Educator teaches teachers about Bay
ON THE RAPPAHANNOCK—Bill Portlock has spent most of his life on the water and marshes of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
So he was right at home on a recent sweltering weekday afternoon aboard the Bea Hayman Clark, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s research boat, with a cargo of eager teachers aboard.
Portlock, 64, clad in shorts, a CBF shirt, cap and boots and sporting an ever-present beard, is the organization’s senior educator and founder of the Teachers on the Bay program, in its 25th year.
The 50-foot vessel, piloted by Jimmy Sollner, left the pier at Wheatland Plantation in Essex County on the Rappahannock a few hours earlier on the second day of a weeklong, in-the-field seminar for educators.
The 16 teachers—15 from Virginia schools and one from Washington, D.C.—got a close-up look at river ecology, conservation issues, history and wildlife. For some, it was their first time on the river.
Sharing such information with teachers, Portlock says, is a conduit to students—the future stewards of a still-polluted bay, which is the focus of a massive and urgent state and federal cleanup campaign.
“If you can have students see the environment as something they can identify with, that’s important,” he added, as Sollner eased the craft along a vast expanse of marsh miles below Port Royal in Caroline County.
Portlock said, “My fear is—and I’m a father—that we’re developing a generation that has never experienced the bay” in its bygone, most bountiful years.
Capt. John Smith, the English explorer, in 1608 reported “a very goodly bay” teeming with fish, oysters, crabs and birds.
“You work with teachers here, and each teacher reaches 200 students,” Portlock said, with an impact far beyond one summer session.
The class actually began before the boat left the landing, with Portlock guiding the teachers along the sandy beach to explore.
At one point, he pointed out stems of knee-high sedge.
“See, it has a triangle stem,” he said, as his group reached down for a touch. And remember, he continued, “sedges have edges.”
Moments later, a shrill bird call pierced the solitude from a tree along the bank.
Everyone glanced at Portlock, who identified the flycatcher by its call.
“It sounds like, ‘fee-bee and fee-be-be,’” he said.
“It’s not just a week of fun and games. It’s serious environmental education and professional development,” said Chuck Epes, spokesman for CBF’s Richmond office.
“Bill has been the real shepherd and guiding force behind this course, and you see how he relates to teachers, so they can convey it to the students.” The course has been used as a model for similar ones across the bay watershed.
Born in Norfolk, Portlock attended Tidewater schools, then Old Dominion University. After graduation, he took a job as naturalist at Westmoreland State Park, then joined CBF in 1981 as field director, with a focus on bay education. Married with two grown children, he’s lived in the Caroline County community of Sparta for 30 years.
He began the Teachers on the Bay program in 1988. His multi-day courses have received state and national awards, including, in 2005, the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education by the Virginia Museum of Natural history, in association with the Smithsonian Institution.
“He’s forever learning,” said Sollner, who’s known Portlock for 13 years.
Portlock got hooked on wildlife and conservation early on, he said, relating a story from a colleague who knew Portlock in college.
Along with school, Portlock worked at the Portsmouth zoo, which had a sickly alligator.
“Bill took him on as a pet and a personal project,” taking the reptile home to live in a swimming pool, Sollner said smiling.
‘WHAT IS IT?’
Portlock was drawn toward a career in conservation, along the way acquiring an abiding passion for birds and photography. Portlock’s photos appear in CBF publications and other wildlife journals.
“When we’re on trips and we see or hear a bird, everybody looks at Bill, like, ‘What is it?’,” Sollner said.
For 26 years, Portlock has conducted a one-day winter bald eagle survey on a 35-mile stretch of the Rappahannock, from just above Port Royal to Tappahannock. Those surveys, and others by the College of William & Mary Center for Conservation Biology, have shown that swath of the river to be a “sweet spot” for eagles during the late winter nesting season.
“Bill is one of the most approachable professionals you’ll ever meet,” said Beth Renalds,cq 50, a teacher for 20 years at an independent school in Fairfax County and a mentor–instructor for Teachers on the Bay for six years.
“No question is too small or minor. He will answer it as if it’s the first time he’s heard it.”
Sometimes, Renalds said, “he’ll get teachers who think they know more” about the bay subject matter. “He’ll let them talk, and maybe drop in an idea or two, without putting them down.”
Portlock figures as many as 5,000 teachers have been through CBF education programs during his tenure.
“They learn how to engage their students in active, outdoor learning, using local examples,” he said.
On the recent boat outing, the teachers spotted eagles and osprey, watched a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ crew electroshock fish, took water-quality samples and worked out some lesson plans to use when they return to school.
After two days on the Rappahannock, the group left for three days on Great Fox Island in the bay.
Portlock teaches four summer courses, including the Teachers on the Bay session, and leads professional development programs and graduate classes for teachers and school administrators in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Christine Robinson, 44, who teachers environmental justice courses at James Madison University, has taken three of Portlock’s classes, and is enrolled for a fourth later this summer that will lead to her Virginia environmental education certification.
“I think he’s a legend, and also a hero of the Chesapeake Bay,” she said. “He knows more about the natural systems than anyone I’ve met in my entire life.”
And, “He absolutely loves it, and you can’t help but take hold of that. That’s what you want to share with your own students.”
Portlock says the course is not just for science teachers.
“It’s about environmental literacy and education and involves many disciplines: how humans live on the Earth, and how big our footprint is” on places like the bay and the Rappahannock.
He’s done his share of conservation lobbying, connecting with donors and other nonprofit groups and governmental agencies, and was appointed to the Virginia Environmental Education Commission.
He had a hip replacement two years ago, and has had to defer some of the lifting duties to others.
Through the years, he has kept a leather-bound journal during his classes and on his travels.
The Rappahannock, he notes, “has the same [water clarity] and remoteness” and relatively little development over a quarter-century of observations.
Over that time, he says, blue catfish, a ravenous introduced species, and bald eagle numbers have increased dramatically.
He says he’s optimistic about the bay’s prospects, despite its ongoing pollution problems.
“In my career, I’ve seen oysters decline seriously,” along with water quality. “I think the optimism comes in seeing that the public seems to be willing to look at ways to improve things.”
An ironic twist “is that the bay is still pretty,” leading some to the false impression that everything’s OK.
“Once people realize it could be clear as John Smith saw it—that’s what I’d like to see.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Teachers on the Bay is one component of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Chesapeake Classrooms program for educators. For more information, visit: cbf.org/join-us/education-program/professional-development/summer-courses
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1967 and soon settled on two major areas of focus: environmental education and resource protection, with land conservation as an integral part. Headquartered in Annapolis, Md., CBF has two offices in Maryland, two in Virginia and one each in Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.