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Exploring the Chesapeake Bay

Exploring the Chesapeake Bay


4.5 credits, English 181A, GH and US

Learn and earn credits as you explore the outdoors!  This program combines classroom study of the history, ecology, and culture significance of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed (including central Pennsylvania) with outdoor experiences that will supplement and enhance work in the classroom.  The coursework will be devoted to reading accounts of the Chesapeake dating from the seventeenth century, popular treatments of Bay history by writers like James Michener; nature writing by Rachel Carson, Tom Horton, and William Warner; and considerations of the Bay by novelists and poets, like Gilbert Byron and Christopher Tilghman.

Field trips usually include several canoe trips on the Susquehanna River and its West Branch to explore and understand the river’s importance to the culture and ecological health of the Chesapeake; and a long weekend on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the class will sail on classic Chesapeake Bay workboats, sample local cuisine, and attend a concert of local folk music.  All activities are conducted on weekends during the fall semester, usually when there aren’t home football games scheduled.  As a student in this program, you will become both intellectually and physically familiar with the Chesapeake and in the watershed.


Class meets each Wednesday of the semester from 6:00 to 8:00.

Canoe Trip 1:  Paddle the main stem of the Susquehanna River with the Susquehanna Watershed Education Program of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Late September:  Weekend of sailing and Bay Studies at Echo Hill Outdoor School in Worton, Maryland.

Canoe Trip 2:  Paddle on the lower Susquehanna River and explore ancient Native American rock art with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and rock art expert, Paul Nevin.

Canoe Trip 3:  Paddle the West Branch of the Susquehanna near State College.

Although the assignments and readings change every year, this sample schedule is intended to give you a sense of the types of reading and other work required in the course.

Sailing the Chesapeake: Cultural and Natural Landscapes (ENGL 181A)

“Heaven and Earth never agreed to frame a better place for man’s habitation.”
Captain John Smith, True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia (1608)

“If these biology fellers are right, there’s a lot to learn about an arster.”
John Larrimore, Skipjack Captain for Forty Years

“Sailing the Chesapeake” is a course that aims to introduce you to the ecology and culture of a distinctive geographical region through study of the history, natural history, and literature of that place. The central assumption of the course is that experience is essential to the study of place and art and ideas. The course includes a number of “experiences” that enhance the academic study of the Chesapeake and its watershed, from a canoe trip on the West Branch of the Susquehanna; a trip, guided by Chesapeake Bay Foundation naturalists, on the Main Stem of the Susquehanna, at Harrisburg; and a long weekend of Bay Studies at Echo Hill Outdoor School, on the Bay near Chestertown, Maryland, including sailing on a historic skipjack on the Chester River, Bay Studies in a historic Bay workboat, and sampling of local cuisine, music, and folklore. There is also a day of education and service — a bank planting on the tributary of the Susquehanna in Lancaster County. These experiences will inform our reading, which will range from John Smith’s own account of his 1608 exploration of the region, to a novel by “the Thoreau of the Chesapeake,” Gilbert Byron, to recent poetry, fiction, and essays about the Bay and/or its watershed. The overall effect should be a broadening and deepening of your understanding of the Chesapeake region, and what I hope will be an unforgettable experience.


  • Gilbert Byron. The Lord’s Oysters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
  • Richard Harwood, ed. Talking Tidewater: Writers on the Chesapeake. Chestertown, MD: Literary House Press, 1996.
  • James Michener. Chesapeake: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2003.
  • John R. Wennersten. The Chesapeake: An Environmental History. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2001.
  • Optional Book: Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson. Life in the Chesapeake Bay: An Illustrated Guide to the Fishes, Invertebrates, Plants, Birds, and Other Animals of Bays and Inlets from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. Fourth Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. (Any edition of the book will be fine.) This is an excellent illustrated field guide to the estuary.


