Chris Cerino serves as Vice President at Sultana Education Foundation in Chestertown, MD. Since 2000, Chris designs and leads environmental education programs for school children on one of the most exciting educational facilities on the Chesapeake, the Schooner Sultana. In the past few years, Chris has added a popular field trip option for adults, with two hour paddling trips through some of the most pristine environments on the Upper Bay.
Chris, your life seems to revolve around the Chesapeake Bay. Has it always?
I grew up in Reston, Virginia, and I spent countless hours on Lake Anne and Lake Fairfax. That’s where I learned my love of fishing and canoeing. My local body of water connected to the Bay was the Potomac River. My Dad would take us to Riverbend Park and Great Falls National Park when I was little. The Falls are just awesome. You’re just half an hour from this giant city, Washington DC, but you’re at one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen nationwide. When I could drive, I started going upriver with my brother and our friends to Harper’s Ferry. To fish, and camp, we were just river rats. And that was not even an hour from where I lived in Reston. Again, within an hour’s drive of Reston, you’re at this really neat historic and environmental landmark with trails and cool buildings and really good fishing and kayaking.
Your early experience was on the non-tidal part of the Potomac River. How did you come to embrace the Chesapeake Bay?
After graduating college, I came to Chestertown with my mom to visit the Tea Party Festival. I stumbled on the booth for the Echo Hill Outdoor School which is about 15 minutes from Chestertown. They were advertising these programs for kids, basically catching tadpoles and walking through swamps. I had been a camp counselor for going on 10 years, and I loved working with kids. But I didn’t realize until then that people would pay me to take kids out and catch animals with nets.
I remember the very first paddle I did with the staff at Echo Hill. An osprey flew out of the tree line and a bald eagle came out of the same tree line and dive bombed the osprey and I was freaking out because “Wow there’s a bald eagle!” In Reston, you never saw bald eagles, and the Echo Hill staff was wondering why I was so excited because they see this all the time. But to me, there was a huge revelation of another part of the Chesapeake that was much more gently developed and had a lot more open space so things like that were possible. That was an eye opener. That’s when I really started loving the Bay, and the uniqueness of the Upper Bay.
When did you get started with Sultana Education Foundation?
I came here in early 2000 and the boat – the Schooner Sultana -- was about a year from being completed. [The schooner SULTANA is a replica of a British Royal Navy schooner that patrolled the coastline of the colonial United States from 1768 to 1772. The schooner is one of the organization’s most productive educational platforms.] I came in at a really unique time to design the educational programs from scratch with an amazing “facility” that had the potential to affect thousands of kids. It’s a lot of fun.
I do have a master’s degree to teach secondary history. But I preferred working with kids in an environmental capacity. So Sultana has been awesome, because you’re still educating kids but in a much less formal setting which is a lot more fun and exciting. When kids come on a field trip to Sultana, they love it! It is school, but it’s different school, it’s fun school, it’s school on the water, it’s exciting and new and different.
How many school children does Sultana reach?
Every 5th grader in Kent County has a “Sultana” experience on the water. That’s 5 schools. And the same for Dorchester, and Talbot, and Caroline counties, every year since 2001. We also see a lot of students from Queen Anne’s and Cecil counties. Soon, we will have reached a whole generation of people. The kids we took out 14 years ago are now 25 years old and making choices about what to do with their lives. Even if we only impacted 10 out of a thousand kids, that’s still pretty cool.
When we ask how many of the students are taking their first boat ride, half the kids raise their hands. These kids might live 5 blocks from the water but their families don’t own boats, trailers or kayaks, so they don’t get out on the water. It’s not part of their lexicon. By getting those kids out on the water, we want to show them where they live and re-connect them to the river that basically determined where this town is located. We turn the light on. We flick on the light switch. So they can say “Wow, the Chester River where I live is beautiful. And it can be really fun to be out here.” It’s as simple as that.
How about reaching adults?
At Sultana, our mission is to get people out to experience the Chesapeake Bay in a hands-on manner; to teach them using our unique platforms of the history and environment of this region. Sultana is our flagship classroom that we use to take out thousands of students and parents every year. But more recently we went into paddling with a mobile canoe rig and a mobile kayak rig. We have these experiences for adults called “Public Paddles” where we essentially tell people where to meet us on a Saturday morning, and what the theme is (Oysters and Indians, for example, or bald eagles, or lotus blossoms). We want to take people to a place evocative of the Bay that Captain John Smith and indigenous people would have seen hundreds of years ago.
