|By Hank McComas
I was sitting at my desk programming early on a Wednesday evening when I heard that the next two days were going to have temperatures near 70. As this was incredible for the 15th of November, it hit me that I should do something about it. Not having made an overnight kayak camping trip all summer, I decided I could not let that stand for this year. So at the late hour of 7 PM, I began checking the weather via the web. Not only was it supposed to be warm due to the languishing high pressure pumping warm air up from the tropics, but the wind was predicted to be very light 3-4 Miles per hours Thursday, turning Northwest Thursday night to 8 knots for Friday and Saturday.
Several weeks ago Steve Rohrs and I had paddled from Havre de Grace to Gunpowder State park, a distance of 28 miles. I knew I was capable of distances like that and it seemed a good opportunity to string together a couple of days of long distance paddling. I put together a tentative plan to go from Havre de Grace to Hart-Miller Island south of Middle River (32.4 miles), camp there overnight, kayak all day Friday to Poplar Island (33.5 miles) and then kayak to Oxford by midday Saturday (15.7 miles) to an arranged pickup. I already knew that the winds were predicted to be light and now my research on the tides looked favorable as well. The tide was to be a full flood in Havre de Grace at 8:30 Am Thursday morning and full again at 6:30 AM at Hart Miller island. That gave me the best chance of riding the tide more than fighting it. Although at this late in the year there is only 10 hours of daylight I was confident that I could average 3.5 knots under the conditions if I kept rest times to a minimum. I called Steve Rohrs to tell him of my plans and see if he was interested. Interested he was, but committed to a meeting he also was. Looked liked it was to be a solo. I checked the DNR site to confirm that the campground on Hart-Miller was still open, but there was no information listed regarding the season at that site.
I started packing up the gear and pulling supplies together for the two night - three day trip. Fortunately I regularly keep enough camping type foods around the house to be able to pull from the cabinets. By 9:30 PM I was packed up with the boat strapped to the car roof rack, ready for an early start the next morning. An early bed time made the 6:00 AM rise time palatable. After a simple breakfast, I was on the road.
I arrived in Havre de Grace at 8:00 AM. The tide was nearing its peak. There was no wind. I pulled up beside the Tidewater Grill restaurant to use a small beach frequented by the kayakers out of Starrk Moon kayaks, (frequently misspelled as Staark Moon). At that early hour the restaurant was deserted.
Spesutie (pronounced spes-su-sie) Island is now a part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground and as such it is off limits. The prohibition extends well out from the shore to both the north and east of the land. Currently it is 1500 acres with a marshland running up the middle of it. It has a long a varied past, starting as a hunting ground for the Susquehannock Indians. The island was named in 1658 when Nathaniel Utie was granted a 2300 acre manor there by Lord Baltimore. The new owner combined the Latin word for hope, spes, with his own last name to name the island. The manor made Utie, a member of the Maryland Assembly, the largest land owner in the newly created Baltimore County. (Harford County was created from baltimore County many years later.)
Getting all the gear stowed in the kayak took about thirty minutes. Due to the short time to get ready I had not test packed the kayak. I got everything I had set out into the kayak with the exception of my Ridgerest foam pad. My Thermarest blow-up pad was already stowed and I really didn't need both, so I put the Ridgerest back in the car. This turned out to be a bad choice.
I swung one end of the kayak into the water. Jeez..... it was heavy. With 16 liters of water and the other camping gear it must of had 60 pounds in it. If I was backpacking I would have been ashamed of myself as I never start out with more than 28 pounds, even if staying out for a week!
The water was absolutely glass smooth. As I turned to the SSE for Spesutie point off the east end of Aberdeen Proving Ground and crossed the west edge of the Susquehanna Flats, I could see fish jumping for hundreds of yards and watch the ripples of their return splash propagate across the barely undulating surface. Being a weekday, there were almost no boats out to send their wakes across the bay.
By 1779 erosion had reduced the island size to 2154 acres when purchased by Col. Samuel Hughs. He later sold the island to Col. William Smith, whose family held the island for more than 100 years. The island was used for a hunting lodge.
