ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Phil Miller will never forget the day he kayaked the Nanticoke River and a bald eagle swept in and plucked a fish from the water.
"It was so cool," he said. "It was right next to me."
Miller, an Annapolis resident who works for Delaware's Watershed Assessment Section, said he is "all about the Chesapeake Bay" and the Nanticoke River is one of his favorite places to explore.
"It's one of the most pristine rivers I've ever had the opportunity to paddle," he said.
Now, you can experience the Nanticoke and two other major tributaries of Chesapeake Bay without ever getting wet.
The Chesapeake Conservancy just launched a virtual tour of the Nanticoke River -- just in time for armchair kayak season. The new release allows users to travel the 64 navigable miles from the upper reaches in Delaware to Tangier Sound in Maryland. For some, it will be a tool for planning future real-time trips to explore the river and for others a chance to check out Delaware's largest drainage basin.
The Nanticoke tour is the third to be launched in this region. There are also virtual tours of the James and Susquenhanna rivers.
The tours work on computers, smartphones and tablets and give armchair adventurers detailed looks at both sides of each of the rivers. In addition, they are interactive.
"The Nanticoke remains one of the most diverse and intact watersheds in the Chesapeake Bay region. This is one of the few places you can go to see the world as Captain John Smith and the American Indians saw it 400 years ago," said Joel Dunn, Chesapeake Conservancy president and chief executive offier. "Through this project, the Chesapeake Conservancy is working to connect people and the wildlife and habitats of the Nanticoke. We hope the virtual tour will inspire people to get out and see the beauty of the Nanticoke firsthand and foster a sense of stewardship to ensure the protection of this national treasure."
The Nanticoke watershed includes 530,000 acres. It flows through wooded areas like parts of Redden State Forest in Delaware and habitats that include ancient, inland forests where there are rare sand ridges called xeric dunes. The soils are sandy and look more like what you would find along the Atlantic Ocean coast, but the areas are wooded and are home to globally rare plants such as Harper's beakrush, Parker's pipewort and box huckleberry, as well as unique plant communities including Atlantic white cedar nontidal wetlands. The river meanders through woods, wetlands and through Seaford; Woodland Ferry; and Vienna, Md. Then it widens and eventually flows into Tangier Sound.
The virtual trip includes geographic locators and the ability to look for recreational areas along the river.
The mapping was done by the Richmond, Virginia, company Terrain360.
The conservancy and Terrain360 used a one-of-a-kind boat equipped with six cameras. The cameras were mounted 10 feet above the water and captured 360-degree images every 50 feet, said Andy Thompson, a partner with Terrain360. Computer software was used to stitch the images together to create the virtual tour.
Thompson said they started their business virtual trips to land-based trails and then, working with the James River Association, did their first virtual river mapping project.
"We try to stay as close to the shoreline as possible," he said.
The Nanticoke, in many areas is so wide, there's no point in going down the center, he said.
Thompson's business partner, Ryan Abrahamsen created the boat that they used for the river mapping project.
"It's a lot of fun," he said, of the river mapping projects.
Each of the three rivers are very different, Thompson said.
"The Nanticoke is so much more pristine," he said. "It's tidal, and there are eagles everywhere. On the Susquehanna, you can go right by Three Mile Island (where there was a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor in 1979) if you want to."
For state Environmental Secretary David Small, the project lets people experience the Nanticoke from their living room or in classrooms "in an incredibly unique, engaging way. While there is no substitute for experiencing this great river firsthand, the virtual tool is the next best thing for users who want to plan a trip or just explore all or part of this historical and natural treasure in a matter of minutes."
Thompson said the virtual tours are valuable tools for people who want to explore the Chesapeake.
"The virtual tour allows users to plan their trip in advance," Thompson said. "The tour will make the Nanticoke River more accessible by limiting the number of unknown factors. People want to know where they can put their kayaks in and where they can take them out. With this tool, they will know what to expect because they have already seen it."
(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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