Cruising the Land of
”The Last Chapter”
The Last Hoorah?
64 miles on the Chesapeake Bay, August 15th to 17th, 2017,
Reflecting on the prophecy that launched this adventure into the “Land of Pleasant Living”, recorded in the opening lines of their 2015 journal;
The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.
… the disaster which befell Jonah on his sea adventure bypassed J1 (Jay Mackley) & J2 (Jay Doering), aka, the Adventure Duo as they put the wrap on their personal exploration of the eastern reaches of the Chesapeake from North East Maryland to Cape Charles. Was it skill, luck, or the much more likely protection afforded by the ardent prayers of Mrs. J2 which follow her hubby’s escapades? Perhaps we only learn the answer to that question following our final “Crossing the Bar” … but by then, interest may have dwindled.
In any event, the bay continued to supply ample excitement and challenge. This year, for the first time, August was the month of choice and the logic was simple, get ahead of prime hurricane season which is always a source uncertainty for the nautical adventure bound on the mid-Atlantic coast. Well, chalk that decision up to “the best laid plans of mice and men”. A week before embarking the Hurricane Pro app noted a new “invest” off the coast of Puerto Rico which seemed quite stationary and harmless. As launch day approached, however, this tropical depression began to exhibit life following a forecasted off-shore path and gathering a little strength. By launch day, Tuesday the 15th, “Gert” became a hurricane. While it was sufficiently distant to pose no immediate threat, it was close enough to thoroughly ‘mess’ with the local weather between Crisfield Maryland and Cape Charles, the mouth of the bay. An earlier decision to reverse course and adopt a northerly track to gain the advantage of the prevailing summer ‘southerlies’ remained the plan but all bets were off on the previous week’s forecast. What was served up was typical hurricane influence; stiflingly warm tropical air pushed ahead of the storm, a short period of weather violence followed by strong northwesterly winds (read “head wind”) for one day prior to returning to the local patterns but with a higher probability of thunderstorms as Mother Nature’s mega-dehumidifier restored equilibrium … all in the space of the three days it took the Duo to hammer out their last 64 miles of Chesapeake Bay. But no complaints, for by now the weather moto, “It is what it is”, had become the Duo’s response to fickle forecasts.
Then the other differentiator this year was the shear distance from home which impacts the transportation end of logistics. Only slightly shorter than their 2009 start of the Erie Canal transit which had required Mrs. J2 to ferry kayaks and paddlers to the Niagara River, this year’s transportation required creativity to attract the necessary talent, ie, driver. While it is always possible to do a two car ‘park, travel, park again, paddle, retrieve’ this tedious approach has proven inefficient for long hauls since an extra night’s lodging ($$$) is required, not to mention the typical fatigue that embraces these septuagenarians following days on the water. The solution came in the person of Ted Tenney, a friend of J2’s who not only had extensive experience as a part-time limousine driver, but is also a career law enforcement professional which equates to great stories to keep conversation lively, easing the pain on miserably boring stretches US 13 down the Delmarva peninsula!
Day 0 (Monday August 14th, 2017)
Rendezvous between the Js was executed in Crisfield shortly after noon with J1 one arriving a few minutes off schedule having visited the Harriet Tubman museum and the Vienna Heritage Museum Shell button display in route. He gave the former a very high rating. Parking @ $15/week and a landing spot was secured at the Somers Cove Marina. Gear was transferred to the J2/Ted vehicle and the trio then headed south to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. With the decision to work northward from Cape Charles came the necessity to find an appropriate launch point at that location. Kiptopeke State Park answered the need. It’s situated about half way between Cape Charles and the town by the same name, or about three miles north of the Bridge - Tunnel. Ted and the Duo investigated the park the evening prior to embarkation and found excellent provisions for packing and launching. What J2 failed to notice in his single minded focus on the impending adventure was the unusual nature of the park itself. As they exited, a stop was made at the park store to obtain ‘stickers’, a J1 passion recently adopted by J2 after sufficient ‘shaming’ that his kayak failed muster as a true long distance craft! While there, a couple of free information cards were slid into the bag with the stickers for later consumption.
