News and Events

 

River Schooling

by Kate Livie, Director of Education & Associate Curator, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum


Students onboard the school skipjack Elsworth at sunset on the Chester River. Photo by author.

Throughout the Chesapeake when the weather is fair, wooden vessels are plying their trade—but it isn’t shellfish they’re capturing, or finfish, or even blue crabs. Rather than bushels of the Bay’s bounty, their decks are awash in kids. These are the Chesapeake’s school ships: once built for working the water, they are now floating classrooms, taking out school groups to experience that old Bay magic, up close and personal.

It’s a trend that’s extended to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, with the buyboat-turned-educational-vessel Winnie Estelle, to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and their skipjack Stanley Norman, and to Living Classrooms onboard the skipjack Sigsbee and the buyboat Mildred Belle. These beamy working beauties, so perfectly adapted to Chesapeake waterways, provide the perfect space for learning on the water— and as modern watermen turn almost universally today to fiberglass vessels, it’s a second chance at life for these traditional Bay boats that might otherwise have ended up as just another rotting hulk in a remote Bay marsh.


A fine day for exploring the Chester with a full class of students onboard the Elsworth. Photo by author.

The skipjack Elsworth is one of these Chesapeake river school boats. Owned and operated today by Echo Hill Outdoor School, she was originally built in 1901 in Hudson, Maryland on a tributary of the Little Choptank River— ground zero of the Bay’s historic oystering industry. After a long career of oystering, the Elsworth was acquired by Echo Hill in 1988. For the next eight years, she continued to work for her keep, taking students out in the warm months and then dredging during the “r” months to earn the funds needed to pay down the loan for her aquisition. In 1996, after almost a decade of working the Bay’s oyster bars for Echo Hill Outdoor School, she was rebuilt and re-purposed as a purely educational vessel.


Captain Andrew McCown in his element. Photo by author.

The mastermind behind this successful gambit and the man who captained the Elsworth during those hard dredging winters is a passionate educator, conservationist, and all-around Chesapeake environmental expert— Captain Andrew McCown. A native of Kingstown, Maryland, just across the Chester River from Chestertown, McCown has dedicated his life to inspiring learners of all ages with the Bay’s environment, culture, and traditions. McCown’s father was a dedicated outdoorsman, and as a boy, McCown grew up fishing, hunting and exploring the dense marshes and hardwood uplands of the Chester River. These simple experiences would be so elemental to McCown— yet as an adult, he found fewer and fewer of the children he encountered could share them. The solution would become Echo Hill Outdoor School, founded in 1972 by Peter Rice, where McCown and a team of environmental educators could introduce children to the marvelous magic of quiet Bay coves, the cathedrals of old growth forests, and the freedom of wet, muddy and entirely hands-on outdoor learning.


A bevy of wooden-workboats-turned-school-vessels rafted up on the south Chester River. Photo by author.

Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the Elsworth is joined in her on-the-water learning experiences by several other wooden Chesapeake craft in the EHOS fleet—the buyboat Annie D, two 20th century workboats, Spirit and Twilight and two bateaux, the Ric and the Mr. Lewey (both named after seminal characters in Gilbert Byron’s classic book, much beloved by Capt. Andy, “The Lord’s Oysters.”). These six vessels are deployed throughout the fine months to ferry students to the heart of the river action—the best holes to seine for silversides or to cast a line to maybe hook dinner, the muddiest gunkholing spots, quiet places where the purple spikes of pickerelweed attract the tiny jewellike bodies of mating damselflies.


Students from Washington College join EHOS Captain Annie Richards in an up-close-and-personal look at watermen pound netting on the Chester River. Photo by author.

These are not chance destinations— rather carefully chosen Chester River classrooms, where students can encounter the wild beauty of the outdoors and educators can shape meaningful environmental experiences. A morning trip after sunrise to a poundnet becomes a discussion about sustainability, watermen, and invasive species, and Capt. Andy holds up a diamondback terrapin he plucks from the net announcing, “I think this is the most beautiful turtle in the Chesapeake.”

