MD - Blackwater River - 2007/05/12 to 2007/05/13 - 26.2 miles

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If you go to Blackwater NWR make sure you have a good map or even better a satellite photo if you are going to venture off the marked trails. The intricate channels and shallow water provide plenty of excitement even for the skilled navigator.

Recently, the Blackwater has been the subject of a huge commercial, political and ecological fight. A developer purchased a large tract of land and was proposing a 700 home site development. They had received approval for the project from the local zoning boards that wanted the jobs and taxes that would have been associated with such a major increase in the population on the southern side of Cambridge. Unfortunately, the site was also at the top of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Its drainage led directly to the protected marsh critical to water fowl on the East Coast flyway.

This development was opposed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other concerned ecological groups across the state and nation. With a strong public mobilization effort, they were able to arrange a deal whereby the development will be much reduced and limited to an area with minor impact to the Blackwater water shed. The rest of the land is being bought by the State of Maryland for permanent conservation.

Spring is a good time to visit Blackwater. The restrictions for access to the area are lifted by March 31st. Until then the area is closed for the protection of the migrating waterfowl. The mosquitos and biting flies are less of a problem then too.

Weather had dissuaded me from going a few weeks earlier, but now I was ready to brave the predictions for wind and possible thunderstorms to visit there once again. I wanted to accomplish a few things. Spend a night on the Blackwater, paddle the section of the Transquaking River that I had not been on and make a journey into the middle of the marsh, off the river and the marked trails.

The marsh is beautiful in spring. The new rushes and reeds are green, sprouting from the rich muck they trap with their tubular roots. With the vegetation a little lower than later in the season, you can look out over the marsh for great distances. You can track the water leads from the lines of taller reeds and sprays of seed stalks left over from winter. The renewed growth of spring is apparent everywhere in the marsh at this time of year.

From 25 miles north of Baltimore, it is just a little over 2.5 hours to Blackwater. It would be about the same amount of time from the Washington area and less from Baltimore. I drove to Shorter's Wharf on the southern boundary of Blackwater. It is a marvelous drive to the launch ramp over a road just barely above the high tides of spring. The road hops from one small pine island to another and then out across the open marsh. Blue heron and egrets wade in the many ponds of the marsh along the roadside. Red wing blackbirds defend their territory as they perch on the vertical stalks of the reeds.

No one is ever at Shorter's Wharf. When I arrived I had the place to myself. A strong tidal current was flooding under the bridge. It was nearly high tide and the direction of the flow would soon reverse. The current probably exceeded two knots. The launch ramp is at one of the narrowest points on the Blackwater River. Shortly upstream of the launch ramp, the river flows into multiple channels and then into a broad shallow lake. There is a lot of water that comes in and out of the lake past this narrow constriction so the current here is always the highest you will encounter anywhere in the area.

Did I say that there is never anyone at Shorter's Wharf? Shortly after I got my kayak onto the ramp and about half loaded, cars with yaks on the tops started to arrive. Soon there were six cars and ten kayaks all looking to launch at Shorter's Wharf. I assumed they were a club, but they said no, just a bunch of friends. I asked where they were going. They said they were going to follow the marked trail up into Blackwater NWR. Only one of them seemed to have a map. I said they certainly timed the tides well as the current would be with them now and the water would be high in the lake and then they could ride the tide back down to the ramp after paddling for a couple of hours. They seemed to be completely unaware of any of these considerations. It seems that chance does not favor only the prepared mind.

Anyway, with the large group I was happy that I would be paddling down river, against the current for the time being. But with the flood still filling the marsh I would have some time to explore in the smaller leads before returning to the main channel and riding the current out to Fishing Bay. I finished loading the kayak, locked the car and left the now crowded single ramp. The current caught my bow as soon as it cleared from behind the bulkhead of the ramp and I had to make a hard J-lean to turn the kayak into the current and get under the trestle bridge immediately down stream of the ramp. When the current is flowing the other way one needs to be careful to quickly be ready to go under the bridge and not get swept onto one of the bridge supports.

Once under the bridge I paddled to the first turn down stream. There according to my digital map was a lead that meandered around and eventually rejoined the river a quarter mile further along. This was the first incidence where the digital map proved to be misleading. As I later determined by looking at Google Earth (where it is quite clear) this particular lead ends shortly before rejoining the main portion of the river. But without this better information I paddled up into the lead, taking advantage of the rising tide to poke into branch after branch of this little creek, looking for the one that led back out. Each time I was stopped within tens of yards of rejoining the main channel when the lead either ended or emptied into a pond too shallow to support even the three inches of water that my loaded kayak needed. With the tide beginning to turn, I finally gave up and paddled back out the way I had come in. With a strengthening tidal current under me, I paddled out the rest of the Blackwater River to the shores of Fishing Bay.

As I was paddling out the mouth of the Blackwater River, I saw the most American Bald eagles I had ever seen at one time on the Chesapeake Bay - seven. Three were sitting on a fishing weir or on nearby poles, two were sitting in trees on Snake Island and two were circling in the air high overhead. What magnificent birds. I have seen many more of them in the area in the last several years. I suppose as a consequence there are or will be fewer ospreys around as the eagle drive them away. But there are still many ospreys around and I had seen several already this day.

