City kayaking: nature amid trash Opportunists: The flora and fauna that survive along the South Baltimore shoreline, hardy species that have adapted to life in an industrial area, offer their own charm.


IN HIS CLASSIC, "Sand County Almanac," Aldo Leopold wrote of the need to develop "a refined taste in natural objects" -- to be more appreciative of full-functioning ecosystems, less impressed with imported swans on a constructed pond or forests planted only with marketable timber.

But in our heavily settled region, if nature lovers want to seize the day, they must sometimes cultivate other tastes.

A couple of weekends ago, I found myself, kayak atop the car, near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with too little time left in an autumn afternoon to reach "refined" paddling places before dark.

It was a time to head down Key Highway, across the railroad tracks, under the interstates and through the industrial barrens around Port Covington to Ferry Bar Park.

At the foot of Light Street, east of Insulator Drive, facing Harbor Hospital Center across the channel entrance to the Patapsco's Middle Branch, this small, scrubby, littered peninsula is a rare pocket of public access.

It is one of those places where Baltimoreans can, and do, tend crab pots and wax their cars; set fishing lines and do a brake job on the van while waiting for a perch or rock to bite.

Maybe it's no model for the Chesapeake waterfront, but the bay has thousands of miles of shoreline; Ferry Bar Park takes up only a few hundred feet and adds a certain ruined charm. Refined is good, but so is diversity.

Clearing broken glass from a few yards of gravelly beach, I launched the kayak and paddled west, under the Hanover Street Bridge and toward the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. (BRESCO) plant.

Near the mouth of the Gwynns Falls, in the shadows of Interstate 95 and its feeder ramps, I poked into a couple of pretty little cattail marshes -- prettier from a distance, it turned out.

Plastic flotsam, blown and drifted from all over the harbor, clogged the reeds to a depth of more than a foot.

I see industry ads on television weekly on the many ways plastic benefits society, from bulletproof vests for police to replacement joints for the elderly. If they'd make bleach jugs biodegrade on contact with sunlight and water, I'd be impressed.

Still, beneath the plastic, the warm shallows of the little marshes burbled with killifish and other minnows. An empty shell, shed by a blue crab recently, floated by.

Nearby, a flock of Canada geese sunned on a sludgy little island. They looked to be the nonmigratory types, introduced from game farms and rapidly joining raccoons and deer as suburban habitues-cum-pests.

I followed the shoreline north, exploring old industrial canals extending toward Russell Street, some vegetated heavily enough to afford pleasant shade.

From a catalpa tree, a kingfisher flitted. A huge, stuffed-toy zebra floated, decomposing. Green-headed mallards nearby.

Among the wrecks of old wooden vessels, egrets fished for minnows and great blue herons sunned, one perched on a truck tire just below the murky surface.

Terns wheeled and dived, feeding literally on the fringes of industrial warehouses and among highway support pillars. A cormorant landed nearby with a splash and began diving near an overgrown canal that I followed alongside Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s huge gas storage tanks near Ostend Street.

The flora and fauna were perhaps more abundant than I had anticipated, yet exactly the kinds one would expect:

Adaptable species, the tough and hardy -- less refined than opportunistic, even as I was opportunistic in finding a place to adventure, be it ever so humble.

Estuaries such as the Chesapeake, even in less degraded places, seem to put a premium on opportunists. It is such a wildly variable environment, this place where the ocean is in bTC constant struggle for dominance with the flows of 40-odd tributary rivers.

In such a place, the most basic parameters of aquatic life, such as salinity, can swing from millpond to ocean and back again in the space of weeks; temperature, too, in the shallow Chesapeake, (average depth about 21 feet) is anything but stable.

So it is that the bay, even at its most refined, is no rain forest, which has lots of specialized species evolved over long, stable eons to inhabit narrow niches. Rather it tends toward blue crabs and rockfish, white perch and eels, kilifish, mallards, carp, spartina and wigeon grasses -- all hardy colonizers, invaders even.

Under I-95, around Exit 53, a couple of gentlemen reluctant to give their names were catching white perch. Not very big, I said. "Just bait," they replied.

They planned to spend the night here in the recesses of the Middle Branch, fishing for rockfish. They said someone caught one nearly 3 feet long the other night. Indeed, more than a dozen anglers, looking as if they were there to stay, line the north shore between Swann Park and Hanover Street.

Half an hour of paddling took me to a tidal marsh created years ago on the southwest corner of Fort McHenry with "environmental mitigation" money from a harbor tunnel project.

It has eroded somewhat since then and is protected by a perimeter of rock. Trash is piled in places, and phragmites reeds, of scant wildlife value, are crowding the spartina grasses in places.

But it's still a fair-functioning wetland here in one of the more industrial corners of the earth, and it is pretty to watch the lowering sun gleam on the tidal channels that braid the marsh grass.

Even here on the harbor, we do need a more refined taste in natural objects, if only to remind us of all that's missing. (Like being able to eat some of the fish here without worrying about state health advisories on toxic chemicals).

But for the moment, the opportunists have made my day.

Pub Date: 10/11/96

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