3: Introduction to the course


10: Jack Brubaker, “Harrisburg: Water Gaps,” “Harrisburg: Renewal,” “Harrisburg: Ice,” “Harrisburg: Drought,” pp. 140–156 in Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake (Packet); Susan Q. Stranahan, “Geology,” pp. 7–37 in Susquehanna: River of Dreams (Packet)

13: Float Trip on the Main Stem of the Susquehanna at Harrisburg with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

17: James Michener, “Voyage Seven: 1811,” pp. 405–413 in Chesapeake: A Novel; Film:Expedition Susquehanna (2007)

19: Jack Brubaker, “Long Reach River,” pp. 79–117 in Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake (Packet), Susan Q. Stranahan, “Logging” pp. 75–115 and “The River and the Bay,” pp. 279–301; response paper one due in class

23–26: Trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore (leave late Thursday afternoon and return Sunday evening)



1: William Warner, “The Bay,” pp. 3–12 in Beautiful Swimmers: Waterman, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (Packet); Andrew McCown, “Of Crabs and Chicken-neckers, Bare Feet and Hurricanes, Out-of-Town Newspapers and Mister Fishnocks,” pp. 25–32 in Here on the Chester: Washington College Remembers Old Chestertown (Packet); Robert Day, “The Statue Man,” and “The Linguist,” pp. 80–91 and pp. 102–108 in Talking Tidewater; Tom Horton, “Thoreau Times Forty,” pp. 172–177 in Bay Country: Reflections on the Chesapeake; and Tom Horton, “The Last Skipjacks,” pp. 139–153 in Talking Tidewater

8: James Michener, “Voyage Eleven: 1886,” and “The Watermen,” pp. 640–709 in Chesapeake: A Novel; response paper two due in class

15: Gilbert Byron, The Lord’s Oysters, pp. 1–156

16: Canoe trip on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, Rolling Stone to Karthaus (all day)

22: Gilbert Byron, The Lord’s Oysters, pp. 157–330; response paper three due in class


29: John Smith, A Map of Virginia (1612) at, pp. 75–99 and pp. 141–151, the latter from “Proceedings of the English Colony”; James Michener, “Voyage Two: 1608,” pp. 44–56 in Chesapeake: A Novel; John R. Wennersten, The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography, pp. 3–37


5: John R. Wennersten, The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography, pp. 38–139


12: Tom Horton, “Short Important Trips of Oysters,” pp. 52–59 in Bay Country (Packet); Tom Horton, “Killing Geese,” pp. 71–79 and John Barth, “Goose Art,” pp. 59–71 and Bill Gifford, “Modern Man” pp. 171–186 in Talking Tidewater

13: Service Trip with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: Bank planting along a tributary of the Susquehanna River

19: William Warner, “Beautiful Swimmer,” and “Lester Lee and the Chicken Neckers,” pp. 90–119 and pp. 145–184 in Beautiful Swimmers (Packet)

21: No Classes — Thanksgiving Holiday (until November 23)



3: Wennersten, “Is the Chesapeake Dying?” pp. 177–215 in The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography; Tom Horton “The Bay Connects Us, They Bay Reflects Us,” and “State of the Bay” pp. 3–42 in Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay, Revised and Expanded Edition (Packet)

10: David Finkel, “Bay Blues,” pp. 154–170 in Talking Tidewater; Tom Horton, “Saving the Bay, pp. 197–209 in Bay Country (Packet); course evaluations

Fees and Registration

The class fee for this course is $340. The student portion of the class fee covers transportation to and from all field trips, admission to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and room and board at Echo Hill Outdoor School. The students will be responsible for their own lunches on some canoe trips. You should register early, since the course fills up quickly.

For full-time Penn State students (with 12 or more credits)
Upon your acceptance, this course will be added to your semester schedule. No additional tuition payment is required. Your class fee will be charged to your student account.

For non-full-time students (part-time students or non–Penn State students)
You will receive a bill for payment, which includes tuition — based on your residence and semester status — and the information technology, activity, and class fees.

How to Register

Current students must register on LionPath. Enrollment is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.


Because of the nature of this program and the commitment we make to it, the registration deadline is September 3, or when the course fills. After this date, please call Wanda Bickle at 814-863-6780 for information about late-registration opportunities, if applicable. If space permits, you may be able to register for an additional $30.

Penn State Cancellations or Changes

You will be notified of any cancellations or changes. If some unforeseen event forces Penn State to cancel or postpone the program, you will receive a full refund of your registration fee; however, the University cannot be held responsible for any related costs, including cancellation fees assessed by airlines or travel agencies.


A maximum class size is established for most courses. The University may cancel or postpone any course because of insufficient enrollment or unforeseen circumstances. Visit for the refund policy for credit courses.


The University reserves the right to revise the schedule of tuition and charges without further notice. For more information on tuition, visit


Penn State encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs. If you anticipate needing special accommodations or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact the planner at 814-863-5144 before your participation.