World War I saw the establishment of Aberdeen Proving Ground on the coast adjacent to the island. Spesutie Island remained in private hands until 1927 when it was sold to the Susquehanna Development Company. The estate was subdivided into six farms. J.P Morgan bought one of them, building a large frame house in 1936 which he used as a hunting lodge. The island was repurchased by the Susquehanna Development Company acting as a front for the hunting club. Corn was grown on the land and used as bait for ducks and geese, a common and legal practice of the time. The island was sold to the U.S. Government in 1945.
Like many areas of the upper bay, Spesutie Island is a nesting ground for many bald eagles. The restrictions on the water space prevent getting close enough to see the nests, but you can spot soaring birds as they come out from the island to fish.
I reached the point at 10:15 after an hour and a half of steady paddling. I pulled out my cell phone to find that I had a call from Julio, the other potential participant in this last minute adventure. He said he would be out kayaking from Rocky Point Park near my destination and would meet me at the end of the day. I put the phone away, had a drink and granola bar and started paddling again.
The big guns at Aberdeen had been pounding away every 10 to 15 minutes since my launch. Now however I was hearing heavy assault fire coming from further south. Rounding the point several hundred yards off the shore, I saw no patrol boats in the restricted area so I proceeded south. After a half four of paddling I saw two very high speed navy craft run out from shore, one after the other. They would come out almost to the bay, stopped, then zoomed back toward land. They did this several times. I angled more to the east to put at least a mile between me and the shore. In about another 45 minutes I saw what I was not sure was a fishing boat or a patrol boat. Paddling to the east of it, within about a half mile, I became sure as the blue light and siren came on. I immediately headed toward the patrol boat who courteously slowed well before reaching me. The captain informed me that the boats I had seen were in live fire training and that the restricted area was in effect most of the day. He pointed out the line of yellow buoys marking the edge of the Aberdeen Proving Ground area. These extend half way across the bay and were much further east than I thought and frankly had planned to go. But a 10 minute paddle put me on the legal side of them and once again my track turned to the south west. If you paddle here be sure to stay in the eastern half of the bay channel.
Once I had turned the corner at Spesutie Island, the wind had begun to pick up. It was now blowing from the SW, a full on the nose headwind, at about 8 knots. With the kayak loaded and the wind against me, it was going to be a long day. At least the current was with me.
I continued along the line of buoys and patrol boats, alerted to my presence by the first patrol boat, stopping my paddling only to take in and expel water (Thank goodness for wide mouth soda bottles). Closing in on Pooles Island, I could tell from the buoys and ranges that I had picked up a strong 1-2 knot current flowing between Pooles Island and the Western Shore. I stopped and checked my cell phone and picked up a message from Steve. Calling him back, he tells me that he has packed up all his camping gear and hoped to meet me Friday morning at Hart-Miller but that he laid out the trip on his mapping software and came up with 38 miles between Hart-Miller and Poplar Island. It would not be possible to make 38 miles during daylight hours so this worried me.
During my call, I drifted with the current into the channel between Pooles Island and the Western shore. A boat stationed just west of the lighthouse on Pooles fired up and approached me - a Maryland State Police vessel. A gregarious helmsman asked if everything was OK which I assured him it was. I guess my complete array of safety gear attached to the boat and my PFD convinced him I generally knew what I was doing. Mostly I think he was just looking to see what was going on. Having had some of them hassle me about safety equipment, I was glad to not have to go through the routine this time.
Pooles Island has an interesting history. Originally named after onw of Captain John Smith's comrades, Nathanial powell, on his initial exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. Over time Powell's Island became Pooles Island. Susquehannock Indians lived on the island harvesting oysters from the surrounding waters and creating oyster shell middens on the island. Starting in the 1700s much of the island was planted in wheat and tobacco. Purchased by John Bordley in 1771, he attempted to make a game preserve out of it by adding imported hares and partridges from England to supplement the native deer and game birds. A political activist, he used the island as a gunpowder factory and livestock production to supply the Continental Army.
