100 Shores: A Sense Of Scope (Part 1): Lancaster, PA to Cape Henry, Virginia

In all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

~ Carl Sagan

The scale of this project has really gripped me lately. Maybe 100 shores of the St. Mary’s River would have been an easier place to start. Thinking optimistically though, the project has taken 100 Shores to 4 different states already (I’m just going to call D.C. a state… again, thinking optimistically), and over 30 new shorelines. And while there’s an admitted backlog of stories to be told and likely still uncovered/ missed at certain shores, there’s also plenty of distance in between where I haven’t reached yet.

But there’s this issue of scale that I’m constantly trying to bring to terms. How do you connect the groundwater streams of the Susquehanna with the open water of Coastal Virginia? It’s a question I was turning over in my brain as I thought back to Lancaster, Pa while standing at Cape Henry, Va.

I spent some time in Lancaster in the very early spring, mainly visiting some spots on the Conestoga River. One of those spots was Historic Rockford, a historic home of minor interest to Revolutionary War enthusiasts. What interested me though were the remains of an old spring house. As its name suggested, it fed a small stream the length of a few hundred yards down into the Conestoga River proper. From there, the Conestoga would carve northwest and southwest for another 15 miles or so to the Susquehanna, and another 40 miles in a much straighter line southeast to the mouth of the Susquehanna in Havre de Grace. Saying a good deal of water has traveled that trip over- at least- the past 200 years is an understatement. Here's where I run into the trouble of comprehending the scale. This is before considering the remainder of the journey south to Cape Henry.

The original remains of a spring house from 1794 are interesting enough from a historical theme (some early American revolutionaries drank from there, to be sure), and the fact that the spring still supplies fresh water to the river shed also tells an interesting tidbit about time and geology. But the spot had been admittedly backburnered in my mind as 100 Shores has pushed on. So now it had suddenly popped into my mind on the wide open shore of Coastal Virginia? Is there a connection between Cape Henry and Lancaster? Is there really? How does the label of Chesapeake Watershed really unite these places?

It was explained to me once that water isn’t just trying to go down, it’s trying to reach the core. It’ll fall into a hole just like we will. So while the rivers and streams were carved to bring water to rest, the oceans and sea level off Cape Charles aren’t really the end goal. They’re just the holding tanks for an unfathomable amount of potential energy to start descending again.

But the water also is at the mercy of another unstoppable force. A force that draws it up. The evaporative cooling effect which the sun provides acts on the watershed in direct opposition to the force of gravity. A heavenly draw and a subterranean pull? Is the water aware of the voices on its two hydrogen shoulders? Hard brake. Of course not. There's no elemental allegory drawing water in opposite directions but it is interesting when you think about it. Sorry Carl Sagan, please don’t haunt me for my blaspheming.

Where the Earth opens up, water rushes in. As little as a scoop of sand on the beach to be filled by the next wave on the shore. As much water flows in as the opening could possibly hold. Nowadays we dredge the channels to allow us access. And of course we dug the canals to shorten our journeys. Barring our influence though, it happens over time.

Over time, the ancient alchemical elements of earth and water bend and meld into a watershed. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, the alchemy left us the Chesapeake. Why the rivers cut sinuous paths which are anything but the shortest distance between two points is a best guess for me. I don’t know any geologists, hydrologists, or really any ists (a couple art-ists). But from what I’ve researched, the natural course a river takes is sometimes dependent on and sometimes not dependent on the surrounding landscape. Looking at the Chesapeake, that’s not hard to imagine. Of course, in the case of the Chesapeake, there’s the elemental forces of outer space to consider as well.

If it weren’t for a 3 mile wide meteor striking the coast off of the Eastern Shore of North America 35 million years ago, I’d probably not be standing on the shore of Cape Henry. I probably wouldn’t be standing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania six weeks earlier either, and it’s entirely possible I probably wouldn’t be standing anywhere for that matter (maybe teetering on some sort of squid appendages?).

It’s on the one hand bizarre, but on the other hand so, so simple to think that the same force which drew a meteor into a collision course with Earth is the same force that carved a path from Lancaster, Pennsylvania down to Cape Henry, Virginia. And the same constant which drew one down 35 million years ago is the same constant that’s been drawing water down from that spring house for the past 225 years. But that’s gravity, and that’s in essence what a watershed trickles down to. A dense mass of earth with a gravitational force, pulling an endless cycle of water inward.

In a very real sense, the water is just biding its time, keeping itself busy in an endless loop of evaporation and condensation. In a sense, there’s a bit of jockeying for position which takes place at the molecular level as well. If the end goal is to reach the core, then it stands to reason (does any of this?) that the deeper the water is, the closer to reaching their goal those molecules are. Being stuck on the surface is like an inevitable slide in a game of chutes and ladders, albeit in reverse. I wonder if you need to spend a few go rounds in the water cycle before you’re allowed to descend in rank.

According to the USGS, the majority of the water that evaporates over the ocean eventually falls back into the ocean. The majority of the water which evaporates off of major watersheds does the same. So maybe the connection between points on the watershed isn’t just a southbound slide from Lancaster (or further north, even) to Cape Henry. Perhaps the water flowing by is thinking to itself "this seems familiar..." A certain snowman once said water has memory… I wonder how much of the water in the Chesapeake watershed has made a home here to stay.