MD - Western Shore Middle Chesapeake - 2016/06/27 to 2016/06/29
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The J's do another in their series of trips by paddling down the Chesapeake Bay from the top.
Adventure on the Chesapeake – Part II
June 27 – 29, 2016
J2 & J1
Chesapeake 2016 - June 28&29Preface
Jimmy and Raybo were animated in their conversation. They are ALWAYS animated in their conversation, particularly when the subject turns to hunting or fishing, and then especially if the topic has nostalgic threads. In this case J2 of the Adventure Duo, J1&J2, who is cousin to these iconic Baltimore brothers, was sharing some experiences from his previous year’s kayak adventure1 on the Chesapeake Bay. On the final day of that epic paddle the Js had a chance encounter with Buddy Harrison, the Tilghman Island ambassador and owner of the Harrison House. The Js had lodged there for the night as they contemplated the forecast of small craft warnings which eventually truncated their 2014 adventure one day early. As it turned out, Buddy passed away just a week after that accidental and brief encounter between these characters.
At the mention of Buddy, Raybo’s eyes squinted in delight because, through convoluted circumstances, he was actually friends with that venerable sportsman and entertainer of Washington pols, presidents included. In his best Baltimore draw, Raybo began to relate a duck hunting experience with Buddy who had already begun his begun his final decline in health. “Buddy was in front of me in the blind. He stood up, took a shot and the recoil put him right down in my lap!”, he said laughing, but with a touch of melancholy. He went on to lament, “Too bad, when Buddy died, so did the Harrison House.”
That last piece of last piece of information stabbed like a driven nail since J2, the adventure planner for the Js, was counting on one more night’s repose on the ‘Buddy Plan’2 to kick off the next leg of their Chesapeake kayak adventure. But the next day, to his delight, he discovered that the Harrison House was still peddling rooms! Unfortunately, the subsequent stay revealed that the quality of the hospitality had suffered greatly. So Raybo was close to being right; the establishment which was once synonymous with Tilghman Island had died, but apparently someone forgot to tell the corpse!
That wasn’t the only Tilghman disappointment at the kick-off of the 2016 ‘catch-up’ adventure, designed to offset the 2014 small craft warnings delay. “Characters”, the eatery poised at the foot of the venerable drawbridge separating the island from the kitsch of St. Michael’s, failed to deliver on J2’s request for a Rockfish dinner to stoke the protein requirements for the next two days, and to satisfy his lust for this, the tastiest of seafood meals. But finally, all was redeemed when the pleasant waitress offered up steamed crabs, fresh from the bay, at the unheard of bargain price of one dollar apiece! This, finally, was the good omen needed to launch high adventure.
Day 1 - Tilghman Island to James Island
Bodies of water have personality; the Susquehanna is schizophrenic, the Erie Canal is for lovers, Delaware Bay a forgotten cousin, and the Hudson River is rude. The Chesapeake, at least along the eastern shore, earns the appellation, “haughty”. It has rich history, big novels, wealth, yachts, waterfront estates, save-the-bay campaigns, wildlife areas, charter fishing, and even its blue collar waterman industry has an air of aristocracy. … And, if excessive room rates are any indication, even the Harrison House, though fallen on hard times, remains haughty! ………..
You can feel it from your kayak; the condescending head nod if notice is taken at all, the posted no trespassing signs, high docks and bulkheads catering to the powerful, endless lines of annotated floats claiming ownership of the bay bottom, and the stylized image of a goose on the national wildlife refuge signs which intones ‘you may look but do not hang around’. Fortunately, all of this is put in its place by the overwhelming natural beauty and wildlife that meets the eye with every glance. And the abundant wildness, which trumps human efforts own it, supplies ample space for the humble paddler to find adventure and get close enough to nature to inspire the awe which reminds that we are small … and the Creator is big.
Rising early to uncertain weather, for the Weather Channel had been fickle for weeks, the Duo made the risky decision to launch despite the little yellow lightning bolt symbols extending beneath the dark clouds on the weather apps on both of their iPhones. This time of the year the common wisdom is to launch early before the southerly breeze begins building, fueled by the warming sun, and then also to be off the water by the time the thunderheads mature in the afternoon. The hope is to avoid at least a few miles of strong headwinds. But it is said that ‘hope’ is a poor strategy and that held true this day as the powerful head wind was already in place and it promised to only strengthen through the morning.
Launch was from the public boat ramp in the “Dogwood Harbor” county marina near Harrison House. Though only a two day ‘catch-up’ trip, equipment requirements were the same as though a week or more was planned. During the lading, some waterman weather wisdom was overheard indicating that the current conditions would hold until 11am. Interpretation – heavy wind, light rain but NO lightning …. Lightning is just a very bad thing for a kayaker out in the Chesapeake Bay!
