NJ - Cape May to Tuckerton - 2006/07/10 to 2006/07/13

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The final leg of a multi year journey down the Susquehanna across the upper Chesapeake Bay and lower Delaware Bay to Tuckerton, N.J.

Of Green Heads and Mosquitoes

(Cape May to Tuckerton, July 2006)

Jay Mackley … J1

Grove Conrad … CC

Jay Doering … J2

I knew in my heart that it was going to be a great trip as we began to load the kayaks on top of the jeep in downtown Boekel’s Landing. J1 was resplendent in his baggy olive nylon shorts and faded red tee shirt. But the clincher was the amulet he appeared to be wearing around his neck. “Ahhh,” I thought, “probably a Native American artifact uncovered from the eroded shoreline on Lower Bear Island or maybe even a treasured trinket from the maritime tribes on the Northwest coast”. Giving a final tug on my Stark Moon tie downs and a good shake to both boats to check security, I turned to get a closer look at the charm which he was obviously trusting would assure swift passage. To my amusement it turned out to be a blob of fresh oatmeal which had earlier escaped his spoon but not made it all the way to the floor! “Oh well, we would have to execute the final leg of our three part journey without the aid of Native American wizardry.”

Originally we had planned a continuation of our 2002 paddle down the entire length of the Susquehanna (2002 Brule Descent) which would continue from our terminus at Havre De Grace and extend to Haven Beach New Jersey, site of the Doering Family compound; but that was before we obtained our beautiful new Impex sea kayaks and began to understand what we were really biting off. After three years of preparation, we took a truncated version of that pipe dream, an exciting paddle from Havre De Grace Maryland to Cape May New Jersey. (The Delaware and Beyond) But true to our practice of telling lots of people about our plans so that it would be too embarrassing not to follow through, we were now reputation bound to complete the odyssey up the Jersey coast. The whole plan took an interesting turn when through some now forgotten conversations it was agreed that J2’s brother-in-law, Grove Conrad of Lower Bank New Jersey would join the intrepid duo, sailing his vintage Sam Hunt sneakbox. One influencing factor for sure, was Nathaniel Bishop’s journal “Four Months in a Sneak-Box” describing his 1875 trip down the Ohio-Mississippi River. Our expanded fleet would be an unlikely mix of hunting watercraft but a very compatible gaggle of personalities.

Preparation for these trips had evolved from inadequate on the Susquehanna descent, to anal on the Delaware Bay portion, to routine on this final leg. Other than menu planning by J1, the cook, and some mulling over charts by J2, the navigator, the whole process for getting ready took place in a few hurried hours the day before departure. Communication with “Captain” Conrad (CC) was scant, limited principally to charging him with the responsibility for festivities to accompany our arrival, now planned for the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum, of which he is a director. This slight change in destination did not materially alter the challenge of the adventure and added a serendipitous twist of having begun and ended our cumulative experience at museums. This circumstance could be easily parlayed into a legitimizing factor for what could otherwise be misconstrued as 650 miles of masochism. Sort of like National Geographic dresses up photo-op journeys as scientific expeditions. It’s what men do to mask their madness.

A wholly unanticipated consequence of CC’s interactions with Tuckerton Seaport personnel was a conjuring by museum staff that a transit from Cape May to Tuckerton using one of South Jersey’s most beloved boats was sufficiently unique to warrant press coverage and perhaps raise the status of their own Captain Conrad to quasi folk hero. Such publicity could reflect well on their own enterprise and perhaps even loosen some donor purse strings along the way. Was this getting out of hand, or what?

Day One - Monday July 10th

The trip from Boekel Landing to Cape May was a great way to begin. It was Monday morning and there was something deliciously satisfying about riding through pleasantly rural south Jersey while so many others on the road were rushing to work. Being retired doesn’t give the Js and CC a free ride but it does give huge control over the schedule. Little did we know that a quote to that effect, provided to The Press of Atlantic City by the Captain himself, would follow us north along the Intracoastal Waterway!

