|Late July is hot and steamy on the Chesapeake Bay. The marshes of the lower eastern shore are filled with biting flies of many types: horse flies, green head flies and deer flies. The mosquitos can be bad too. So tell me again, why were we going on a five day trip from Crisfield to Cambridge?
Well, mostly because that was when we could. With a week off between jobs at the end of July, Julio could take the time for the tour of the southern Bay, an area we had yet to cover. We had paddled around Janes Island before, and in the Blackwater area and on the Honga River, but we had not been to Smith and Tangier Islands or done nearly so ambitious a trip. We were planning on a 130 mile trip lasting 5 days.
The weather looked like it might be good when we started to plan the trip. There was a large high pressure coming across the nation and it looked as if the Bermuda high might be setting up for its typical late summer weather pattern domination. But then a little thing called "tropical depression #7" slid into North Carolina and kept the high pressure ridge to the north. The flattened pressure lines ran east and west across half the continent, with the frontal boundary laying right across our path. It looked as if we were not going to get great weather. But at least the isobars were far apart and the winds would be light.
We planned our trip from south to north. The common winds in the summer are from the south on the Bay, but it looked as if the winds this week would be from the east and northeast, which would be crossing winds. In light winds, a wind from behind can leave you sweltering in your own personal sweat lake. Better to have a light head wind than no breeze to keep you cool.
When we arrived at the ramp, we were greeted with a light sprinkle of rain. Now however, the sun had come out and the low clouds looked like typical humid summer weather. The wind was from the south which was not what we had expected, but the 5 mile per hour breeze kept the start cool as we headed out the Crisfield harbor and turned south into the wind toward our first objective, Watts Island. The uninhabited island lay 13 miles away, requiring a eight mile crossing of Tangier sound.
So we left early Monday morning and arrived 2 1/2 hours later at Cambridge, at 8:20 AM, where we left Julio's truck in the lot at the visitor center just to the west of the bridge over the Choptank River. We parked at the far end of the lot and went in to check with the visitor center staff, but the center was not open at this hour. We transferred Julio's Current Designs Sirocco to my van and headed down to Crisfield. Arriving at 9:45 AM, we packed the kayaks and were on the start of our trip by 10:30 AM. We left my car at the launch ramp in Crisfield just beyond the small boat harbor. There is a great beach there for launching with a large parking lot. The dock is used by locals for crabbing.
We paddled three miles south out of Crisfield where we picked up the water trail that is part of the Janes Island water trail system. This trail cuts through the low marsh island for about 2 miles, exiting on the Tangier Sound. When we got to the sound, we could just see Watts Island in the distance.
Shortly after leaving the shore of Westward Point, we crossed the state line into Virginia. Watts and Tangier Islands are in Virginia, while the line goes through the southern 1/3 of Smith Island. Tonight we would be in Virginia, but the rest of trip would be in Maryland.
We made the 8 miles to Watts Island without incident. The winds remained light as we paddled into the small waves. The water was a very warm at 80 degrees F. There were only a few sea nettles pulsing through the salty water, but those we did see were big with purple marking on the bell and 6 to 8 feet of dense stinging tentacles trailing behind. Even this far from land we were harassed by the pesky deer flies which landed in those areas where they could not be seen in order to start their blood sucking.
Watts island is very narrow and about 3 miles long. The northern end is low marsh with a small clump of trees on the very end. There are tall trees in the middle of the island and the southern third of the island is marsh grass with low shrubs along the shore. The island is uninhabited.
We landed on the northern end, pulling onto the brown sand of the small beach. We were only out of the cockpit a few minutes when the deer flies descended on us. We each had 30 to 40 of them on our legs. We quickly retreated to the water to protect our exposed legs. These flies paid little to no attention to the bug spray we applied. Only clothing and swatting kept them at bay. After a short break we got back in the kayaks and paddled offshore where the bugs were fewer. But several flies got into our cockpit and were under our spray skirts. These flies dined on us at will, causing quick removal of the cockpit skirt to swat and encourage them to vacate the interior of the kayaks.
We paddled south to the middle of the island and then turned to the west and headed for Tangier Island. On the way across the wind changed to the west to be a head wind. But the wind was light and kept us cool. On the way across the open water, I had a visitor that took a rest on the brow of my hat. To the south the unbroken expanse of the Bay reached for 50 miles to the mouth of the ay and the Atlantic Ocean. With a strong south wind, this large fetch could produce some significant waves. But today all was calm although the clouds thickened and there were several brief periods of gentle rain as we approached Tangier Island.