With the clouds becoming heavier I decided to head for shore on the little beach on Snake Island. Turning into the wide open Fishing Bay I rounded the point with an almost 180 degree turn and landed on the nice sand beach. There would be little of this beach left at high tide, but now there was quite a bit of it exposed. I unpacked the kayak and set up the tent. In the trees the mosquitos were numerous, so I stayed out in the wind on the beach. While out there, a small snake came swimming up the beach, oblivious to my presence. I went to the tent to get the camera and returned to the beach. Just as I was about to press the shutter button, the snake decided I was now a threat. With a quick whip of its tail it was lost in the muddy water and waves just off the beach. So no picture of a snake on Snake Island.

I made an early retirement to the tent as the sun began to get low in the sky. I did not want to be chewed up by the no-see-ums I had noticed earlier. Of course the mosquitos would probably have begun to get down to the beach. In any case since I had had only four hours of sleep the night before, I wasn't really going to mind the twelve hour stint in the tent. I took my pee bottle into the tent so I would not have to come out and be mosquito desert late in the night.

Around 10:30 PM the rain started and there was some light thunder. The forecasted thunderstorms had arrived. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and went back to my dreams. After several more awakenings at two hour intervals, it got to be 6:00 A.M. Time to brave the mosquitos. I put on as much clothing as I could and daubed the few exposed pieces of flesh with repellant and opened the screen of the tent. I stepped out into........... no mosquitos. Apparently the 48 degree temperature was too cold for them. Even though the wind had moved into the north and the beach was now sheltered by the trees, there were no mosquitos out around the tent or on the beach. I quickly folded the wet tent which almost went into the bag as easily as it had come out.

With breakfast already eaten in the tent, I just loaded up the kayak. With everything ready, I was in the cockpit and about to take off from the beach. But I hadn't taken my ritual "last look around camp". I almost skipped it as I was already sealed in my cockpit and ready to go. But there is a good reason for such ritual, so I got out of the kayak and went back to the tent site for that last check. There in the crook of the tree was my bag of tent poles. Just where I put it so it would not get sandy. Saved by my routine. What a pain in the ass it would have been to have to come all the way back here to get the custom poles. I got back in the cockpit, put on the skirt and took off from the beach.

From Snake Island I proceeded north into a fifteen knot wind and soon reached the mouth of the Transquaking River. I followed the twist and turns of this river up to the fork were the river forms a large island. I had circumnavigated this island some years ago. So now I had paddled all of the Transquaking River from Best Pitch down to Fishing Bay. time to turn around and head back down the river.

About a mile from the mouth, my digital map indicated a small lead that headed into the interior of the marsh. In spite of my experience the previous day, I was determined to try and follow a series of small creeks and passages linking ponds and lakes in the deep marsh that was shown to reconnect with the Blackwater River well upstream. The tide was rising again and was about at half flood. I should have several hours of rising tide to try and find a way through. I started up the small waterway.

The modest waterway soon began to break up into multiple branches, none of which were shown on the map. I stayed in what I deemed to be the main channel based on the volume of water and the strength of the current. I knew that this lead should end in a large pond and I figured that it would need to be filled with a lot of water. Hence the most vigorous current led to the pond. This turned out to be true as I soon was suddenly in the anticipated pond.

Paddling out onto the pond, I compared the shoreline that I could see with that on the digital map. There didn't seem to be much correspondence. I took a good look at where I had entered the pond in case I had to come back. With my compass out I headed off to a section of the pond that corresponded to the direction on the map that indicated an opening to another pond. At the end of that pond there was supposed to be another smaller lead that led to other ponds and so on until finally reaching a bigger creek that worked its way back to the Blackwater River.

But once again reality did not conform to the simple lines drawn upon my map. There were clumps of reeds all over the place with many canals and small leads emanating from every point and hidden behind every small island of reeds. As I worked from place to place looking for the little creek or the next pond, I tried to keep in mind the turns that I had made so that I could retrace my steps and get back to where I had started into the marsh. It was like a garden maze. I was the rat looking for the cheese. First this turn is blocked and then that. I was struggling to keep my bearing and to keep oriented as to where on the map I might actually be.

I found a lead that had a lot of current coming into the pond. I knew it wasn't the one I was looking for, but thought it might be another one also shown on my map. I followed it for a while as the current against me grew stronger. Soon I ws sure I was in this alternative lead. I knew how to get back out now, so I decided to try again to navigate through the marsh ponds starting from this new channel. Once again things got vague as I entered a new series of shallow marsh ponds. Again another dead end in water too shallow to proceed. I knew that I had to find the way through soon or I would have to abandon my attempts and retreat before the tide turned and the water started to get too shallow. I didn't want to be stuck in the marsh sitting in my kayak for up to ten hours waiting for the water to come back.

After several attempts I finally found a little connection to a much larger pond whose shape I could recognize on the map. I turned and paddled west to the end. There I found a large orange marker in the middle of the channel. This looked promising. The map showed a left, a right, a left and then a hairpin right. I began following the passage as it did exactly what the map said it should. Now I knew I was on the right path and it was merely a matter of time and distance until it put me back on the Blackwater River. When I came across an old hunting cabin on the marsh, I knew I was close to the river. In short order I was back on the Blackwater River and back at the ramp.

The next time I go out into the marsh, I will definitely take a satellite photo with me. While still difficult to interpret, the many ponds and leads in the marsh are much better represented in that format than any digitized map will ever convey. But I had used my common sense, compass reading and map reading skills and knowledge of tides and currents to work safely out of maze of shallow water and reeds. I had a great time.




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