page Williams, who's promised some lively white perch and a visit to one of the prettiest little classrooms on the Chesapeake.

John Page, author of "Exploring the Chesapeake in Small Boats," virtually invented the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's renowned education programs, starting more than 20 years ago. With him, you're likely to catch fish, but guaranteed to learn something.

Where we're headed, we'll see "the Severn at its best," he says.

One has to wonder how good that can be, looking up and down the banks of this eminently suburbanized waterway, sandwiched between Interstate 97, Annapolis and Ritchie Highway.

On the high banks across from our canoe put-in is a neat study in old money vs. new:

The modest, old brown-and-green-shingled homes of genteel Sherwood Forest blend with a mature, forested shoreline; adjacent is The Downs, a development whose modern castles rise from carpets of turf manicured to the water's edge.

One could debate the merits of old and new money, but there's no doubt the old is more respecting of the Severn's scenery.

As we round a boathouse, John Page says proudly, "Look at what's happening in this cove."

At first glance, it looks trashy. Plastic and foam objects jettisoned by boaters have collected on the surface.

But what's collecting the trash there is little short of a miracle -- the comeback of aquatic vegetation -- widgeongrass and redhead grass so thick they mat on the river's surface.

These grass beds are to the bay's shallows what rain forests are to the tropics -- habitats of astounding diversity and abundance. Across the Chesapeake watershed, their restoration is a central goal of pollution control efforts.

Feeding fish dimple the surface all around us now, and feisty white perch eagerly take the hook (whose barbs John Page crimps shut to make release easy and noninjurious).

Some of the things he valued when he began progging the Severn in 1974 have not returned -- principally, its famed yellow perch fishing, John Page says.

"But is the river better or worse than it was 10 years ago? Unqualifiedly, better," he says. "This is rebirth."

And now we are gliding through a narrow tidal inlet cut through a sand-spit and into the forested, marsh-girt circle of Ray's Pond.

It is the jewel among half a dozen such hidden pockets that occur on the Severn, with only a few homes and boat docks in evidence, no longer dominating the natural scheme of things.

The white perch are still hitting, and bigger here; but now it's time for class, as John Page shoves the canoe into a marshy spot on the north side of the pond.

Stepping overboard, he plunges his hand into the bottom and comes up with gravel among the muck. Where there's gravel bottom, he says, there's high-velocity water flow. In this quiet headwaters, you can't imagine where.

Look at the vegetation also, he says. Typical wetland plants, but not much variety, mostly cattails and a couple of others.

Just behind the hill rising from the little marsh is a street called Kinloch Circle and a development called Glen Oban that went in years before Maryland's Critical Area law injected more environmental sense into development of the bay's tidal shoreline.

Hold that thought, John Page says, while we visit a marsh on the opposite side of Ray's Pond. The south side is where you go to get that postcard shot of a classic freshwater tide marsh in full glory.

Wild rice, smartweed, tearthumb, Queen Anne's lace, arrow arum, giant bulrush and several other plants -- many beloved of wildlife for food -- mix in that fecund dishabille that overtakes a freshwater wetlands in late summer. A tap on a rice stalk showers the canoe with clouds of pollen, sunlight filtering finely through it.

Over the wooded crest from the south side of Ray's Pond is a development called Harbour Glen, which went in during the mid-1980s, when Anne Arundel County planners were beginning to apply the new Critical Area protections.

They made the developer retain substantially more mature forest than previously was the custom, as a buffer and a filter for runoff from the homes and pavements.

On the Glen Oban side, traditional storm drains and concrete collector systems send shotgun blasts of water down into Ray's Pond when it rains. Conversely, little rain soaks into the ground to seep slowly into the pond during droughts.

On the Harbour Glen side, the thick forest buffer tempers the rain surge, sponging up part of it to feed the braided stream channels going down to the rice-sentineled wetland during dry times. (Wild rice is a sure sign of steady freshwater flows).

Ecologically speaking, the Glen Oban side of the pond carries a tune, but the Harbor Glen side conducts a symphony orchestra.

From Ray's Pond, we keep no perch, but a couple of lessons:

One is that the Critical Area law really works, though it often is maligned and woefully underenforced these days. (One of the few homes visible from the pond, ironically, has a wooded buffer that is partly slashed down in apparent violation.)

Second, as our numbers around the bay increase relentlessly, how we live in a place becomes ever more important.

I wouldn't presume to say the residents of Harbour Glen are better citizens than those on the Glen Oban side, but from a perch's point of view, there's no doubt.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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