The Nature Center at Martinak State Park
By John Ohler
Just east of the town of Denton in rural Caroline County, Martinak State Park sits quietly nestled along the banks of the Choptank River. Designated a state park in 1964, the bulk of this 107-acre park was donated to the state by George Martinak, a retired government printer, World War I veteran and camping enthusiast.
In the late 1920s, Martinak bought the land as a private hunting and fishing camp, later donating it for preservation as a recreational facility and a natural area for the enjoyment of all. The park supports a wide variety of plant and animal life, and boasts 63 improved campsites, several picnic shelters and great fishing and boating opportunities.
In the last few years, Martinak State Park has benefited from a series of facility upgrades and more are scheduled for the near future. Two playgrounds, camper cabins and improvements to the Watt’s Creek Amphitheater beckon new visitors. Within the next year, additional trails and walkways will be completed along with improvements to the restrooms and camping facilities. This quiet park has been home to a loyal “family” of campers, many who have been patrons for over 25 years.
A very popular activity is the Annual Fall Fest, where families make scarecrows, decorate pumpkins, and take turns helping to shell corn or stir a 30-gallon kettle of homemade apple butter. In December, Santa’s Magic Workshop draws residents from all over the mid-Shore region to the park to enjoy a light display, train gardens, crafts and a visit with Santa.
Martinak was one of the first Maryland state parks to be designated a Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network site. Coordinated by the National Park Service, Gateways is a system of over 120 parks, wildlife refuges, museums, historic communities and trails around the Bay watershed through which one can experience and learn about the Chesapeake. Along with the Gateways designation came the opportunity to apply for federal funding for interpretive displays and improvements to the park’s Nature Center.
Martinak’s Nature Center was created in the late 1970s when park staff enclosed a portion of a large pavilion. The building was improved over the years as the staff collected an interesting array of display materials, tables and AV equipment, many which were hand-me-downs from other parks and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) facilities.
With financial support from the Friends of Martinak State Park, Inc., the park was able to begin a complete renovation and enlargement of the Nature Center during the fall of 2002. Staff installed new flooring, ceiling, lighting, windows and doors to enhance the interior, and cedar siding was installed on the exterior to give the building a rustic, natural feel. In addition, the Friends group donated new tables, chairs and additional equipment allowing the main room to be used for meetings, classes and training sessions.
The Nature Center’s interpretive displays are interesting and informative. A striking mural painted by local artist Kurt Plinke features commonly found flora and fauna, including a nearly life-sized great blue heron and bald eagle. Other displays highlight the Delmarva Peninsula’s Native Indian population, including a collection of artifacts found in the area by retired park ranger Joe Reinhardt. A large picture window offers a tremendous view of a bird and butterfly garden being developed with the assistance of a local Girl Scout troop, local school students, and volunteer master gardener. The Center’s children’s corner includes a library with books, games and hands-on displays.
The main feature of the Nature Center is an 800-gallon aquarium containing a variety of species from the Choptank River and nearby Watt’s Creek, including largemouth bass, channel catfish, white and yellow perch, chain pickerel, darters and striped bass.
Just a few steps beyond the Nature Center, visitors can ponder over the remains of an old historic vessel which are housed in an open air pavilion. Originally pulled from Watts Creek when the boat ramp was improved, the vessel remains are now on permanent display. Expert opinions vary, but most agree the vessel is a Pungy, a two-masted schooner that was at one time a common workboat of the Chesapeake Region.
The Nature Center is open on weekends during the summer as well as selected days during the spring and fall. DNR’s popular Park Pals (for 4 to 6-year-olds) and Junior Rangers (for 7 to 14-year-olds) programs use the Nature Center as a base to learn about and explore a variety of outdoor topics. The staff of Martinak State Park invites you to visit this quiet gem on the Eastern Shore.