The stilt town consists of sheds and docks supporting the main industry of this historic island, soft crabs. The crabs are collected as peelers, the stage just before the crab molts its hard shell and emerges as a soft skinned larger crab called a soft shell crab. While soft, these crabs are edible whole and are a Chesapeake Bay delicacy. Locals collect the peeler crabs by dragging the bottom with large iron dredges towed behind their uniquely designed work boats. This fishing method stirs up the bottom and rips up much of the bottom grass. The peeler crabs are brought back to the stilt town where they are kept in tanks with circulated sea water until they molt. These crabs are checked every few hours to collect them while their shells are still soft. The crabs are then placed on ice to stop the shell from hardening and shipped off to markets all over the world.
The tide was low as we approached the stilt town on the cut between the north and south islands at Tangier. Much of the area was impassable due to the low water. There were extensive mud flats appearing as we approached from the west. We had to pull ourselves through the last 30 feet of mud to gain the channel snaking through the docks and sheds.
We paddled down the channel among the crab shedding pens. There were many boats moored alongside the pens. Most were attended by elderly men, an indication that this is an industry that is dying. Few younger men are taking up the traditional way of life. The reduction in the population of crabs on the Bay is causing many of Tangier's young to look elsewhere for employment, leaving the practice to those that have plied these waters for all their lives to continue their simple way of life. It is a hard way of life. But without the younger generation, this community is doomed as it is today. Unlike Smith Island to the north, which now relies much more on tourism than seafood, Tangier remains primarily as it was in decades past. If you want to see what an Eastern Shore community was like 40 years ago, come to Tangier.
The rain became steady as we paddled out the channel to the west of Tangier. It stopped as we turned north along the western shore of the island. We started to look for a place to pull into the beach for the night. We stopped at several spots, but moved on as we were uncertain if the beach would survive the high tide due at late that night. The low marsh of the island did not rise much above the surrounding water, even at the place we finally selected.
Julio awoke at high tide and looked out to see the waves lapping just three feet from the door of the tent. The tent would be safe tonight less than a foot above the highest water.
We set up camp and got dinner started. The flies were modest and there were very few mosquitos as the sun set under the grey skies. We were just ready to head to the tent when the skies opened and the rain came down in buckets. The lightning was loud and close, rolling and cracking for a good hour. I think it struck the radio tower that is visible in the photo several times during the storm. The rain came down so incredibly hard. It drummed on the tent fly so loudly that it was impossible to sleep. We finally drifted off as the rain slacked to a more normal rate. After the 23.5 mile paddle this day, the soft sand provided a welcome night's sleep.
The next morning dawned with another grey sky. We made our breakfast and left this night's camp at 7:30 AM. The boats from Tangier had long been out dredging the bottom for their crustacean prey. Most were concentrated in a specific area and one wondered if it would not be better for a boat to move elsewhere where other boats were not working the same ground. The boats passed each other with less than 100 feet between them. The water was grey with the sediment stirred up from the bottom. Pieces of grass torn from the bottom floated down current from the boats' sterns. The operators of the dredges parsed through the heavy loads of grass brought up by the iron bottom scrapers, throwing the grass back into the water, while tossing the crabs into baskets on the floor boards of their boats.
We continued north. Beyond the area where the crab scrapes were working, the water became very shallow. The bottom was covered with the aquatic grasses so vital to the survival of the crabs that seek its protection while they are so vulnerable with their soft shells. The water here was too shallow for the crab boats to enter. In fact, it was too shallow for our kayaks as well. We had to alter our intended course to the east to find water deep enough for even our shallow boats. The string of long shell islands lay to our west.
We paddled up the channel to the small town of Tylerton, one of two communities on the southern end of the island. A narrow channel led on to Ewell. We rode the current to Ewell, the main town on Smith Island. There we saw signs against the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The signs exhorted the reader not to support the Foundation which it accused of destroying the traditional life of Smith Islanders. The change of the island's economy to a more tourist centric base was evident in the restaurants and B&Bs that cater to the summer tourists brought over by the ferry from Crisfield. The town had a much different feel than the old time Tangier we had seen just yesterday.
We paddled through the harbor and out of the jetty into the Big Thoroughfare River. The Bay was calm. We headed north along the west shore of the island. There were many low beaches along the shore that would provide a campsite. We reached the northern end of the island by 2:00 PM. This is where we had planned to spend the evening after paddling around the eastern side of the island. But that plan had changed when we were deterred from crossing to the west side of the island by the low tide earlier that morning. Even though the 10 foot sand dunes and the long empty beaches on the north end of the island were tempting, we decided to continue on to Bloodsworth Island and look for a camp spot a little later in the day.
Solomon's Lump lighthouse is about a mile off the northern end of Smith Island. We paddled over to it an snapped a few pictures. The low silhouette of Bloodsworth Island was just visible in the haze about 5 miles to the north.