Arrival at the Cape and connecting with the Conrads was relatively uneventful. The electric blue roof on the Cape May Nature Center had provided a suitable marker for the rendezvous. Much to his wife’s dismay, CC had already managed to single-handedly un-trailer his boat and manhandled it down a ramp to the rough looking beach of the Cape May anchorage. When Sam Hunt, a quintessential piney from Waretown NJ, built his sneakboxes, it’s obvious that weight was not a consideration; sturdiness was.

Greeting us, beside the captain and his wife, were two strangers who turned out to be a reporter and photographer from The Press of Atlantic City, the work of the museum PR person. They had already been working the Captain, the unanticipated star of Leg III.

Every naval hero is known for one quote given at a propitious moment. Farragut had his “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” John Paul Jones gave us, “I have not yet begun to fight” from the bloody deck of the sinking Bonhomme Richard. Now we have from the lips of Captain Conrad, immortalized by The Press of Atlantic City,

“Now I do what I damn well please, and this is something I damn well please to do” … “Well said Cap!!!!”

Three Amiigos

With pleasantries exchanged, a running conversation/interview ensued as the Js transferred boats and contents from car top to water’s edge. Again applying lessons learned from their recent travel from Havre De Grace, the kayaks were quickly readied. Meanwhile CC launched, stepped his mast, and unfurled its sprit (‘spreet’ in local parlance) rigged sail. Some photos by the wifely drivers and The Press photographer preceded an uneventful and unemotional departure at about 11am.

“Free at last” on the rippled surface of the backbay, a fresh south breeze filled the gleaming white sneakbox sail. With this pneumatic advantage, the Captain set the pace with the Js holding tight positions off his quarter, limbering up their own propulsion. Passing the Cape May Coast Guard station then changing course northward under the coastal highway bridge, we followed the channel markers which would be our primary guides for the next four days.
It takes an hour or two at the start of a lengthy paddle before the body comprehends what you intend to do to it, and by that time it’s too late to do anything about it! There seems to be a physiological process by which, when awakened to the reality of the impending ten hour paddle, the body rapidly numbs itself, falling into an autonomic routine not unlike breathing.

By noontime we were abreast Wildwood NJ. Fortunately the view was limited by our very low vantage point. With shore resort on our starboard and large tracts of marshland to port, we began a pattern of scenery that would be consistent for the next three days until well north of Atlantic City. It provided a contrast which mixed the social aspects of cruising with wilderness wanderlust, all at the shift of the glance. Boat traffic, as the Js had discovered on Leg II, was rarely a bother. Occasionally there would be the impatient power boater bedecked in gold chains and accompanied by bikini clad passengers, but the more common interaction was a smile and wave triggered by bemusement at the sight of our unlikely trio.

Before long hunger began to signal with familiar pangs and we sought some solid shore line in order to take nourishment. To the uninitiated, the Jersey shore excites thoughts of sandy beaches. But to those familiar with the bayside of that picture it is well known that firm footing on sand is a luxury rarely provided by Mother Nature. Our first attempt at landing placed us knee deep in muck which released an abundance of that hydrogen sulfide fragrance familiar to travelers to the shore as they cross the causeway into their resort of choice. It excites youthful passengers who squeal with delight since they know that the aroma of rotten eggs means they will soon be playing on the beach.

Our second attempt was more successful and in short order snacks were produced from the crowded hulls. We often took our nourishment standing and walking about to refresh leg muscles and joints which are bound motionless in the narrow confines of our kayaks as our upper bodies do the work of paddling. Captain Conrad had his own needs prompted by constant hunching to accommodate the sneakbox’s low boom.
While lunching in this manner, J2 had occasion to reach into one of his pants pockets, only to make a horrifying discovery … his car keys! Immediately his head filled with visions of his beloved wife Carol stranded in the parking area, now miles behind in Cape May, furious and considering a call to a lawyer, … or worse! What happened next only proves that there are guardian angels who watch over marriages. Grabbing the communications tool of choice when kayaking near civilization, he hesitantly dialed his wife’s cell phone number expecting the worst. The ethereal connection was quickly established and before greetings could be exchanged, the familiar sound of the ol’ Grand Cherokee purring down the highway was detectable … could she have??? … YES! She did ! … She had found the extra set of keys stashed in the glove compartment for just such an eventuality. And the bonus was that her attitude of obvious pride in working through the emergency had displaced the extreme anxiety which must have accompanied the initial discovery. Praise God!!!