When the cards were read, J2 realized that he was closing a lifelong loop on a childhood adventure when his dad took him on the Cape Charles Ferry which launched from … you guessed it, what is now Kiptopeke Park. It was then that the light bulb turned on in his dull mind; the concrete freighters scuttled to form a breakwater in front of the park’s ‘fishing pier’ were all part of the former ferry operation which ended in 1964 with the opening of the Bridge - Tunnel. It was on that ride so many decades ago that J2 learned from his dad about the WWII LSTs that had been purchased and converted to the vessels that comprised much of the ferry fleet. When the Cape Charles service was discontinued these ferries subsequently found a new home with the Cape May – Lewis ferry … all facts confirmed on one of those freebee handouts.
Reasonably priced lodging had been secured at the Holiday Inn Express thirty miles north in Exmore VA so all that was left to finish the day was good seafood which was secured at the “Great Machipongo Clam Shack”, a very nondescript eatery deserving of its ‘shack’ moniker. The fare was passable but not to write home about.
Day 1 (Tuesday August 15th, 2017)
Holiday Inn Express hotels are J2’s favorite for business travel with a contributing factor being the ‘included’ breakfast buffet. HIX did not disappoint, supplying the Duo with necessary paddling calories and Ted with the caffeine he would need for the lack luster return home.
After exchanging friendly greetings with the park ranger manning the gate at Kiptopeke and paying the $5 launch fee, the kayaks were quickly loaded and shortly before 8am the adventure was commenced.
First order of business before clocking off mileage was to explore the concrete ships comprising the breakwater … who could resist that !
As it turned out, all the WWII concrete supply ships, a total of 24, operated by the Army (go figure), were built by a Philadelphia contractor quite familiar to J2. Oddly enough, these ships earned high praise for their operation in the South Pacific. None were lost.
Upon close inspection, to call them ‘concrete’ was a little bit of a misnomer as the amount of steel rebar they contained surely contributed substantially to their strength and weight. In stark contrast to these hulks seven large oil tankers and one lighter under tow dotted the horizon as they sat ‘underway with no way on’ awaiting a berth or pilot or experiencing some other maritime delay.
The inspection tour lasted only a few minutes then the serious business of ticking off north bound mileage was commenced. Per plan, there was a favorable, though gentle, southeasterly breeze providing a barely discernable assist to the paddlers. J1 estimated a wind speed of 3mph because he knew that was their paddling speed at the time and with it there was no discernable air movement. As cell phone service was rapidly lost, the Js were ignorant of the fact that Gert had now earned hurricane status and had moved quickly into a position where it could seriously disrupt the previously fair forecast that had allowed them a good night’s rest the prior evening.
They weren’t without clues however as the atmosphere was exceptionally ‘tropical’ and even in late morning thunderheads were building. Fortunately, their day 1 course had them ‘hand railing’ the Virginia coast with no significant ‘crossings’ so they were prepared to paddle for shore if/when those tall cumulus clouds began to collapse overhead squeezing out buckets of rain and accompanying lightning bolts.
Their caution paid off by early afternoon. Unlike the previous year when they had been caught in mid-crossing of Kedges Straight by a thunder squall, they made for the beach when it was obvious that they were about to receive a ‘whooping’, pulled the kayaks well clear of the water, then nestled in against the bulkhead protecting the property of an unaware Virginia home owner. By doing so they were hoping to be less of a target for lightning. The storm was indeed nasty but like most summer squalls, played itself out in about an hour permitting a resumption of the trek north.
The Virginia shore line and adjacent waters were not without points of interest. Some of the new experiences were undoubtedly attributable to the proximity of Atlantic at the bay’s wide mouth just a few miles to the south.