On the water at 7, the Js planned to power their way across the six mile ‘mouth’ of the Choptank then traverse Trippe Bay. That was easier said than done as the WSW wind, which had at least sixty miles of fetch coming up the bay, provided not only a challenging headwind but ample waves to match. These conditions were anticipated however, so spray skirts were donned and proved helpful in sheading the water as waves constantly swept the decks of the kayaks.
Kicking off the adventure with six miles of ‘heavy lifting’ demanded a brief respite which was taken at Cook Point on the south side of the Choptank. Progress had been slow with headway reduced to a miserable two knots. Devouring the excellent trail mix and solid jerky provided by J1, adventure commissaryman, physical recovery was affected in a matter of minutes and a relaunch was made heading for Hills Point in the same conditions but only four miles distant. Closing on the point, the sky cleared and a calm settled over the water promising an easy paddle out to James Island after one of J1’s outstanding hot meals. A sandy beach provided an excellent after-lunch opportunity for a delightful nap, a must for aging paddlers!
In a 2004 account of one of his many Chesapeake sojourns, “Seakayak Chesapeake Bay” webmaster Hank McComas opined that “James Island on the southern lip of the mouth of the Choptank River is one of the nicest places to camp in the Chesapeake… “ and he included photographic evidence to support his claim. It was for that reason that the Js detoured away from their original overnighting destination in the mouth of Slaughter Creek, later verified as having numerous pleasant beaches, to ‘discover and experience’ this reputed ‘best of the bay’ camping. So upon J2’s awakening from a much needed beauty rest, the four additional miles to this camping paradise was executed with an easy paddle. Great was the disappointment when it was discovered that nature (J2 suspects rising sea levels) had totally erased any pleasant beach on any of the three islands comprising this mini-archipelago. Editors Note: I couldn't understand why the Js didn't know about the changes to James Island from my May 2012 trip where I clearly indicate that the beach had disappeared and documented the beach and the options for camping. Then I found out that the report is missing. Perhaps I only wrote about it on Facebook. My bad.
But the die was cast, and with end-of-first-day paralysis setting in, the best had to be made of what was available. The northern end of the center island offered a narrow spit with an irregular sand base heavily covered with dune grass. It would have to do. Tents were erected but dinner was bypassed due to heavy fatigue. The Duo tried retreating to their tents to observe the sunset through the screened openings but warmth drove them back out into the blood fest of Maryland mosquitoes, smaller and sneakier than their Jersey cousins. 100% DEET was a successful strategy to combat the carnage while awaiting the coolness of twilight.
Finally settling down for much needed rest, nature again intervened just as heavy eyelids were closing. While the thunderstorms forecast for earlier in the day had not materialized, the 180 degree wind shift promised the next morning would not come gently, and soon after sunset the struggle began. With a surprising suddenness an easterly gale announced the beginning of a frontal passage. The wind strengthened to at least force 9 partially flattening both tents which had been erected with the entrances facing west to provide a “million dollar” view of the sunset. Rain soon followed, starting as a pitter-patter but growing quickly to Noachian proportion. The final act of the drama was the divine fireworks which surrounded the James Islands with some bolts targeting nearby trees. It was a full blown squall! Both Js were lamenting their aluminum tent poles wishing that they could be replaced with fiberglass!
The magnitude of the coming wind shift foretold a broad weather front so the violence continued for about an hour. To keep their tents from being uprooted and rolled off the opposite side of the narrow spit on which they were camped, the adventurers had to lay outstretched as ballast on the windward side of their tent floors. The other concern that occupied the mind was the condition of the kayaks which had been secured to sturdy little shrubs near the water’s edge but otherwise were vulnerable to a rapidly increasing surf pounding the eastern shoreline of the spit. At momentary lulls in the violence, tents were quickly exited to inspect the boats to assure they would be available for escape in the morning should the lightening fail to find its mark.
Finally, about midnight the gale abated, and remarkably, both tents stayed relatively dry affording several hours of much needed rest. At dawn an inspection was made and all equipment was found none the worse for wear. One important lesson was learned. J2’s tent pegs had remained firm while J1s had all been wrenched loose. The difference was in the design; the inferior were made of a tubular aluminum design while former were of an angular aluminum cross section.
Day 2 – James Island to Fishing Creek, Hooper Island
The wind had indeed made a very favorable shift to NNW although arriving stronger than the forecasted 5 knots. Not that a strong northerly breeze wouldn’t be welcome out on the water, but unfortunately it was bearing directly on the shoreline of choice for the morning launch and with abrupt sedge banks having replaced the sand beach of yore, getting underway was more physical than the aging adventurers needed.
The three mile transit to Slaughter Creek was made at a fast pace as the NNW quartering breeze, with miles of fetch, had kicked up marvelous surfing waves. The wind shift had also brought cooler air, a beautiful sky, and ‘zero’ percent chance of precipitation! In other words, perfect weather! The entrance to Slaughter Creek was protected by a beautiful little island/peninsula possessing a variety of wildlife including some trees favored by the local eagle population, the latter undoubtedly being ill-mannered based on the scarcity of osprey, so numerous in other areas of the bay. A stop was made to remove skirts and generally dry off from the ‘bathing’ received during the just completed transit. The next five hours would be spent within the confines of tidal creeks which, while calm, would afford no opportunity for landing and stretching legs, so getting comfortable was an immediate priority.