Now certain that fortune was smiling on us, we relaunched for the afternoon’s excitement. As is normal along the Jersey shore, the summertime south wind had been building in intensity as the day wore on. Since our general heading was north, this was a boon to the kayakers and should have been a blessing to the sneakbox as well.
However, the good Captain’s sail maker had failed to include reef points or other means to shorten sail and as the late afternoon breeze built to a heavy wind, the force vector which drove the boat through the water also wanted to force the bow under. On other points of sailing this could easily be accommodated by carrying a luff, but our northerly course necessitated running before the wind, eliminating that option. Compounding this difficulty was a very low “moon” tide on Great Sound which restricted movement to within only the channel. Thusly constrained, Captain Conrad made the best of an ugly situation with a combination of maneuvers which basically set his craft adrift before the driving wind. While the wind should have given the sailboat a decided advantage, the reverse was true and soon the kayaks bounded ahead, surfing on small waves kicked up on a particularly long straight stretch of open water.

By the time the channel jogged eastward behind a marshy spit, the kayakers, momentarily finding themselves in sheltered waters, realized they had lost sight of their comrade. Ramming their bows into the soft sedge to anchor themselves, they began an anxious wait. Within minutes the tiny sail appeared on the horizon which is rarely more that a mile or two off from the lowly vantage point of a kayak.

Obviously the Captain was in trouble as he veered off course into the shallows on the east side of the small bay. Without hesitation, the Js swung their craft into the wind and began the hard struggle of working their way south in the teeth of the stiff breeze and accompanying chop. Within about twenty minutes they came alongside the sneakbox, able to lend extra hands freeing CC to modify his rig and shorten sail. Good seamanship paid off and again the trio was northbound finally arriving off Avalon where it was decided to spend the night. Pulling up to what appeared to only be a mud flat, J2 discovered a section of sand, or at least sandy mud, firm enough to pitch a tent and cook a meal, and as it turned out, just high enough to stay dry at high tide. It wasn’t the best campsite the Js had ever experienced, but aching muscles voted that it would suffice. After heaving the sneakbox up to the high water mark, the Captain tied off to the bank and began to make preparations to spend the night inside the hull after the fashion of Nathaniel Bishop. J1 fired up his culinary artwork and soon we were well fed and bedded down for the night.

Day Two – Tuesday July 11th

At dawn the incoming tide was sweeping the shoreline with clear, cool ocean water from Townsend inlet about one mile to the north. The movement of the water was sweeping fresh surface air along with it displacing the previous evening’s vapors which lay stagnant on the “moor” upon which we were encamped. The resultant atmosphere was energizing, canceling the residual effects of the previous day’s paddling and of a long night sleeping on the hard sand. Each day began with a hearty bowl of J1’s oatmeal laced with brown sugar and raisins to fuel the day’s activity. The other constancy was J2’s proclamation, like a whining Moslem call to prayer, “Everyone take your meds!”

Launching the kayaks over the edge of the slippery sedge bank was easier than anticipated but maneuvering Sam Hunt’s creation, left high and dry by the previous evening’s tide was a three man effort. Another launch lesson learned was the vulnerability of the Impex’s retractable skegwell to impaction with debris when dragged across the coarse mud/sand surface of the sedge. Within a quarter mile J2 had to pull out onto a conveniently vacant dock and dig out the concoction of mud, sand and grass so that the all important, albeit entirely nontraditional, adjustable skeg could perform its balancing function which aids significantly in maintaining a stable heading in varying wind conditions. The solution to this problem turned out to be quite simple … drag the boat backwards which results in lifting the stern. The skegwell is then clear of the surface.