He means it. As your bateau bounces on the chop and the students around you push to get a better view of the turtle or the watermen, there isn’t a shred of irony on this little wooden workboat. Capt. Andy is genuinely passionate about the turtle in his hand and the watermen we’re watching, and every student is too. Pure unadulterated enthusiasm, you understand, is a powerful teaching tool.


Students enjoy a lunch crab feast of fat river crabs, and best of all, no need to worry about clean up. Photo by author.

Powerful, too, is the unfettered sense of freedom on these Chester River expeditions. Instead of cafeteria lunches, crabs, caught in the morning as the sun rose, are eaten for lunch directly from the bushel basket and cracked on the Elsworth’s broad decks. School uniforms are exchanged for old tee shirts and shorts or even better, bathing suits. And rather than paper, pencils, and books, students are encouraged to learn with their hands, their eyes, and and by making real-world connections— meeting watermen, raising sails, swabbing decks, and catching crabs. The study the ecosystem by literally immersing themselves in a marsh, as an environmental educator discusses the plants, animals, fish and insects they see. There is learning going on constantly, but it feels like play— the kind of play Andrew McCown so vividly recalls from his childhood on this same Chesapeake tributary.


The Mr. Lewey takes McCown and a few students out to explore the evening river. Photo by author.

A bluebird day of active environmental education ends with a audacious sunset, a repast of fried fish caught by students that afternoon, and possibly a quick trip out in one of the bateaux to cast one last line before last light. As the students settle into sleeping bags on the deck of the Elsworth, McCown, Captain Richards, and crewmate Aaron Thal pull guitars and a ukelele from belowdecks. Together they put on an inpromptu concert, singing Chesapeake-inspired songs and reading river-inspired poetry as a million stars slowly coalesce into a white river overhead mirroring the dark one lapping at the hull. “My sweet heaven on the Chester,” McCown sings in his fine voice, and the students onboard drop slowly onto pillows, to rest for another challenging day at outdoor school.

My thanks to Andrew McCown, Annie Richards, Aaron Thal, Echo Hill Outdoor School and Washington College for the opportunity to join an overnight educational program onboard the Elsworth.

2015 Tree Run A Success

The Still Pond to Betterton Tree Run, which took place this past sunny but blustery April 4th morning, was a huge success! THANK YOU to all the runners and walkers for coming out and celebrating Spring and Arbor Day (a little early) with us! CONGRATULATIONS to First Place finisher, Francis Ciganek, who finished with a time of 23:14, and First Place Female Finisher, Sara Ratajczak, who finished with a time of 27:51.

Brandon Ewing finished in 2nd place with a time of 24.03. Sawyer Cornelius finished in 3rd place with a time of 24:05.

Hannah Richardson finished in 2nd place for the female runners, with a time of 28:07. Ryan Becklund finished in 3rd place for the female runners, with a time of 29:52.

A very special THANK YOU to Speakman Nurseries for donating the fabulous Dogwood, Birch, Yellowwood, Magnolia, Oak and American Hornbeam trees to all the winners (youngest, oldest, and 1st place walkers won trees, too) and to The Peoples Bank for their continued support of this annual community event. Echo Hill Outdoor School was very proud to join these sponsors in the 31st Annual Still Pond to Betterton Tree Run. Hope to see everyone again next year!

 

Cool Outdoor Stuff - A Series from The Chestertown Spy

 

Cool Outdoor Stuff: A Hawaiian Break with Andrew McCown
December 28, 2015
Even the greatest lovers of the Chesapeake Bay need a break now and then, and for Captain Andrew McCown of the Echo Hill Outdoor School, that meant taking his family to Hawaii for the first time this past November. Once settled in, it didn’t take long for Andy to see the wonders of Hawaii. In his latest episode of Cool Outdoor Stuff, he takes us to the land of flora and fauna for a special look for what makes these Pacific Islands so special.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: Jumpin’ Silversides, Batman!
August 12, 2015
One of the great marine mysteries, now solved by our intrepid Cool Outdoor Stuff author Cap’n Andrew McCown, is the question of why Atlantic silversides perform circus acts in the Chesapeake Bay.

