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Middlesex High School students recently explored the Rappahannock River with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This trip was funded by the Urbanna Oyster Festival Marine Science Legacy Program. Above, from left, are Lily Crown, Clayton Hogge, Nila Robinson, Jack Bayard, and Jordan Walton aboard the deadrise “Bea Hayman Clark.” (Photo by John Porter)

by Kim Olsen and Bethany Smith, Urbanna Marine Science Legacy Program Coordinators

It’s a spectacular place to live, Middlesex County.

“I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.” Annie Dillard, a Virginian, penned these words. Our place is a land cut by creeks and bordered by the Rappahannock with miles of shoreline. For many, it is the water that brought us here, and the water that continues to keep us here.

The Urbanna Oyster Festival is truly a celebration of this place. It is a weekend of homecoming and of sharing our place with others. It’s a time to enjoy the salty goodness of all things oyster—raw, fried, roasted or Rockefeller.

And it is a time to learn. Yes, learn. Learn about the history, ecology and opportunity offered by our place and the waters that provide us with recreation, and for many, a livelihood.

While the Oyster Festival is still a few weeks off, the Marine Science Legacy Program (MSLP), the branch of the Oyster Festival Foundation charged with providing educational opportunities and resources for local students and the general public, kicked off its educational offerings on October 8 with Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat trips aboard the deadrise “Bea Hayman Clark.” These trips serve local 4th grade, 7th grade, and high school students. They run for two weeks from Urbanna Town Marina and provide local students the chance to explore marine and environmental science on the river that borders many of their homes.

The MSLP also organizes Oyster Festival Education Day on November 1, the day before Oyster Festival opens to the public. On that Thursday morning, more than 250 local students and teachers will gather at the Urbanna waterfront for hands-on mini-lessons that focus on local history, ecology, fisheries and restoration efforts. Volunteers from local businesses, schools, local and state government organizations, and educational and environmental non-profit groups provide these educational activities.

This year, the MSLP has an exciting lineup of featured exhibits including the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s “Godspeed,” the Colonial Seaport Foundation, and the Northern Neck Chantey Singers.

The Godspeed, a replica of one of the three ships that brought English colonists to Virginia in 1607, will be docked at the Urbanna Town Marina. Costumed historical interpreters aboard Godspeed will show students what life was like for colonists making the historic voyage.

The Colonial Seaport Foundation will re-create historic Port Urbanna, complete with costumed interpreters and buildings. Students will be able to step back in time and experience Port Urbanna as the bustling trade center it once was. They may even get a chance to speak to a dock worker or customs agent roaming the waterfront.

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers will join Education Day for a second year to teach the traditions of the songs of working watermen.

The fun does not end after Education Day. Many Education Day exhibitors stay for the weekend and new ones arrive as well. The remainder of this year’s waterfront exhibitors will include Oyster Company of Virginia/Oysters for Life, Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company, Ready Reef Inc., Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Virginia Coastal Zone Management, Tidewater Soil and Water Conservation District, Friends of the Rappahannock, Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Middlesex Elementary School, Christchurch School, Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Shores & Ruark/Middlesex Museum, Yorktown Watermen’s Museum/Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail, The Mariner’s Museum, Deltaville Maritime Museum’s “F.D. Crockett,” Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 62, Seaworthy Small Ships, and “Propwash.“

The Godspeed, F.D. Crockett, and Propwash will be open for tours on Friday and Saturday and there will be music on the waterfront deck as well.

Special programs for Education Day and the festival, including Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat trips, are funded this year by a Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund “License Plate” grant. Thanks also to Oyster Company of Virginia/Oysters for Life, our waterfront sponsor, and to Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company, Adirondack Guide Boats and Christchurch School, our Education Day sponsors. These sponsors help to provide tents, lunches for volunteers and fund other needs associated with the waterfront education exhibits.

The public also can help support the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund by purchasing “Friend of the Chesapeake” license plates.

In our first year as co-coordinators of the Marine Science Legacy Program, both of us have learned even more about how truly special this place is. Both of us are educators and “come-heres,” Kim in 1998 to work at Christchurch School’s Summer Marine Science Camp, and Bethany in 2005 to attend graduate school at Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Whether you’re a “come-here,” “been-here,” or “from here,” it doesn’t take long for you to realize the important place oysters hold in Chesapeake Bay. What once was a thriving estuary filled with crystal clear water and a bottom caked with oysters is now an ailing body of water, overloaded with nutrients and an oyster population struggling to survive overfishing, sedimentation and disease. Yet most of us tend to see the bay’s potential. Together as citizens, watermen and scientists we grapple with these problems and look for solutions. It is the next generation of scientists, watermen, and citizens that the Marine Science Legacy Program seeks to inspire. We strive to provide opportunities for students and festival visitors to truly learn about “their place” so they can become knowledgeable residents and advocates for the preservation of their land, water and fisheries.

So, we invite you, your family and your friends to visit us at the waterfront this year where you will find an array of historic vessels and educational presentations about the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay, with focus on the past, present and bright future. And, of course, there will be oysters. 

posted 10.18.2012

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