Proceeding against the flow of tidal waters incoming through the inlet was easier than expected reflecting our refreshed condition. We deliberately tried to time open water passage past inlets to coincide with an incoming tide to avoid seaward currents which might exceed our steady state paddling speed of four miles per hour. The reason is obvious; this was an inland waterway trip and we had no desire to be swept out to sea.

Continuing up the coast, the Intracoastal Waterway passes through river like “thorofares” as much as through bays. At times those channels placed us in close proximity to high end water front homes, only rarely punctuated by “shacks” which spoke to the historic perspective that the bay front was a second class venue on a barrier island. It was relegated to the blue collar bayman who was willing to slog through stinky mud to wrest a living, and maybe even a little pleasure, from the backside of the costal estuary.

But now, of course, millions are spent on large “people boxes” perched beside equally expensive bulkheaded waterfronts which thrust stubby docks into the once fertile bayshore. Lining the docks are thousands of dollars of fiberglass icing which the uninitiated call boats but often bear more resemblance to an overgrown running shoes with pointed toes. Please forgive the acrimonious tone. As a boy J2 spent his summers at the Jersey shore and the raw bay front was a wondrous place of crabs and clams and fish and swimming and rowing and …. a thousand other boyish delights which could absorb a Summer day in the wink of an eye. Now, sadly, we were more likely to see an overweight prepubescent perched on a dock playing with his game-boy while his vitamin fed parents remained sequestered in their air-conditioned enclave equally absorbed before their TV. It breaks the heart!

But the circuitous waterway eventually rescued us from the backside of Sea Isle City scooting us once again into a virtual wilderness of salt water and sedge. (remember, wilderness is all about eye elevation and ours was very low) Several delicious hours were spent negotiating Ludlam Bay and Middle Thorofare, bypassing Corson Inlet and the adjacent towns of Whale Beach and Strathmore. A friendly encounter with a passing boater alerted us to the fact that we were suddenly famous. The brief interviews back at Cape May had matured into front page coverage on The Press of Atlantic City; and our fame would follow us through the end of our journey!

By now the tide was beginning to turn again, as it has for eons. The water which was so fresh on the incoming tide had now mingled with the back waters of the bay and the sun had nurtured the resultant broth into a rich brew of microscopic odiferous life which offends the cultured nostril but is probably the very basis of the food chain that makes preserving estuary ultimately important to mankind. By late morning the southerly winds kicked up in earnest and the good captain in his oversized pumpkin seed began to overtake his hard paddlin’ companions who were already thinking about lunch. As inevitable as “what goes up must come down” we were again drawn into civilization at the rear of Peck Beach. The area appeared to be the community planner’s answer to economic balance in contrast to neighboring high-end Ocean City. Passing under the tall bridge of the access road, the trio hooked around a small fishing peer and landed on the debris ridden mud beach. As J1 whipped up a tasty snack in other wise unappetizing surroundings, we watched with amusement as a car full of city dwellers, mostly kids, spilled out on to the “fishing peer” rapidly displacing the folks who had been tending their crab lines when we arrived. The new arrivals were absolutely full of excitement. Oblivious of social norms and with empty snack food bags flying in their wake, they charged off in all directions “discovering” every sea shell, blade of grass, piece of trash or any other object that caught their eye. Despite their despoiling carelessness, their energetic response to being “at the shore” was refreshing. In their own trashy way, they were totally in touch with their surroundings which resonated strongly with the Adventurers.