In planning the trip J2 opted for this Slaughter Creek transit instead of the much easier run down the coast of Taylor’s Island and entry into the Honga River through the inlet at Charity Point. The justification for the extra effort was the promise of beautiful wetland scenery and interesting wildlife. The concern with this detour was that finding the correct pathway to the Honga River through what the chart showed to be a maritime maze could be a difficult task. The route is not marked with navigation aids. Getting lost in such an area could result in painful, time consuming actions to find a way out, something to be avoided at all cost by two old guys with protesting joints! Preparations for this unique navigation effort included expanding and copying the available maritime charts covering the area, and developing a series of aerial pictures of the convoluted pathway using Google Earth.
While success in the marshes at the mouth of the Delaware River eleven years before gave the Duo a sense of confidence that they could handle the problem, this time the task would be an order of magnitude more difficult based on the distance that had to be traveled, about nine miles. Fortunately, as it turned out, a casual discussion regarding Slaughter Creek with a friend with whom he works introduced J2 to an iPhone app called “Navionics” which he immediately downloaded … thinking, . “Just in case!”
Entry into the maze was affected and at once the degree of difficulty became apparent, it being compounded by high tide which raised the water level over the banks erasing the boundaries of the narrow waterways. The twists and turns, needed to be matched to the charts and pictures if there to be any hope of finding their way, were now obscured. About a mile in, J1 asked J2, the Adventure navigator, “Do you know where we are?” The embarrassed reply was, “Not in the slightest!” Penetration into the marshland was now deep, and the view was virtually devoid of unique landmarks so that even if they wanted to retrace their ‘steps’ and face an extra ten miles of paddling to bypass the scenic detour, the task would have been daunting.
So now was the time to try out the phone app. In preparation for this potential, the Js had loaded Navionics on both of their iPhones for redundancy and had brought a supply of recharging batteries. J2 fired up his phone which he had kept in reserve, started the app, and almost instantly the chart which he had downloaded appeared along with a little telltale arrow showing the kayak’s position and direction of travel. The only concern was that the location of the arrow wasn’t where the Duo thought it should be. But in this contest, unlike John Henry, technology was the victor.
The Js were nowhere near where they thought they were, but the red arrow knew and marked the spot. And as it moved in response to the paddle strokes, it left a yellow trail as evidence that it knew its way through the marsh. How humiliating! But it was entirely worth the trouble because the scenery was spectacular and the sense of isolation reminded J2 of experiences years before in the Canadian boundary waters.
Finally emerging onto the headwaters of the Honga River, a sand beach was spotted providing an opportunity to disembark and flex knees which had patiently, and painfully, tolerated five hours of motionless extension. The beach was posted as private and it soon became evident that it was part of a water fowl hunting ‘machine’ ingeniously designed to make sure that clients or members, which ever, ‘get their duck’. There were artificial ponds, spotting towers, and many blinds. Perhaps the best feature was simply the location along the Honga River with its sparsely populated natural beauty which appeared to be an ideal water fowl flyway. It was a stark contrast to the occasional lonely blinds seen elsewhere.
With a following wind and waves to match, the remaining miles to the small waterman village of Fishing Creek were quickly accomplished despite fatigue setting in. J1 took the lead because two days earlier, when the Duo had dropped off the return car, he was certain that he had seen a “French” flag marking the entrance to the harbor. As it turned out he wasn’t far wrong, it was Mexican and it flew next to Old Glory at a small crab processing plant. In recent years the waterman/owners of these facilities have found it increasingly difficult to find local workers willing to perform this arduous, seasonal work so they have turned to the Department of Labor’s H-2B program. After exhausting local recruiting efforts, they are permitted to hire Mexican workers at a regionally determined ‘fair’ wage provided regulated working conditions are maintained satisfactorily.
The town had charm and it appears to be sustained primarily by the harvest from the bay. Little in the way of tourist trade was noted. What attracted the Duo was not only its appropriate location for terminating a two day trip from Tilghman Island, but also “Old Salty’s”, an eatery which promised the best in a seafood meal to conclude their journey and Salty didn’t disappoint! The fresh Rockfish was out of this world!
The owner, Jay, yes that was really his name, was gracious to a fault giving permission to park J1’s car in front of the restaurant for a couple of days, to provide for transportation back to Tilghman Island then back to home.
This wasn’t a long trip by the Js standards, a mere 34 miles, intended primarily to make up for a lost day on the previous trip from North East to Tilghman Is. But this was a trip full of new experiences and challenges which stretched these two septuagenarians giving them the confidence they need to continue to Cape Charles …. and beyond???