Tiny as they may be, often elusive, often swarming—the trick is always the right place and time—Atlantic silversides have a thing for floating twigs, and it’s a bit more than a curious nibble.

Videoing these miniature circus leaps is daunting, but if you look close enough after the camera finds its focus, you will witness the moment. don’t blink, you might miss the show!

The Cap’n has a theory. And the Spy is buying into it. Next up, we’re going to try very small rings of fire.

Please excuse the cameraman’s elation.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: Goes Fly Fishing with Andrew McCown
July 7, 2015
Fly-fishing has long attracted writers, tempted by its simple elegance, to cast grand questions into a river of metaphysics. Isaac Walton’s Compleat Angler and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It are great examples of writers imagining the artful sport of fly-fishing as a life lesson. But why?

Cool Outdoor Stuff’s Andrew McCown shares a few minutes showing us how it’s done as he takes us pond fishing on a local farm. The solitude almost begs for whispering as he whips the tapered line, its signature arabesque curling in the air. We begin to feel the workaday world unreel.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: Top Eastern Shore Wood for Heating Homes
February 25, 2015
There is no greater incentive to take a look at the kind of wood you can burn to heat your house when record breaking temperatures have frozen out most of the Eastern Shore this month. This seems to be on the mind of Echo Hill Outdoor School‘s Andrew McCown in the latest installment of Cool Outdoor Stuff. As one can predict, each wood comes with different advantages, but they also come with own history and esthetics that only Captain Andy can make captivating.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: The Chesapeake's World of Clams
November 13, 2014
With all the concerns recently related to the health of the Chesapeake Bay’s crab and oyster populations, the Upper Bay’s clams sometimes get lost in the conversation. While it is important to note that these brackish water clams have no economic impact to speak of, due to the fact that they can only tolerate low levels of salt and therefore are not present bay wide, they are cool nonetheless. In this latest installment of the Spy’s Cool Outdoor Stuff, Captain Andy McCown from Echo Hill Outdoor School puts the spotlight on the clam world found in the Upper Chesapeake and the wonders found in its survival skills.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: Three or Four Cheers for Shoreline Fish
September 25, 2014
They might be small, but with extraordinary populations along the Chesapeake Shoreline, and with names like Atlantic Silversides, Mummichogs, Killifish, and Sheepshead minnow, these shoreline fish are one of the great wonders of the region. In the latest installment of Cool Outdoor Stuff, Andy McCown of Echo Hill Outdoor School, hits the edges of the Bay to tell the remarkable story of the shoreline fish world, but also highlights some good ecological news about the Bay and its estuaries.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: Why We Love Bird Dogs
June 30, 2014
In this installment of Cool Outdoor Stuff, Andrew McCown of Echo Hill Outdoor School, is back in the field, but this time with his new bird dog Boone. In a case of “this dog can definitely hunt,” Andrew sets Boone off to show off his extraordinary hunting skills.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: Winter Wheat with Andrew McCown
June 5, 2014
Winter wheat is a powerhouse producer for local Eastern Shore farmers, but the story doesn’t stop there. As Echo Hill Outdoor School’s Andrew McCown points out in the latest edition of Cool Outdoor Stuff, this remarkably resilient crop plays many roles in the life of the Shore and the businesses that depend on it.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: The Real Maryland Terrapin
November 4, 2013
Every fall, the University of Maryland Terrapins defend the state’s honor in football to the thrill of millions of fans, but Cool Outdoor Stuff’s Andrew McCown is the real diamondback terrapin fanboy. In this episode, the Echo Hill Outdoor School‘s associate director reminds us of the unique turtle, so endemic to the Chesapeake Bay region.



Cool Outdoor Stuff: Let Us Now Praise Famous Bryozoans
July 25, 2013
In this episode of Cool Outdoor Stuff, Echo Hill Outdoor School’s Andrew McCown puts the spotlight on the wonders of freshwater Bryozoans on the Eastern Shore. These “moss animals” are not candidates for best-looking species, but they do win our attention with their extraordinary history of survival and reproduction.