Moving on north we transited Peck Bay and threaded Beach Thorofare, eventually working our way up the Ocean City bay front. The narrow backbay channel gradually opened up into Great Egg Harbor Bay after passing under the aging 9th Street draw bridge. What happened next was an amazing display of just how ignorant people have become. As we began our crossing of the bay, we were surrounded by about a dozen jet skis driven by what appeared to be otherwise responsible citizens. I won’t dignify them with the term boaters; they had the mentality of lemmings, the boating ability of chimpanzees, and the courtesy of a nose picker standing before the Queen. They sped back and forth within a few yards of our boats kicking up wakes which washed our decks, often aiming at us then swerving to right or left at the last moment. As J2 emerged from this pack of idiots he next encountered a large sail boat that kept altering course to bear down on him. No amount of maneuvering could dissuade this sailor from maintaining a collision course. Alas, another mental midget let loose in the inland waterway. Having had his fun he at last turned to port to affect a near miss. As with the jet skiers, this mentally and socially challenged moron would not establish eye contact with the kayakers. So add cowardice to the list adjectives! What parts of the Jersey shore need is a category five hurricane to turn them into a wilderness again. Maybe Tiny Tim had it right about why the ice caps are melting!

Leaving this madness behind, the scattered trio regrouped in Broad Thorofare beside a huge mound of sand which was obviously a dredging spoils area. Actually it was quite attractive with steep vegetation covered slopes and a broad table top. After a brief exploration it would have been nominated as the location of camp #2 but for one ugly discovery; we had unwittingly stumbled on the Green Head capital of South Jersey. As the winged carnivores launched relentless suicide attacks, the weary travelers beat a swift retreat howling and slapping. Not even stopping at the beached boats, we lunged into the cool waters of the incoming tide from the nearby inlet. Even then, these satanic pests would circle over our submerged bodies apparently equipped with instinctive knowledge that these blood filled dinner bars would eventually resurface, gasping for air. In time, we had to bite the bullet and return to our boats and relaunch at the cost of numerous bloody wounds. As we moved out into the now swift tidal current, our satiated attackers remained behind, satisfied that they had successfully defended their home land and had taught these three interlopers an important lesson!

Continuing forward, we were now in earnest as we searched the endless mud flats for a small bit of sandy real-estate to call home for the night. Ol’ CC, drawing on his piney instincts, declared that Dune Island would provide the necessary refuge. Sheeting in his main for a nice broad reach as he swung east from Broad Thorofare into Risley Channel, the good captain charged ahead on a voyage of discovery leaving his wilting companions behind. Soon he was back with good news; a spot of high ground with the windward exposure necessary to ward off some of the more serious insect populations. Easing around the eastern point of Dune Island, the tiny fleet landed on a broad stretch of sandy beach, the work of tidal flows entering from Great Egg Harbor inlet. We collapsed on the sand deciding to wait for the rising tide to move us inland towards what would eventually be our waterfront campsite, still a good hundred feet away. To celebrate this wonderful discovery CC broke out a bottle of fine wine of which even the teetotaling J2 agreed to partake, for medicinal purposes only, of course.

Over the next hour the sun sank into the watery horizon without splash or hiss leaving behind a magnificent and peaceful red sky, to our sailor’s delight. The cool incoming tide inched our boats inland towards the fraction of an acre of elevated sand which we would be sharing with numerous shore birds perched in a hedge of bayberry bushes. While the captain pulled his evening’s quarters into the adjacent bull rushes, the Js erected their tents at what they estimated to be the high tide mark. Life was good as the lights of Margate and Longport began to blink on. J2 took the tide watch as J1 retired for a sonorous rest.

Pictures from night two, our best camp

Day Three – Wednesday July 12th

Dawn was busy as the shorebirds again made their noisy protest against our presence on this isolated bit of high ground. The Captain, all snug in his sneak-box, was the late riser providing the Js a photo op of his unique boudoir. Breakfast next and then pack and drag as we launched across the sand bar into the low but rising tide. With a favorable push from Great Egg Harbor inlet we continued our trek north looking forward to a day of diverse adventure. Long Port immediately gave way to Margate with its heavily populated bay front. The tide was still low enough that a hoped for short cut across a bend in the channel resulted in the grounding of our kayaks. Spurning the temptation, CC surged ahead despite the light breeze while the miscreant paddlers extracted themselves from the putrid pitch.