The first item of interest which had not been seen further north was abundant pound nets. J2 was familiar with these open water traps from his youth on the Jersey coast where Norwegian speaking fishermen braved the ocean surf in a large open boat every morning to dip their quarry from a ‘pound’ erected a quarter mile or so at sea. After making routine repairs to their nets they returned, riding a wave into the beach. An ancient ‘bulldozer’ supplied pulling power and the fishermen manhandled the planks and log rollers necessary to position their boat ‘high & dry’. Then more fun followed for this youngster and his friends as they watched these old salts sort their catch, throwing unwanted varieties over the side on to the beach and tossing the edible varieties into well used, oil stained baskets for transport another few hundred yards to their open market shed on the island’s main thoroughfare. In retrospect these hardy individuals would never have survived OSHA, EPA, USDA, and probably PETA … but for a kid, it was daily entertainment par excellence. The Js were treated to no such show but they were able to inspect several pounds up close which was an education in itself.
The other fascination on day 1 was the abundant porpoise, aka dolphin, population. First spotted in the distance by J1 who has an astute eye for wild life, these frisky critters entertained for several long minutes, but that was just the preview for a surprise show the next day.
Having weathered one squall and a precautionary stop for a second, the Js fell behind schedule and a couple of nautical miles short of the day 1 distance goal. Not to worry though for there was a precautionary extra day thrown into the itinerary.
Camp that night on Old Town Neck was on a narrow stretch of sandy beach which, while not posted, appeared to belong to a home a good fifty yards back into adjacent woods, arguably out of sight and displaying no human activity. While google earth had revealed much sandy beach along the Virginia coast, what was not as discernable due to the abundant tree cover were the accompanying homes. But as is their custom, the Js unashamedly stealth camped and left no trace when they departed in the early morning.
Day 2 (Wednesday August 16th, 2017)
Not only was the objective of an August choice foiled by Gert, but a huge downside of this summer month was overlooked even though it had always been a consideration for choosing late September, early October dates previously … insect population. Virginia may be for lovers, but in August they best confine their amorous pursuits to indoors. No-see-ums, greenhead flies, black flies, and mosquitos dominated. The night before it drove the Duo to their tents in broad daylight after slapping their way through dinner. Now, as they arose, the onslaught began afresh, but just as they were seriously considering forgoing breakfast, the wind did an about face to the northwest and in moments the critters were gone. … That was the good news. The bad news is obvious, a head wind; and not the fresh, pleasantly in your face, cool down variety, rather this was a heavy, ‘the hurricane has passed’ type of wind. So extra oatmeal fuel was consumed, camping gear stowed and a launch made into several hours of aerobic exercise. Initially a crossing had to be accomplished giving full exposure to the seas that probably had a hundred miles of fetch to build to maturity.
Fortunately, the Chesapeake had conditioned the mariners to this kind of welcome over the past couple of years and the 3 to 4 foot waves on the port bow only caused slower headway. At the conclusion of the crossing, perhaps an hour into the morning track, the wave action seemed to moderate despite the continuing strength of the wind. What was happening was that the long, faded green fingers displayed on the chart paralleling the coast at a distance of a few hundred yards, turned out to be a line of shallow sandbars, which except for the crossings of river and creek mouths where tidal flow cut through, were almost continuous. While typically submerged, the bar caused the lager swell to break moderating its size and significantly easing paddling. Pondering this, the Js recalled the chronic erosion of sand beaches they had witnessed further north in the bay and they speculated that these long bars had formed as displaced sand moved south. It appeared as though the coastal residents were only now learning to cope with these obstructions to navigation when heading off shore. One fisherman was actually observed exiting his craft when he reached the bar and pulling it across!
Of course, the battle resumed during each of the crossings of the many tributaries dotting the coastline. During one of these crossings the surprise dolphin show took place. J2 had the lead by a couple hundred feet when ‘Flipper’ arched out of the water a dozen yards or so in front of him. Then his buddies showed up and the whole pod swam in a tight circle for a minute, spouting, playing, and nodding their heads. Two broke away from the dance and swam directly between the Js. It was a breath taking performance. While this was the most impressive wildlife sighting of the trip, it was certainly not the only one. Eagles, osprey, brown pelicans plus a variety of marine life including rays rounded out the wildlife bill.