Cool Outdoor Stuff: What Can We Learn From The Beaverkill?
May 15, 2013
Echo Hill Outdoor School’s Andrew McCown is back with another edition of Cool Outdoor Stuff with videographer Jack Elliott. This time, Andy reflects on a recent fishing trip to the Beaverkill River in the Catskill mountains. The Beaverkill today represents a remarkable success story for ecosystem conservation — nearly depleted after World War II due to over-fishing and bad water quality, the Beaverkill has been carefully managed to grow again into one of the best fisheries in the East. Following up on the Spy’s recent analysis of the Conowingo Dam issues, Andy asks, “What can we learn from the Beaverkill?”



Cool Outdoor Stuff: Getting Past the Smell of Skunk Cabbage
April 10, 2013
In this episode of Cool Outdoor Stuff, Echo Hill Outdoor School‘s Andrew McCown, joined by videographer Jack Elliott, defends the often misunderstood skunk cabbage. One of our earliest flowering plants found on the Eastern Shore.

While named after its signature smell, Captain Andy highlights the remarkable flowering power of this tough plant.



Cool Outdoor Stuff: The Great Goose Exodus with Andy McCown
March 18, 2013
Echo Hill Outdoor School’s Andrew McCown is back with another edition of Cool Outdoor Stuff. This time, Andy notes the bittersweet exit of geese to Canada on a blustery St. Patrick’s Day with videographer Jack Elliott. The wind eases up for just enough time to end with a Joel Barber poem dedicated to the recently departed.



Cool Outdoor Stuff Returns: The Triumph of Holly Trees with Andrew McCown
October 2, 2012
Captain Andrew McCown’s Cool Outdoor Stuff returns for the fall season with the epic tale of the mighty Eastern Shore Holly tree. Along with videographer Wil Campbell, Andy captures one of the more remarkable of nature’s stories found on the Eastern Shore.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: A Summer Tidbit
July 18, 2012
The Captain reports in with a brief report from the field on an amazing river phenomena he stumbled upon last week. Yet another wonder of the Eastern Shore world found by our own Echo Hill’s Andy McCown.


Cool Outdoor Stuff: The Wonders of Plankton with Captain Andrew McCown
May 24, 2012
In the third edition of Cool Outdoor Stuff, Captain Andrew McCown introduces us to the wonderful world of plankton. Derived from the Greek adjective, planktos, meaning “wanderer,” plankton is one of the great phenomenons of the Chesapeake Bay.

 


Cool Outdoor Stuff: For the Love of Eels with Captain Andrew McCown
May 2, 2012
Cool Outdoor Stuff continues this month with Captain Andrew McCown from Echo Hill Outdoor School explaining the wonders of the yellow eel in Chesapeake waters. Working with videographer Wil Campbell, Captain Andrew highlights their special migration from the Sargasso Sea near the Bermuda Triangle to the Chesapeake Bay and as far north as Maine. A pretty cool story for May.

 

Cool Outdoor Stuff with Andrew McCown: Forage Radishes
March 30, 2012
To know Andy McCown, as thousands of Echo Hill Outdoor School alumni already do, is to know one of the great Upper Shore storytellers talking today. Through his love for the Chesapeake, a healthy dose of Eastern Shore irony, and an indelible sense of wonder, Andrew has enriched countless numbers with tales of nature, natural mysteries, and a very fragile ecosystem at still working hard against tremendous odds.

In a special series for the Spy, Andrew, and videographer (and EHOS alum) Wil Campbell, have started to share some of that wonderful storytelling with the launch of Cool Outdoor Stuff. From the delight of forage radishes in winter to the radical behavior of plankton in the Bay’s waters, Cool Outdoor Stuff taps into the soul of the Chesapeake once a month.

Episode One: Forage Radishes

 

On a Saturday afternoon of October 2014, a special wedding took place on the Skipjack Elsworth. The story behind why the couple chose the Elsworth for their wedding is anything but routine. Here is a heartwarming letter from the bride describing why they chose the Elsworth, as it appeared on the front page of The Chestertown Spy. The historic boat is docked in Chestertown and available for tours during Downrigging Weekend.