As Atlantic City reared her naked head above the busy foreground, the adventurers were faced with a decision; intimate exposure to the grand lady’s bay side via the West Canal, or a more leisurely bypass to the west, passing between Bader Field (the municipal airport) and the stunningly palatial Atlantic City High School. We chose the latter despite the requirement to un-step CC’s mast to get under the White Horse Pike causeway. That effort took only minutes as the little duck boat was designed with this activity in mind. Looking every bit the waterman that his ancestry dictated, Captain Conrad rowed with salty dignity beneath the highway, re-rigged, and sailed on.

The inland waterway, however, wouldn’t compromise its mission to draw these wary seaman into the embrace of the Queen City of the Sea and we soon were passing through the shadow of Caesar’s Palace on the bay. Whether it was the heat of the day or the Siren’s evil spell we’ll never know but the Captain began to formulate a plan to rob a nearby liquor store and use the proceeds to purchase a cold soda in the adjacent, air conditioned MacDonald’s. It wasn’t the perfect crime but strangely, it had uncharacteristic appeal to the kayakers. Fortunately we were all awakened to reality by the un-opened Amtrak bridge which halted our progress. As CC dialed the posted 800 number to request the barrier be swung aside, the pilot of a nearby repair craft looked down from the wheel house and boomed,

“Hey, ain’t you the guys in yesterday’s paper?” … “Here y’are, right here on the front page” he added with a grin, waving a hand full of news print.

“Hah! I knew I’d get to see yoos sooner or later! Yoos had to pass me!… By the way, they ain’t going to open that bridge for ya. There’s train due across it any minute now.”

Climbing up onto a work barge the Captain again made us proud with his South Jersey seamanship. The historic little craft was quickly de-masted and rowed to the other side. No sooner had the stick been reinserted than a train load of destitute gamblers rolled out of the station and across the bridge, a sad sight indeed!

Passing under the Black Horse Pike, we faced a modern day Don Quioti-ish scene of four huge windmills powering the equally outsized Atlantic City sewer plant. The narrow channel kept us mercifully upwind as we passed just beneath the great “swishing” blades. Continuing north through Beach Thorofare the waterway eventually widened into the inshore reaches of Absecon Inlet which bore the threatening name “Mankiller Bay”. Timing forced us to violate the “incoming tide rule” for passing inlets but apparently we were far enough to the west to avoid the “strong currents” noted on the chart.

Early afternoon was spent in a hard slog through several more colorfully named bodies of water; Gull Island Thorofare, Reed Bay, and Meadow Cut, all part of the historic Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a 3000 mile long string of natural and man made channels stretching from Boston to Key West. The fascinating piecemeal history of the transportation route dates back to the 18th century. In New Jersey it consists primarily of a hundred plus miles of naturally occurring channels kept navigable by periodic dredging in some sections. The well marked channel connects Cape May Canal to the south with Manasquan Inlet to the north. We were exploring about two thirds of this Jersey portion.

As we moved well to the west and north of the town of Brigantine, the “civilization” of Atlantic City et al faded, and opening before us was a pure gem of wilderness miraculously preserved in the very center of the New Jersey coastline. Perhaps as much as 10 miles of uninhabited ocean front including the treacherous Little Egg and Beach Haven inlets defining the north-south dimension, and stretches of very lightly populated marshland up to five mile inland provide its depth. That yields upwards of 50 square miles of empty to sparsely populated natural wonderland consisting of marshland and shallow water, punctuated by wild inlets and the deeper, ocean like, Great Bay. This would become our play ground for the balance of the beautiful afternoon. Loosing ourselves in Brigantine Channel and Little Mud Thorofare, we attempted to reach the wildest spot of all, Little Beach, virtually untouched by permanent human endeavors. But clearly it wasn’t to be, as an exceptionally low moon tide and strong currents rendered even the kayaks useless. Fate dictated that we were to keep our measly foot prints off the sand spit of our desire. We beat a hard fought retreat across Little Bay with a now heavy southwest wind on our beam. Instead of a wilderness beach camp for the night we were forced back into the refuge of the mosquito infested marsh. The sun was getting low as we rounded the north end of Shad Island and paddled hard, fighting a heavy headwind to reach the entrance to Perch Cove which held some promise of high ground. We weren’t disappointed as we landed on a clam shell strewn beach and discovered that the scrubby trees we had seen from a distance did, in fact, signal a salt hay meadow, perfect for a camp. Mean while the good captain was experiencing great difficulty with the shoals, currents and strong winds adjacent to Shad Island. But always true to his bayman character, he tapped a reserve of power which carried him through the struggle and eventually he was able to beach his craft in a small cove not far from the paddlers.