For the “Oysters and Indians” paddle trip, we show you archaeological evidence – very easy to spot – that this is a big base of operations for the indigenous people who preceded us. And there are very few areas in the country where you can see that, and it hasn’t been covered over by condominiums or by rip rap and a big dock. We’ll show you landscape features and natural resources like oyster middens eroding out of the cliffs, wetland areas that were of use to indigenous people for arrow arum, wild rice, all these wetland emergent plants with starch roots. You could paddle by them a million times and not realize how important that place, those plants were, to the people who lived here. You’re going to see bald eagles and ospreys. You’ll see an abundance of wildlife and it will be a special trip for the people with us that day. What’s also interesting is to compare the state of water quality. You would have seen the bottom, and an oyster bar, and underwater grasses, and you don’t now. It’s a concrete way to get people out there, celebrate what we have, and take time to consider what we’ve lost, and what we might be able to do to make it better.
You talk a lot about the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail on Sultana’s field trips for schoolchildren, and for adults on the public paddles. Is there something about John Smith that you find remarkable?
There’s a lot that is remarkable, starting with his exploratory voyages in a very small boat with a relatively small number of people. I’ll launch my boat at Fishing Bay in Dorchester county, and if I’m in an area I’m not familiar with, and I’m looking around at this very monochromatic and marshy landscape, I can’t tell where I am at all. And for him to be in a rowboat, living in open conditions in sometimes hostile environments, the weather and mosquitos, for him to not only do that voyage but do it in a way where he could keep meticulous records and produce a map is just mind-boggling.
The map that resulted from that voyage had unbelievable implications for not just the Englishmen but also for the native people and for the Bay. When you overlay satellite image onto his map, it is not that far off. To me, that map is one of the most amazing accomplishments in American history. His map was the blueprint for this area for a good 70 years. When the English first settled what became St. Mary’s City, they probably had a copy of that map. When people went up the Potomac, or settled here in the Upper Bay, that was the blueprint for where to go.
The amount of information he recorded about the native people who lived here is just invaluable, to see there were that many Indian communities on these rivers and he meticulously noted where these towns were. That’s very uncommon on old maps made by Europeans, to have that level of detail about indigenous people they met. It’s very unique.
Plus, his narratives and his descriptions of the region provide a fascinating glimpse about the Bay’s potential for today. His voyage is to me one of the great benchmarks for how productive the Bay was at one time, and it is a blueprint for our aspirations for the Bay, to make it as good as it can be.
Why does it feel so good to be in or near the water?
With Sultana we do a lot of history programs, and in colonial times, and in prehistoric times, the waterways sustained you and connected you to the rest of the world. They were the highway systems for indigenous people for thousands of years, for Europeans, and today a lot of towns – like Chestertown – are on the Bay because the Bay was the lifeblood for the economy, for your sustenance. It’s natural for us to go back and visit that because it’s so important. Whether it’s DC, or Chestertown, or St. Michael’s or Denton, really anywhere of any import is on a river because it had to be.
And there is this inherent beauty and peacefulness when you’re there and sitting in an area like Turner’s Creek. Even in the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, you can get to a place where there is what we call a “John Smith view”. On the Nanticoke River you can look 360 degrees around and not see a single house. Same thing on the Pocomoke. And here, Kent County between the Sassafras and Chester rivers is one of the last great colonial landscapes in the Chesapeake region. It’s like a time machine to the 18th century.
Can you give us your top picks for places people should go, and things people should see?
I’ll focus on the Eastern Shore and great places to see the Upper Bay from the water. I would include Turner’s Creek public landing to get you out on a gorgeous part of the Sassafras, especially if you can get out there on a weekday. You’re going to see lotus blooms in July and August, lots of eagles, a different side of the Chesapeake. On the upper Chester River there are great places to paddle. Millington and Crumpton are great places to launch kayaks and canoes. Those places are fun because you can only really see them well from canoes and kayaks. They are sheltered areas so they’re safe for novice paddlers.
I’d say the two most pristine rivers on the Eastern Shore are the Nanticoke and the Pocomoke. There’s a great outfitter in Dorchester County called Blackwater Paddle and Pedal. They rent bikes and kayaks. They can rent you a bike for exploring Dorchester County on land, or they can drop you off at a place on the Nanticoke in Blackwater or Fishing Bay. To me, Dorchester County is the iconic Chesapeake, vistas of unbroken marshes with loblolly pine, undisturbed wetland habitat, and no development for miles. That’s really rare. On the Pocomoke, you have the Pocomoke River Canoe Company in Snow Hill, a great outfitter to get you out anywhere from Pocomoke City upriver which is a unique place to see the cypress swamps, unique to the shore, especially the upper Pocomoke. My personal favorite paddle is from Porter’s Crossing downstream to Snow Hill. That’s 5 miles of gentle downstream and it’s really awesome. Nassawango Creek which feeds the Pocomoke has been meticulously preserved by conservation groups, and that’s incredible. I could go on and on.
For people who just want to see things from land, going to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and doing the wildlife drive, you see those iconic landscapes, and there are so many back roads you can take into a time machine.
And of course, catch the Sultana for a public sail – that’s a unique way to see the middle Chester River.
Have you seen an eagle today?
Yes. If I spend any amount of time outside in this area, it’s rare that I don’t see an eagle. And that’s really really cool.