Pooles Island sits in the middle of the Bay near the deep channel of the drowned river valley. From the typical shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the water depth increases to 30 to 50 feet a short distance off shore. Squeezed into a relative narrow passage, the current on both sides of the island gets up to 1.5 knots or more, one of the higher velocities in all the bay. Out in the deep channel are what is known as "the bumps". These small hillocks rise to with 10 or 12 feet of the surface from 40 or greater depths. As the current flows back and forth over them, there presence can some times be detected by the boils showing on the surface. With the water turn over here this is a very productive area for fishing and there are frequently many boats either anchor near or drifting over the bumps.
The bumps were created by oyster reefs that built up from the bottom. Though sediment has long killed the oysters themselves, their prodigous construction is the result. maryland Department of Natural Resources has dredged up many tons of the shells for relocation to areas further south where it is hoped that the oyster spat will be able to "set" on the old shells an reestablish productive oyster reefs once more.
The natural chokepoint provided by this island was not ignored by the British in the War of 1812. They establish a gun battery here in 1814 to suppress traffic between the more southerly ports and the head of the bay that transferred cargo on to Philadelphia.
One of the more interesting tidbits of Pooles Island history was its selection as the site of the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in 1848. as boxing was illegal at the time, a remote site removed from legal encomberances was required. All was prepared with trainers, fighters and a small corps of newspaper men in attendance when a steamer arrived with law officers and militia. All participants scattered and the principals managed to escape. The fight was rescheduled to a farm on the Eastern Shore.
In 1873 the island was converted to a peach tree orchard and the succulent peaches where prized in the fruit markets of Baltimore.
On the northwest corner of the island is a lighthouse built in 1895. The lighthouse was abandoned in 1939 and the exterior was restored in 1999. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Like the rest of the island it is also off limits.
The islands themselves where nearly eroded away until the recent construction of an impoundment and the deposition of spoil from the dredging of the Baltimore Harbor approach channels. Miller Island apparently has always been marshland, but Hart island had a farm on it at one time. the fill started in 1983 the Hart-Miller island is now complete and vegetation is starting to grow on the 1140 acre site. The island will always be accessible only by boat as part of the North Point State Park.
Picking up the paddle once again, I proceeded into in increasing head wind. Once south of Pooles Island the current changed to begin flowing into Middle River, slightly against me and sweeping me to the west. I needed 15 to 20 degrees of ferry angle to compensate. The wind increased to 15 knots and the last hour and a half down to the north end of Hart-Miller Island was tiring at the end of an already long day. As I reached the tip of the island I could see Julio coming toward me out of the golden reflection of the fast setting sun. We met up, exchanged stories and paddled to the beach where the summer parties are held.
I got out of the kayak for the first time all day on the sandy beach. Actually I mostly fell out of the kayak as I was quite stiff. After some conversation and stretching, I decided to get back in a make the 1/2 mile to the camp site before the dark, cold and stiffness all descended. Saying so long to Julio, I took the sunset picture before turning into camp. The wind had been dying since I reached the island and now was completely calm once again.
The sun's last rays disappeared as I hit the soft sand beach. I sign saying that a ranger would be by to collect a $6.00 overnight fee was posted prominently on a campsite marker, doubling as a food pole. A large picnic table and cleared space among the pines and oak just feet off the beach invited me. I unloaded the kayak at the waters edge, set up my tent and checked to floor for sticks and other projections that could puncture or otherwise ruin the evening. There were numerous brambles growing in the soft sand and a few of these need some trimming.
After setting up the tent, night had fallen. It was not particularly dark because of the loom of the lights from across the water. The night seem to be a little foggy and a strong orange glow of sodium vapor lights of the parking lots and shopping malls provided sufficient light to prepare dinner.
Surprise! There are still mosquitoes here. Bigguns too! But they didn't seem very aggressive. A wave or slap seem to convince them to move on. I decided to leave my DEET in the bottle. Half way through dinner, a fox started to trot down the beach right in front of my campsite. Spotting me however, it turned and ran up the beach and into the reeds. From the deer and racoon tracks I saw on the beach below the high tide mark, I knew that this was an active animal site. I reminded myself to hang both my food and my water. (Racoons on a small island are desperate for fresh water.)