Storm clouds were gathering as we set up our tents and gobbled a quick dinner. Soon there was light rain and flashing lightening bolts reminding us that while our nylon tents were great for shedding precipitation, the aluminum support poles proclaimed our conductive presence on the broad unprotected plain of the marsh. Fear was averted by rapidly falling into a deep slumber and missing the entire meteorological event. Not even proximity to the home of the Jersey Devil at Leed’s Point could stimulate consciousness!

Day Four – Thursday July 13th

Awakening on the final day of an adventure is always a bittersweet moment. The realization that this very day there will be reunion with the dear wife and opportunity to tell and retell tales of hilarity and daring-do is certainly sweet promise. On the other hand a new love affair has begun with a far country that despite mosquito, sunburn, and greenhead fly has produced a heroin like grip on the psyche. Emerging from the temporary womb of the nylon shelter and inhaling the morning air only tightens the invisible bond. Fortunately a quick glance at one’s disheveled traveling companions shatters the reverie as reality trumps fantasy. … I need a shower and today’s the day … whoopee!!!

Even the Captain was up early and busying himself as we broke camp and prepared for our largest open water challenge of the trip, a four mile crossing of Great Bay. Not that the paddlers hadn’t encountered challenges of this magnitude on the Delaware Bay leg of their journeys, but excitement always surfaces at the anticipation of a new adventure. Launching on the incoming tide, the trio made a final pass at Shad Island and entered Main Marsh Thorofare. As was normal at this hour of the morning we allowed breathing room as we fanned out across the water’s surface. One of the keys to equanimity on sojourns which otherwise require a large measure of interdependence, is a rhythm of separation for mental health interspersed with the times of intimate teamwork required for success. While enjoying one of these quite moments, the paddler’s private thoughts were shattered by a commotion some distance to the west and slightly astern.

“Hey yoos, could yoos tell me how yoos gets to New Yawk!!!”

The voice was the Captain’s but the grating accent wasn’t. A quick glance over the left shoulder unraveled the mystery as the sneakbox pulled along side a waterman’s garvey anchored in the shallows. Obviously CC had encountered one of his clammer friends and was having a little fun at his expense. The brief encounter ended with the gift of several dozen cherry stones heaped on the deck of the duck boat. A day earlier and we would have turned them into a clambake in authentic surroundings!

The atmosphere changed as we moved into the open waters of Great Bay. The light easterly breeze carried an elixir of salt air from the inlet awakening the senses. It also transported morning mist. We fruitlessly sought a landmark on the shrouded far shore several miles to the north. Even the old retired “fish factory”, where tons of mossbunker were once ground into fertilizer, played peek-a-boo with the fog. Not that there was any concern about missing the other side of the bay and winding up in the inlet; that would have required concerted stupidity. But our destination point was the featureless mouth of Big Creek marked only by a lone stake. To miss it would mean precious minutes lost paddling the shore line looking for the break in the marsh. For the past four days, time had meant nothing; but today there would be a pick-up. Kayaks mounted atop our transport vehicle and equipment along with weary travelers piled into the interior. The appointment had been made for 1:00pm and J2’s wife was one lady you didn’t want to stand up. And there was more than just transportation, too. The triumphant travelers expected a timely welcoming celebration as they made their way to the very head end of Tuckerton Creek, location of the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum. Time was once again a factor in our lives.