The noon meal was another of J1’s artistic creations. Throughout their adventuring career he has not only displayed great cookery, but also a fussiness about having an adventure kitchen that is just so! Prior to breaking out stove and pots, there is always the search for the right counter top. Since granite doesn’t float he rarely achieves top end but neither does he settle for second rate. This day was no exception and an errant piece of floating dock filled the bill. And then there is obvious fact that the culinary arts require a substantial expenditure of energy making additional rest an important necessity!
By early afternoon the northwest wind began to moderate and work its way toward the southeast again, typical in hurricane passage. While the paddlers were thankful for the respite, they were also painfully aware that the shift would signal the return of the winged demons to torment at that evening’s campsite.
The late afternoon paddling was under near perfect conditions and while day 2’s mileage goals were met, the morning’s head wind prevented full recovery of the most optimistic schedule. So an alternate camp site was selected on a picturesque but tiny island about a mile off the coast. As feared, insects ruled! The location did offer excellent opportunity to swim/bathe in cooler clearer water than the more stationary waters behind the sand bars. Refreshed, the Duo then lathered themselves in DEET which proved moderately effective in warding off all but the most voracious bugs.
While their location appeared remote, the Js were surprised to have intermittent phone service permitting texts to the wives to assure them that all was well. It also facilitated J2, the navigator, to obtain a weather forecast and what he saw was disturbing. It’s always weather that adds drama to kayak adventures! The next day was to start out with a gentle south easterly breeze which would slowly work around to southwest and strengthen considerably by mid-afternoon. Then the following day was forecast to have thunderstorms all day. Gert was giving the Duo her last kick as the atmosphere struggled to return to normal. Overlaying that forecast with the planned track was the problem. Three long crossings remained with no opportunity for handrailing the coastline without a major increase in mileage. And even if that option was exercised, there was no assurance that appropriate protection from lightning would be found.
That conjunction of weather and track left only one option and that was to accomplish all three crossings the next day with minimal rest periods between. And to compound the hardship, the final five mile crossing would be about broadside to the strong southwest wind which would be kicking up impressive waves. With that on their minds, and with bodies dripping with DEET, the Js retired to their tents. Mrs. J2’s return text, “sweet dreams”, was going to be a stretch.
Day 3 (Thursday August 17th, 2017)
As with all nights spent in the outdoors by older men, the ‘day’ begins sometime after midnight answering nature’s call. On this island camp, comfortably remote from the civilized shore line, these periodic relief missions were not without the ancillary enchantment afforded by night time sights and sounds, in this case, a brilliant night sky. Ursa Major was surprisingly low on the horizon but the pointers were still visible leading the eye directly to the Pole Star, the mariner’s friend. The short string of stars circling south forming the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) were visible, a good indication of atmospheric clarity and low levels of ‘light pollution’. But the crown jewel this evening was a very visible Milky Way.
With the approach of dawn, the wind was already lively out of the south, a sure sign that regional factors are trumping local weather patterns, probably the residual effects of Gert. J1 never fails when it comes to fueling the kayaker’s engine so a double portion of oatmeal was served up knowing that an arduous day lay ahead. Underway by 7am, the first crossing, 6 miles, was attacked following a compass heading until the low lying Beach Island peninsula could be seen. A couple of navigation aids along the way indicated that the track was correct although by this time the reference charts used to develop the ‘ten mile’ trip ticket format favored by the Duo were proving seriously out of date or otherwise inaccurate. But despite the distance and lack of reliable fixes, arrival was spot on at the intended destination.
A short morning break was taken knocking down some snack food followed by relaunch into Pocomoke Sound to execute the longest ‘off shore’ crossing the Duo had ever attempted, 8 miles. The track was far enough off shore that the Virginia coast was barely visible. Again the occasional sighting of a navigation aid served to assure that the magnetic heading being followed was leading to the destination, Long Point. The two and a half hours it took to make the trip seemed interminable since there was no capability to mark progress other than the passage of time, and this seemed only to multiply the rapidly mounting fatigue. An early afternoon landing was finally accomplished. J2 immediately went to work with compass and chart in hand to double and triple check the magnetic headings and, in this case the visible destination landmarks. The target on this final crossing was the opening to a channel passing through the peninsula lying to the south of the Crisfield harbor entrance. On the chart it appeared an easy entry to identify as it was approached due to an abundance of channel markers. Reality was quite different.
