LIKE A RICH AND timeless book, the Chesapeake marshes are something one can revisit again and again, gaining insight and renewed inspiration.
This time of year, when the shadbush froths from woodland edges and the lustrous buds of maples rouge the swamps, several of us return to a chapter that unfolds across lower Dorchester County.
It begins on the Nanticoke River side of Elliott Island and proceeds westward, a four-day paddle through the heart of the vast public holdings that include Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the state's Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area.
It's a voyage marked by courting ospreys and herons, nesting eagles, migrating teal, and redwinged blackbirds noisily staking out breeding territories among the marsh reeds.
Corks in the channels mark watermen's traps, set for eels rousing from the mud. One that we pulled was stuffed with a 2-pound rockfish that made it through an entrance designed to snare slender eels.
A book of infinite levels
This "book" of the Chesapeake operates on infinite levels, written by wind and tide. These are never the same from year to year, or day to day, and in paddle craft they can propel you far ahead of schedule -- or utterly defeat you. Always, they shift your itinerary.
The landscape is low and soggy, but slight changes in elevation produce remarkable variations.
The first day is dominated by broad, open waters and big, strong tidal rivers. Day two entails hours threading through marshes so crazily fissured with ponds and creeks that only highly detailed aerial photos keep you on track.
The last half of the trip is a transition from broad, salty wind-whipped marsh and shallow bays to a narrow, forested blackwater river, where lily pads float on the quiet surface and the water is fresh enough to drink.
Above all, the voyage offers solitude, an experience as close to wilderness as one gets in a state with about one resident for every acre.
Such an experience, as nourishing to the imagination as any book, gets harder to come by with every passing year.
The previous year, we arrived at our first campsite, a gem of an island, 500 acres of high forest set in the midst of the marsh, to find other campers had discovered it.
This year, we went out in a skiff a day before our paddle trip and staked out a choice waterfront campsite, leaving food and other gear, and a required state camping permit.
Just as we were leaving, a power boat pulled in -- some fishermen who had planned to camp there.
The fishermen are neither the first nor last interlopers. Some locals who claim Native American heritage have camped on the island for decades and, I suspect, regard our wilderness-seeking band of kayakers as we regard the fishermen.
All or this is sure to get worse, which is probably for the best.
That sounds contradictory, but protecting and restoring the bay takes public support and enthusiasm.
Providing access to the splendors of the place -- including the wilder, remoter parts -- is part of that agenda. You don't just tell people you read a great book. You tell them how they can get it.
In the past year or two, a lot of groundwork has begun to make ventures such as our annual rite of spring across Dorchester more available.
The Department of Natural Resources is developing water trails for all levels, from novices and families with kids, to true explorers.
The National Park Service is offering $400,000 in grants to state and local governments around the bay to create land and water trails along the tidal edges.
DNR is also signing "use agreements" with professional outfitters and guides to let them run trips using public lands.
The state and counties are increasingly marketing their natural resources under the rubric of "eco-tourism" and "natural heritage" trips. It is refreshing to see poorer counties such as Dorchester realize that their true riches lie in the abundance of nature they once longed to develop.
Potential for conflicts
So I support all this. And yet I know how I'm going to feel the first time I'm paddling a favorite, remote creek and round a bend and meet an outfitter trailing 20 canoes.
I know it will mean applying well in advance for camping sites we once took for granted. Also, no campfires unless we bring in our wood. Also packing our wastes out.
There will be potential for conflicts between new and traditional users of the bay's edges: paddlers and campers vs. duck hunters and deer hunters.
With education and planning, perhaps it can be handled gracefully, and with a strong emphasis on low-impact use, and on paddling and hiking vs. increased motorized access.
Toward that end, the paddling community, which usually opposes registering canoes and kayaks, should rethink. Those who pay, whether through hunting licenses or powerboat registration, always have more say.
And in the next few years, a lot needs to be said in divvying up the use of Maryland's wilder side.