Lacking a landmark, J2 the navigator lifted a compass heading off the chart and we set off on the crossing. Towards mid-bay the swell increased sufficiently to cause water to occasionally sweep the deck and give our spray skirts a good soaking. It was exhilarating. We also began to pick up visual cues from the shoreline. While our marker was not yet in sight, we could make out the old brick smoke stack of the power house which once supplied a gigantic transatlantic radio tower. It dates back to the beginning of the last century and the very dawn of radio communications. The facility fell into disuse after WWII and the 820 foot tower was “dropped” in the mid fifties. Taking bearings on the stack we worked our way northeast and finally identified the mouth of the tidal creek which would carry us across the base of Sheepshead Peninsula and into Little Egg Harbor Bay. As we entered the creek the water flattened out and paddling speed increased. However, the serpentine path through the broad marsh was very difficult for the sneakbox requiring much tacking in the narrow channel. Normally getting separated is not a problem but oddly, in this case, the Js were more familiar with this Jersey waterway than the Captain due to an abortive attempt at salt water cruising in their sea kayaking infancy. That exercise ended with snow and a heavy wind in this very same creek. So with confidence the Js navigated the twists and turns avoiding the dead end paths. Not so, unfortunately, with the Captain who continued up the creek missing the turn off on Big Thorofare. After about a half hour of separation J2 retraced his steps and eventually ran down CC. Together once again and lesson learned! Never leave a party member behind in uncertain waters!

Back and forth across the marshlands (leaving one wondering why these tidal creeks aren’t a little straighter) we were soon out on Little Egg Harbor Bay. Standing in the lee of the peninsula, it was smooth sailing to the welcoming mouth of Tuckerton Creek. Now time was pressing hard on us. To make the deadline J2 pushed ahead up the creek while J1 paddled a more leisurely pace to enjoy the beautiful cedar creek scenery. Meanwhile reality settled in on the Captain who manned the oars as the breeze altogether disappeared behind the thick cedars. Moving at top speed pausing only to check his watch, J2 hammered up the creek determined to make the appointed time, more as a matter of pride than anything else. As the digits were showing 12:59 and 45 seconds he rounded the last turn catching his first glimpse of the welcoming party. There on the museum dock stood Mrs. J2 and Captain Conrad’s wife waving miniature American flags and beating out John Philip Sousa on kazoos. It brought tears to his eyes to see such a display of familial loyalty. Drawing on his last reserves to cross the creek, J2 reached the dock making contact with his paddle exactly as the digits of his salt encrusted watch hit the 00 mark, precisely on time! Still strapped in and unable to exit to collect the bussing so well earned, the exhausted vanguard paddled to the floating dock provided for exiting small boats. As he lifted his tired arms to pry himself loose from the kayak he noticed that his watch had given up the ghost, the face now blank. It had yielded up the last full measure, but not before fulfilling its mission!

Freed at last from his maritime home, J2 made his way to the welcoming party collecting his just reward. It was then his pleasure to welcome J1 whom he treated to a frosty mug of Stewarts root beer across the street from the museum. WOW! … A half hour later we greeted the Captain himself, rowing purposefully up Tuckerton Creek with the dignity of the triumphant hero he is! Avoiding the press of reporters, the paddlers did a quick and unceremonious change of clothes and took a sink bath in the men’s room before the party assembled in the museum restaurant for a delicious dinner of celebration, graciously provided at no cost by the proprietors. For the Captain it was a triumph of true baymanship; and for the Js, the end of their Voyage of Exploration beginning at the James Fennimore Cooper museum at Cooperstown in upstate New York, and ending at the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum in south Jersey. A feat perhaps unparalleled in human history!

“Now I do what I damn well please, and this is something I damn well please to do”

Grove Conrad, 2006




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