With the help of a careless local crabber, J1 whipped up a noon meal designed to fuel the last crossing, and had circumstances permitted the traditional afternoon nap, digestion would have begun and blood sugar ramped up. However, that was not to be, and perhaps all for the better. Since the sand spit offered up no shade the Js cozied up to their respective kayaks to gain the advantage of the developing afternoon shadow, but what they got instead were persistent green head flies so hungry for a blood meal that they shrugged off the DEET and went immediately on the attack. The hapless humans had no recourse but to take to the water and flee. As it turned out those flies were a blessing, for only a few hundred yards off the beach, paddling conditions were rapidly deteriorating in response to the steadily increasing southwest wind producing large breaking waves challenging the success of the crossing … and success was the only reasonable option!
As the crossing progressed the seas mounted with larger breaking waves arriving intermittently in sets of three with the curl impacting the kayaks slightly abaft the port bow and driving them north of track. Most effort was being expended to keep the boats upright so forward progress was slow. By the time the eastern shore of the peninsula was gained, the channel entrance was well to the south and the markers barely visible. Options were limited as there were no beaches for landing, only low walls of sedge against which the heavy seas were crashing, occasionally sending impressive fountains of foam skyward. The formula for success was now expanded to include a mile plus of paddling into the teeth of the sou’wester to gain the channel entrance. Fatigue and pain made up the opposite side of the equation, … BUT by now the overriding factor trumping all misery and risk was the smell of the barn.
With an additional half hour of jaw clenching effort the channel was entered and soon the water surface calmed, which combined with pleasant salt marsh surroundings, provided the therapy necessary to achieve a right frame of mind for a ‘triumphant paddle’ into the entrance of the Somers Cove marina and a 7pm arrival at the “Dingy Dock”. Soon the metropolis of Crisfield (it used to be a sleepy crabbing town until the invasion of the ‘condos’) was in sight and the Duo could begin to unwind
The one last hurdle to overcome in reaching shore and declaring victory was exiting the kayaks to a dock surface that was just a little bit too high, with arms reduced to jelly, and knees which were locked. Only with the most amateurish contortions were dry exits achieved.
Thus ended the transit of the Chesapeake by the intrepid Duo of J1 & J2 !!!
“Luckily all along the Shores were indentations affording good Shelter from the prevailing South West winds, & it was a Godsend to us that the Conformation of the Land was such that the coves were so numerous & so well protected”
From The Private Journal of William Reynolds, United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
Throughout this trip the Duo could be heard repeating “time is running out”. What was that all about? After all, their heroine, Freya Hoffmeister the continent circling German ‘superwoman’ presently kayaking around North America after completing Australia and South America, has adopted the moto “Never stop starting, never start stopping”. Well that’s Freya who appears to have an endless supply of chutzpah but at age 53 is 5 years younger than the Js were when they began kayak adventuring. That inauspicious beginning in 2002 was their “Brule’ Descent”, a 444 mile, 11 day top to bottom transit of the Susquehanna River in 13 foot plastic boats fueled by peanut butter and canned tuna fish, drinking filtered river water and sleeping under a blue plastic construction tarp. While they realize they are in an entirely different league than Freya, one thing is held in common … mortality. Having exceeded their “three score and ten” allotment and now in the ten year grace period, with joints and muscles showing the wear and tear of active lives, they ask, “So what’s next?” The outdoors still beckon and adventure still excites and anything approaching “starting to stop” feels like surrender. Perhaps the answer will be found in gentler venues, less risk tolerance with weather, and more user friendly equipment ………….. but whatever the change, the call must be answered until the largest of life’s adventures trumps all. Stay tuned