I had left near the top of the tide, although maybe not at its height as the water was not at the high water mark on the beach. I wasn't sure whether it was still coming in or going back down when I was in camp since I didn't put a mark in the sand. I suspected from the lack of tracks in the sand that it was going back down. Ahead I could see the automated range markers that replaced some of the majestic lighthouses that use to serve that purpose. Cold hard columns of concrete and steel, their efficient gleam provides the same function as their picturesque counterparts, but did little for the soul. Now I set my sights on one of them and kept paddling.
A large fleet of boats was trolling the channel. One which could have easily gone behind me changed course enough so that I could not get in front of him and I had to stop and wait until his long troll lines passed. He must have been a poor judge of relative speed and position. Or he just didn't give a damn. Anyway it was too nice a morning to worry about it.
And kept paddling..... and kept paddling...... man, I was getting nowhere. The wind had picked up, still a headwind, and obviously I was picking up a foul current, although I shouldn't have. I finally passed the range marker and could now see the main span of the bay bridge. I guesstimated where the eastern span would be and kept after it. By 10:30 I was 5 hours into the trip and still a long way from the bridge. Turning around to look at the range it was still depressingly close. I was beginning to worry about my plan to get all the way to Poplar Island. I called Steve to see if he and Julio had left for Sandy Point park yet. Steve had decided that he and Julio wouldn't get there in time so had decided to go to Annapolis instead. I decide that with my apparent slow speed, a headwind that was beginning to stiffen and uncooperative current, that I had better change my plan too. I decided I would paddle to Annapolis, meet them paddle around with them and then put my kayak on Julio's truck and end the trip in Annapolis.
Agreed to this plan, I once again headed for the Bay Bridge, but the main western span this time. I reached it at 12:10 PM. I now had a fair current. I rested briefly near a barge sandblasting the structure of the bridge. This barge starts at one end of the bridge, blasting and painting. When it gets to the other side of the bay, it moves to the other span and heads back. A never ending job. The barge supports the sand blasting machinery scaffolding and canvas shrouds along one section of the bridge, allowing the maintenance crew to work in relative safety and protection.
I continued toward Annapolis, crossed White Hall Bay and rounded the old and now defunct Very Low Frequency radio array the Navy once uses to signal submerged submarines. Just as I turned the corner toward Annapolis and headed WNW, the wind turned also and came in strong from the WNW with gusts to 15-18 mph. I met Steve and Julio about 2:20 PM half way between there and the Naval Academy grounds. The approach to Annapolis was fairly active with boats even this late in the season. Julio and Steve wanted to explore some creeks at the head of White Hall bay. These creeks are very high banked with large homes and deep water docks clear up to the head of the river. I turned around and spent the next couple of hours paddling languidly along. Near the entrance, a crab boat at full throttle can up the creek throwing a substantial wash. As it turned the sharp bend in the channel, the waves concentrated in the corner and hitting shallow water at the edge of the channel doubled in height, steepened and broke like surf. Steve chased them down and got a good surfing ride. Julio broached on one and had to brace to keep upright. I was too tired to play and simply avoided the whole deal.
We returned to the Naval Academy and Steve and Julio continued up the Severn for their stated six miles. Having done almost 33 miles at this point, I decided to head for Julio's car and after a brief tour of the inner harbor, I pulled up my kayak on the floating dock at the end of third street and unpacked my kayak. At 6:00 PM after 11 1/2 hours of paddling, my trip had come to an end. I watched the lights of Annapolis harbor for awhile, walked up the street to SpringRiver Kayak, chatted a while then returned to Julio's car. I awoke at 8:15 PM when Julio and Steve returned from covering all the Severn River that we had started the previous week. Loading the three kayaks onto Julio's Chevy truck for the first time, we drove back home. Unfortunately, with all of us dead tired, we failed to make a last check of the area and Julio left his paddle on the floating dock and had to return to retrieve it. I got home at 10:30 PM. Although I did not make my original planned destination, and would have made it if I had continued, with the wind finally changing to the predicted direction, it was a greatly satisfying 65 mile, two day, last of the summer, spur of the moment adventure.