Updated: Mar 17, 2022
If you know Elms Beach, you know there’s kinda sorta two Elms that people know. In fact you can really think of it two sides front and back, and also two side to side. But if you don’t know, understand first that Elms is most definitely a little gem of a beach on the Chesapeake- and it’s a bit of a hidden gem in fact. There’s about a half mile of accessible sandy beach, and the sandbars extend WAY out into the bay- further than you think you should be able to safely go. The beach does get a bit clogged up with seaweed, bay grass and algae which gives it that unmistakable smell of saltwater combined with organic matter. And of course the nearby marshland makes it prime territory for horseflies and skeeters in the summer. But if you want to find yourself on the Chesapeake AND away from other people, Elms Beach is hard to beat.
Elms is this long and narrow stretch of beach (the east side), but it’s also about 1000 acres of wetlands inland of the shore ( west siiiide). And it’s also a pond (or two) that once separated the north and south ends in a Meatballs-esque summer camp setting. That’s my Elms. I started on the north side of the pond in the early ‘90s at the Elms Environmental Center summer camp. I ended on the south side of the pond- as a camp counselor at FUN CAMP.
At the time, that pond was ~200 yards of neutral territory which both camps used for canoe adventures. Everyone who goes to public school in St. Mary’s County goes through The Elms Environmental Center on the north side, and it’s been like that for a long time. For years, 4th graders would make the trek (hundreds of miles, at least) from the main building out to Biscoe pond, which was the final destination for kids eager (or terrified) to learn paddling basics in a tipsy canoe. They also ran a nature camp during the summer, alongside the fun camp which Parks and Recreation ran on the other side of the pond. And that’s where I found myself in the early 90’s in between weeks of soccer camps and vacations.
Our little band of outdoor adventurers would hike to Biscoe Pond most mornings. We’d bring minnow nets, pH testing kits, buckets, binoculars (and bifocals), magnifying glasses, wading boots, etc. All the trappings. Maybe even a seine net if we were stopping at the actual beach. We’d stop periodically to catch bugs, draw water samples, or look at cattails before we reached the canoe launch. There was even an ancient elm tree, I think about 100 miles in, with a little camp circle carved out around it. Once we reached the pond, we’d strap on our oversize orange type 2 pfd, and we’d stare across the pond towards the dock on the other side. At the FUN CAMP.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved our little environmental camp. Looking back, the camp was more impressionable on me than soccer camp, lacrosse team or any other recreational activity I was a part of in my youth. But from where we stood, fun camp looked and sounded like every summer camp movie you’ve ever seen. Running and screaming. Super Soakers. Music. And so many kids. Most days it sounded like there was too much madness to even think about stopping to go canoeing, and in fact they weren’t on the water nearly as much as we were (point for science camp). When they were though, we kept our distance for obvious reasons.
In the back of our minds, I think we all pictured some sort of epic collision of Waterworld canoe battles and Meatballs camp olympics, presided over by Kevin Costner and Bill Murray. Those are the kinds of things you think of when you’re 9. I know I did, at least. I did my first water quality tests on the Elms ponds. I can still remember the pH spectrum we’d put our water samples in to compare with. And I remember that sedges have edges and rushes are round. And a few other things, of course. But as I transitioned out of camper age into camp counselor age, I also transitioned across the pond.
From the other side of the pond I became a canoe instructor, and taught canoe lessons/ excursions to the younger kids for many summers. Eventually the environmental center stopped the trek to the pond. My guess it was just too far, and two many souls were lost in the woods. So it became just us on the pond at fun camp. There’s a narrow channel that bent from the pond into the bay, and when I was young that channel was usually clogged up or at most a trickle. But by the end of High School and into college (and today), the channel had widened and the water mixes pretty freely. We bravely ventured out from the pond into the Bay proper on a few occasions. My J-stroke was perfect, so we weren't worried.
I spent the better part of a decade’s worth of summers on both sides of Elms, on the water and in it, as well as all through the woods and marshes that connected it all. The thorns were everywhere, and the bugs. Most days I came home covered in scratches and bites (or staples in my head on one occasion). In fact, the other counselors had a motto for me: “It’s not a good day if Eric’s not bleeding.”
Eventually, I moved on from Elms, but it’s a place with a lot of significance for me personally. It’s probably one of the reasons I still prefer the gentle meander of a canoe to a kayak. So when I went back for a sample for 100 Shores, there were spots on both sides of the pond I wanted to hit. The “hike” I remembered to the pond from the environmental center once felt like miles of rugged terrain through swamps and across bridges. In reality, the path couldn’t have been more than ½ mile, and most of the paths have been reclaimed at this point. Likewise for the canoe launch that used to exist on the environmental side of Biscoe Pond. The entire area had been reclaimed by phragmites, but I was able to locates a small beam which I think must have been a boundary of sorts for the canoe launch. I was also able to find my way to the long bridge that existed in my memory. Again finding what was left of it.
I ended up drawing water from two locations at Elms, both from the pond where the old bridge was and the canoe pond. I also snapped what might be favorite photo I've ever taken. I might have to go back again, just for the enjoyment of it all. My memory is a little foggy, but I might still have the key to the gate somewhere… allegedly.