An Elsworthy Request:
A Boat and a Wedding
Sarah Meekins Elliott

I am the granddaughter of the late Norris O. Lewis who owned and captained the Elsworth for a time during the 1970s.

The Elsworth has long been a source of pride for my family. By the time I was born in the early 1980s, the boat had long been sold, but I grew up listening to legendary stories about my grandfather and the Elsworth. All of the men in my mother's family (including my father) worked on the boat at some point during my grandfather's captainship.

All of the women and grandchildren of the family sailed onboard during skipjack races. There were stories of family members reaching out to touch the Sandy Point Lighthouse as my grandfather swiftly maneuvered the final winning turn of a skipjack race at Chesapeake Appreciation Days. There were tales of monumental oyster harvests and skillful navigation through dense fog and whiteout weather conditions. There were recollections of my grandfather standing stoically behind the ship's wheel with icicles hanging from his whiskers during a day of hard winter's work. These stories and so many more were guaranteed to resurface over holiday meals and during times when spirits needed uplifting. Over time, memories of the Elsworth became the thread that tied my mother's family together as all seven siblings grew older and went their separate ways.

Although my family members always regarded the Elsworth in a romantic sense, my grandfather saw the Elsworth simply as a way of life. Skipjacks were in his blood. His father and each of his brothers owned and captained (and sometimes helped build) skipjacks throughout their lifetimes. Sadly, only the Elsworth and the Martha Lewis (my great grandfather's skipjack) remain in existence to this day. As an aging man, my grandfather parted with the Elsworth, passing the torch to the next captain. He did so with a heavy heart. His greatest fear was that the Elsworth would find her fate in what he called the "Tilghman Island Graveyard." It was there where he saw far too many skipjacks "go to die" during his lifetime.

My grandfather could not have been happier when he learned that the Elsworth was entrusted to the Echo Hill Outdoor School in the 1980s. He regarded Echo Hill not only as a safe haven for the Elsworth, but also as a terrific opportunity for the vessel to teach environmental respect to future generations.

You see, my grandfather did not go to high school, let alone college. When he was growing up, the need for immediate family outcome far outweighed the need for formal education. He learned about the environment not through a textbook but through experience and developed an unparalleled sense of respect and understanding of the worldaround him. In his later years, as I began to pursue college degrees in biology and environmental marine science, I would discuss various topics with him that I had learned about in a college classroom. He would often smile to himself, pleased to finally learn the name of something that he already understood all too well. He would then proceed to teach me a thing or two about what I had just learned in school. Learning about the environment was my grandfather's passion, and he felt honored that the Elsworth would be used as a tool to reach out to youth for that very same purpose.

My grandfather passed away ten years ago last January. At the time, I had been dating a young man named David for several years (eight to be exact). Coming from a waterman's family himself, David was always fascinated by my grandfather's stories and often said that he wished he could have had a chance to experience the Elsworth under the helm of Capt Lewis. David and I have remained together for 18 years now. We began dating in middle school and have been inseparable ever since. Seven years ago, he took me on a surprise trip to the Chestertown area and we "just happened" to end up sitting together next to the Elsworth. As I sat on the dock with tears in my eyes in remembrance of my grandfather, David proposed marriage and I quickly accepted. Unfortunately, some health related issues delayed our nuptials for a few years but we are finally ready to tie the knot!

David and I can think of no better way to honor our love, our family, and our Chesapeake heritage than by exchanging our long awaited vows aboard the Elsworth.*

*The wedding took place on a perfect Eastern Shore day this Fall.

The Elsworth was purchased by Echo Hill Outdoor School in 1988. In addition to using it in the school's summer Explore Program, it commercially dredged for oysters until 1996 when EHOS engaged in a major restoration.

 

Back to Nature
Carolyn Lasako
Click here to open PDF of article.

 

School Lunch Can Be A Teachable Moment
WP Opinions, WashingtonPost.com
By Wendy Costa, April 05, 2013


Thanks partly to the efforts of first lady Michelle Obama, most school districts are trying to make school lunches more nutritious and less fattening. But there is more to lunch than food, and many schools are missing opportunities for teachable moments.

