Last week I finally explored Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge with one of my oldest and dearest friends (see my previous column). I had been meaning to go since I moved to Chestertown for three reasons. First, it would give me a better perspective on my dear Chester River; secondly, it provides a very special outdoor learning opportunity for Kent School Third Graders so I wanted to experience it for myself; and most importantly, I was hoping to learn if the correct name was East or Eastern Neck, as I have heard both.
From its website: “Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is a 2,286-acre island sanctuary established in 1962 for migratory birds, at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay. Eastern Neck refuge supports a wide variety of habitats including brackish marsh, natural ponds, upland forest, and grasslands. The refuge holds the designation of Important Bird Areas by the Audubon Society. Over 240 bird species visit the refuge along with small mammals and many other wildlife species. The refuge offers expansive views of the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay along seven different trails.”
My favorite path was the Bayview Butterfly Trail known for its Monarch Butterfly garden and complete with fields of black-eyed Susans stretching to the Bay. We saw more butterflies than I have seen on the butterfly bush in my yard, or at the Kent School Monarch Waystation, and the views of Baltimore and the Bay Bridge were stunning on the clear day of our visit. It was a small cottage near the garden, however, that drew our attention and caused us to want to learn more about the island’s history.
From signage in the refuge: In the 1950s a developer bought a large tract and subdivided it into 293 small lots for a housing development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to concerns over the development expressed by the local community, acquired the entire island between 1962 and 1967 to preserve its valuable wildlife habitat. The Cape Chester House was the only house ever built in the “Cape Chester” subdivision. I appreciate that the first house was also the last house, as it would be hard to imagine a large housing development on this unique waterfront parcel.
The property has a long and storied past dating to 1658 when Colonel Joseph Wickes, an early settler on Kent Island, and his partner Thomas Hynson, were granted tracts until they owned all of Eastern Neck Island by 1680. The foresight to preserve it, ultimately as a destination for waterfowl hunters, belongs to a group of investors who established the East Neck Rod and Gun Club in the early 1920s, which later became Cedar Point Farm in 1928 and finally the Cedar Point Club in 1934. In a coincidence that connects Kent School, I learned after my outing that Amos Waterfield, the great-grandfather of our Director of Development and Alumni Relations, Jen Anthony Matthews ‘01, was a renowned guide who significantly improved the hunting experience of members when he managed the club beginning in 1925. It was also members of the Cedar Point Club who, together with a group of like-minded New Yorkers, developed the initial plans for Ducks Unlimited.
Today, farming, fishing, hunting and bird watching still occur on the refuge, and all activity is meant to protect the natural resources and support the needs of the wildlife. Thankfully, this incredible ecological treasure in our backyard will continue to remain open to the public. On the day of my visit, the news was released that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hiring a new manager, after announcing earlier this summer that they lacked the funding. Thanks to the Friends of Eastern Neck for their efforts to keep access open to the refuge. Kent School sent a letter, as requested by this group, detailing what the refuge means to our students, and we were planning for a student letter-writing effort in September which, happily, will no longer be necessary.
I never really learned if East Neck or Eastern Neck are interchangeable, but exploring the island, with its beautiful quietness and its untouched vistas, made me think of these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Patience Taught by Nature:”
And still the generations of the birds sing through our sighing,
and the flocks and herds serenely live while we are keeping strife.
I cannot wait to go back at Thanksgiving time to observe the tundra swans.
Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.