Feb. 15, 2016 – A decade ago, Don Baugh planned a formidable 60th birthday gift for his friend Tom Horton. Baugh, an environmental educator, and Horton, a nature writer for the Baltimore Sun, had helped popularize kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1990s. Baugh proposed what Horton called a “victory lap”: a month-long, 500-mile paddle around the Delmarva Peninsula. Blistered hands and soaking rains aside, they enjoyed the adventure enough to try it again. Last summer they retraced their route and brought along two Virginia Tech alumni: natural resources conservation graduates Alexandra Crooks (’12 B.S.) and Stephen Eren (’11 B.S.).
“Even though I’ve spent my life around the Delmarva and the Chesapeake,” Horton wrote in 2006, “there’s something about seeing the place entire, examining it at four miles an hour, about living outside for a month, that lends fresh perspective.” Baugh has spent decades introducing students to the Chesapeake’s beauty and bounty. In 2014, he retired after 38 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to start, Upstream Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to training environmental leaders.
With the Delmarva expedition — Upstream Alliance’s maiden voyage — Baugh and Horton hoped to bequeath their panoramic expertise of the bay to two emerging naturalists. “I wanted excellent communicators, role models, and leaders with great outdoor skills. Alex and Stephen exemplify those qualities. Graduates of the College of Natural Resources and Environment are head and shoulders above their colleagues, particularly in their grasp of real-life issues.”
Crooks was teaching science in an at-risk middle school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Baugh offered her a spot. Cooped up in a classroom, she yearned for hills, trees, and open water. “Don said, ‘if you get another job, you can take it,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘no, I’m telling you “yes” right now.’” Having grown up in Annapolis, Maryland, Crooks treasured the chance to return to the seascape of her childhood.
Eren, a Durham, North Carolina, native whose career had led him through America’s mountain backcountry — including two stints as a dog-sled guide — looked forward to his first extended sabbatical on the water. Then the manager of a composting company, he built up his endurance by biking through downtown Durham hitched to a trailer piled with 400 pounds of food scraps.
The team, which also included two Upstream Alliance board members, launched from Sandy Point State Park on the bay’s western shore under a nearly cloudless September sky, heading northeast. Their longest paddle came just five days out, when, pummeled by steep waves, they plowed 27 miles through the Chesapeake and Delaware canal and down the peninsula’s east coast. They kayaked up to seven hours each day, usually within 100 yards of the shore, where they could observe wildlife but avoid breakers. Trailed by a motorboat carrying their heaviest gear, they camped on beaches, private lawns, and, as Crooks put it, “a lot of questionable shoreline.”
Every day, Crooks and Eren tested the water’s salinity, temperature, pH, turbidity, conductivity, and levels of dissolved oxygen. “The classes I spent outside, taking data in good and bad weather, prepared me for the job,” Eren said, “especially the outdoor sessions in Blacksburg in January.” Their measurements were posted online by Upstream Alliance and two public data-sharing platforms: NASA’s Globe program and Natural Geographic’s Fieldscope.
From high ground, climate change can seem like a distant prophesy, its creeping damage visible only in time lapse. But out among the coastal islands, the team watched in real time as rising sea levels and intensifying storms thrashed a disintegrating landscape. They saw the last sand dune on Cedar Island, Virginia, wash out with the tide. They battled two weeks of gale-force winds and slept on flooded ground for half of the trip. “Ten years ago, scientists were predicting significant climate challenges for the next generation, but the future is now,” Baugh said. “No longer are we talking about our children and our grandchildren and their children. We’re talking about us.”
Less than a week after the team rounded the peninsula’s southern tip, Hurricane Joaquin stranded them for four days on Smith Island, Maryland. The storm, chased by a nor’easter, submerged a third of the island. The team waded through knee-deep high tide in the streets, and Crooks and Eren conducted water tests from a porch. Smith Island loses about two feet of shoreline to rising seas every year, and scientists predict it will be almost completely underwater by 2100. The island’s 240 permanent residents — down from 1,000 a century ago — make up what Eren called a “living museum” of the bay’s once-thriving communities of crabbers and fishermen.
After the storms cleared, the team paddled hard to complete their circuit, on schedule, back at Sandy Point. The expedition had been Baugh’s chance to “pass the baton to the next generation of environmental leaders,” and, back home, Eren and Crooks mulled over what to do with the responsibility. Eren planned to follow Baugh into the nonprofit sector. Crooks vowed to connect more children with nature. “I want to show them the world is bigger than their cellphone,” she explained. “Once you have lived on the Chesapeake Bay, once you have eaten a fresh crab or swum in the water, it’s more than just a place. It becomes something you care about. To see erosion directly affecting your swimming hole, it changes your perspective.”
For more information on the team’s voyage and data collection, visit Upstream Alliance.