The Salt Marsh

There is a photo of me on the front page of our local newspaper when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I’m with three other kids and we are all standing on a patch of marsh grass, staring intently at the water, crab nets in hand. This photo was taken at the Elms property during the summer nature camp I attended every year with my sister. Back in those days, camp was a bit more rugged than today. Not quite as rugged as the camps my dad attended as a boy in the mountains of Tennessee according to him, but not nearly as choreographed and “safe” as the camps my own children have attended.

Nature camp taught us how to canoe on the Chesapeake bay, how to identify most of the plants and animals that lived in or around the salt marsh, and how to navigate our way around the forest and marsh with just a compass. We were often sent off to find some destination in the woods, the marsh, or down the beach that our camp leaders thought would be educational. Sometimes these were nature scavenger hunts where we had to find all kinds of different plants, leaves, seeds, or marsh inhabitants (which we had to return unharmed). Killifish, striped minnows that seem to have a very laissez faire attitude about life in general, were the easiest to catch. Grass shrimp were also pretty easy to find, but prickly, and hard to hold onto as they would violently snap out of your hands the minute you let down your guard. I’ve also seen them leap out of buckets of water, so we never took them far from the marsh. There were a whole host of other fish and crustaceans as well as the occasional turtle that we would spend hours searching for as well as all kinds of birds such as blue herons and egrets. If we spotted one, our voices would drop to a whisper and we would freeze in place until they decided to move on.

Our free time usually involved playing rowdy games, swimming in the bay, and exploring the property, but like most kids our age, we also came up with some pretty bad ideas. For example, taking a shortcut across the marsh where there were no grass clumps to step on. Although the water might only be a foot deep, the mud, with its pudding-like consistency, would be well over your head with only matted layers of dead grass interspersed at various depths to break your descent and likely death. I’m not sure anymore what the motivation was other than hubris and the invincible attitude of all kids under the age of 18, but up to your neck in stinking black mud is not a good place to be. I remember one particular day when I wasn’t sure if I would get out of the mess I had gotten myself into. Literally. Thankfully, I was a slight, wispy child and was able to wriggle out of the mud and swim to safety without meeting a snapping turtle or two. Ultimately, it was the wildness of it all and being completely filthy without repercussions that was probably the biggest part of the appeal. I can see now why my mom probably did not appreciate this and was probably grateful for the vinyl seats in our pinto station wagon.

In the afternoons, we would go swimming in the Chesapeake Bay. The bay had a changing tide that some days brought in great numbers of jellyfish. Most of the time, there were only a few that you could see, but there were often some larger ones who would get anchored on a rock too far below the surface to see. And you would never see it, just feel the tentacles wrap around your bare legs just before you ran screaming for the shore. If you’ve ever been stung, its not the least bit pleasant. There is pain initially, for a while, and then it begins to itch. If the jellyfish is big enough, you might have some painful itchy welts that last for a few hours. We didn’t seem to care about this as we were more interested in seeing how far out we could get before the sandbar dropped off and the water would be over our heads. The summers could be unbearably hot and pools were not common in those days and so any chance to swim in deep cool water was taken with glee.

It must also be explained here that due to the large number of oyster shells, we should have always been wearing old sneakers in the water, but half the time we did not. As a result, our feet (and knees) were always covered with good number of wounds, some more serious than others. Especially when trying to get away from a cluster of jellyfish. The rule was if the bleeding didn’t stop or you could see the underlying muscle or bone, you had to leave and get stitches. Otherwise, we just applied pressure and soldiered on, but we mostly tried to keep the injuries to a minimum. If the jellyfish were too thick and we stayed on the beach, we would mostly spend our time looking for beach glass, shark’s teeth, or arrowheads which were all fairly common back then. Another thing we would often find would be dead toadfish, their stomachs protruding from their mouths, killed by the bomb testing at the nearby naval base. We would toss these into the marsh for the crabs to eat which was only 20-30 yards from the shoreline.

The Elms property is over 400 acres of land that was and is still used primarily as an outdoor classroom. For that purpose, it is perfectly suited to teach all about the different environments it contains. From their website: “The property features 2 miles of sandy shoreline, brackish and freshwater wetlands, lowland and upland forests and is interspersed with 3 miles of low impact trails.” The real purpose for this land, we were always told, was to be held in addition to several hundred more acres to be used should there be a need to build another power plant. We never liked hearing that, but its been over 50 years and it is still going strong as an educational center.

So despite all the potential disasters I listed, we did learn a lot. About a lot of things. Not just the ecosystem there, but how to navigate it, how to preserve it, and how to know what was dangerous and what was not. I didn’t like the fact that they wouldn’t let us pick up snakes, but I suppose that’s a good rule to have with the general population. And despite my chaotic description, no one got seriously hurt.

When we outgrew the nature camp, we attended the canoe camp which was pretty much the same, but with a lot of more time spent inside canoes instead of wading in mud. It culminated in a 5 mile trip up the Chesapeake Bay and back on the last day of the summer session. This was always a challenge, even when the wind wasn’t blowing. The changing tides and the waves alone made things difficult much less trying to keep up with our instructors who were world class competitors and would include some agility courses as part of the challenge.

To this day, when my sister and I are at the beach here in North Carolina, we apply what we learned slogging around that salt marsh and bay and know how to catch virtually any edible (or inedible) critter in the sound. We’ve taken my kids and their cousins out in canoes and kayaks to find places to not just fish, but catch clams, shrimp, mussels, and crabs, which we will sometimes haul back to the house to steam for dinner, but most of the time, we just catch and release. I think its important for my kids to know not only who they share the environment with, but how they live, and how very important it is that we respect their place in the world.