 

The Elsworth’s “Nose Job”
The Chestertown Spy - February 18, 2013

If you are a regular visitor to Chestertown’s historic waterfront you may have noticed that something has been missing from the scenery this winter; Echo Hill Outdoor School’s skipjack Elsworth has been gone since the day after Super Storm Sandy. No, the storm did not swallow her up like so many others just to the North. The Elsworth is actually just down the Chester River at Rolph’s Wharf Marina where she’s been hauled out for what you might call a “nose job.” Though only a few miles from Chestertown by road or water, when you are down at Rolph’s in the winter you could almost be on a deserted island. The traffic consists of ducks and geese. The tide rolls in and the tide rolls out, and there’s plenty of wind. It is quintessential Eastern Shore of Maryland. Despite the beautiful conditions, work on the Elsworth has progressed steadily and she is only days away from returning to her berth in Chestertown.

The Elsworth, built by Mitchell Hubbard in 1901 in Hudson, Maryland, is one of hundreds of skipjacks built to dredge oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, catching what was to become the beginning of a downward trend of the great oyster harvests of the late 1800’s. Skipjacks as a type developed here in response to this oyster boom as these vessels were comparatively easier and cheaper to build than big, round bilged schooners and bugeyes, were shallow drafted and so able to work waters closer to shore and were easier to manage by a smaller crew as skipjacks were generally smaller and carried fewer sails. For the Elsworth the downward trend lasted 94 years as she worked the oyster beds every winter through 1995, the last eight years under the command of Captain Andrew McCown of Echo Hill Outdoor School.

How is it that a boat built for an industry that is notoriously hard on equipment, of materials that generally last for forty to fifty years and for the choppy waters of the Chesapeake is still sailing at 112 years old? The answer began on the first day of the Elsworth’s construction as, in the opinion of Kent County’s own Master Shipwright John Swain, the Elsworth was “well built.” In the 1940’s the Elsworth was “rebuilt” at the H.M. Krentz Shipyard. Echo Hill Outdoor School acquired the Elsworth in good shape from Captain Robbie Wilson in 1988 and since then she has been practically “rebuilt” again. Owners who have needed her to be a safe and functional work platform have cared for the Elsworth all along the way.

The “nose job” the Elsworth has received is only the most recent in a long list of preservation projects that Echo Hill Outdoor School has undertaken in order to maintain the vessel as a National Historic Site and as a certified United States Coast Guard Inspected Vessel. In the early 1990’s Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore replaced a number of deck beams and some of the deck planking. During the winter of 1996 John Swain installed a new keel, centerboard trunk, chine timbers, all bottom and deck planking, half of the side planking, and a new cabin. A new mast was installed in 2000 and bow sprit in 2004 by Echo Hill’s own shipwright Nick Biles. John Swain and Nick Biles built a new push boat for the Elsworth in 2005 and a new boom in 2009. This winter Nick Biles, with the help of Echo Hill Outdoor School staff and Volunteer Shipwright Apprentice Zachary Hall (WC 2013), has replaced all the components of the Elsworth’s bow. Echo Hill Outdoor School would like to thank The Hedgelawn Foundation and Preservation Maryland for providing funds for the work on the Elsworth’s bow. Nick Biles would like to thank John Swain of Swain BoatBuilders LLC, Marc Barto and Richard Scoffield from Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Mike Vlahovich from Coastal Heritage Alliance, Tom Parker of Parker Welding, and Captain Tom Briggs for their help with materials and consultation. And lastly, thanks to Zachary Hall for his many hours of volunteer help.

When the Elsworth shows up back in Chestertown in a couple days, stop by and take a look at a real piece of Maryland history. As for what is new, you will only notice some fresh paint but know that every piece is a part of a 112 year continuum. Echo Hill Outdoor School is working to preserve that history through a commitment to its fleet of historic Chesapeake Bay work boats and through the programs offered on the Bay and on the school’s campus in Kent County, Maryland to thousands of students and participants throughout the Mid-Atlantic States and beyond.

By Captain Nick Biles, Echo Hill Outdoor School Staff Teacher and Shipwright