On this small beach in the high tides of early spring, turtles haul themselves out onto this small patch of sand to lay a clutch of eggs, then abandon them to hatch as best they can. From the look of all the empty broken shells on the beach, not many survived the raids of the raccoons who had dug them up and feasted on the small white eggs. I did not know what kind of turtles these might have become, but it looked as if none survived the carnage at this particular site.
We made the crossing to Bloodsworth in about 2 hours and landed on a very small and very low beach on the southernmost end. When we investigated the beach, we noticed that pocked marked sand with the remnants of holes dug into the rain smoothed surface covered every square foot of the beach. Around the holes, the dried shells of turtle eggs told of a life and death struggle that took place here.
We pulled onto the beach at 7:00 PM. This had been a very long day, 11 1/2 hours, with very few breaks. Our butts were sore from the 39 mile day we had just completed. We found a place to put the tents on top of the long, soft grass at the edge of the beach under some small scrub trees. The flies were active while the sun was up, but the mosquitos were few. Perhaps this was due to the hundreds of dragon flies that clung to the grass in every 100 square feet of the upper beach.
Dinner was cooked sitting on a log at the edge of the water. The tide was out. There would be very little if any of this beach available at high tide.
The day broke to more lowering skies and periods of rain. We broke camp and cooked our breakfast. We were looking at a short day today because of our extraordinarily long previous day. To get back "on plan", we only needed to go about 18 miles today. We had planned on a 29 mile paddle from northern Smith Island. At 8:10 AM we headed north into the Honga River, a river we had visited last year. It is one of our favorites due to the long shores of uninhabited land, tall pines and isolation. The only boats one sees here are the work boats out of Honga and Hooper Island. The pleasure boats common on the middle and upper bay are completely absent.
The evening ended with an orange glow of sunset promising better things for the next day. We collapsed into our tent and were quickly asleep. During the night, the rain showers returned, but we were only vaguely aware of them. The day's efforts had completely exhausted us.
As we paddled past the automated light that long ago replaced the more picturesque Honga Straight Lighthouse, the wind turned into the east at about 12 knots and the clouds thickened. After 2 hours it began to rain heavily and we donned our waterproof jackets to keep from being chilled by the hard rain. The wind was suppressed by the heavy rain and the surface of the water became smooth as the rain drops eliminated the wind ripples that are usually present when there is even the lightest of winds. We paddled along in the rain, which is a pleasant experience. I think the rain drops splatting on my hat and the hissing of the drops in the water are enjoyable. The vertically falling rain water is much more pleasant than the "in the face" salt water splashing that can occur in many paddling situations and that any kayaker must always be prepared to handle. We paddled along for 15 minutes in the heavy rain until it tapered off and the cloudy conditions resumed.
We spent a lazy evening looking out at the moody fog shrouded Honga River. In spite of our long afternoon nap, we ended the day early.
We had a quick lunch and went into the tent for a nap as a light rain closed in once more. The nap was very refreshing after our long paddle the day before. We woke long enough to make dinner, do some exploring along the shore, and observe the many pine tree frogs hopping in the long grass and on the tent. They were everywhere. So too were the dragon flies, although in smaller numbers than at the Crocheron site. There were more mosquitos here, consistent with our theory that the dragon flies were responsible for reducing the mosquito swarms.
The next day dawned as all the days had so far, cloudy, with threatening skies. The wind was still out of the northeast and light. We packed up. As we did so, it became apparent that we should stop at the bridge at Honga and get some more water. Although it was likely that we would have sufficient supplies, we had drawn down our fresh water more than planned for because of the warm temperatures. We headed across the river to the bridge from the mainland to the town of Honga. There we stopped at the launch ramp and made use of the garbage and toilet facilities. Although there is no water on the ramp or docks next to the ramp, we were able to get some water from a hose at a home across the street. The 3 gallons we picked up here would ensure that we had plenty of water for the next two days. We were not surprised that at this ramp in this eastern shore community, even the road kill was seafood!
We paddled out from the Honga River and turned north along the shore. We came upon a line of over one hundred twenty mute swans. They seemed to be returning to Barren Island which lies two miles off the coast. It seemed strange that they would spend the night on the mainland in the heavy trees where the dogs and foxes would be more likely to find them than on the isolated island. But here they were, swimming in a long line toward the island. Recently reprieved by the action of the courts, the plan to kill some 3000 of them is on hold. The naturalists want to reduce their growing population because of their heavy harvesting of aquatic grasses. Seems to me that man's uses are the real cause and the swans would be unlikely to cause any significant damage compared to that. However, I suppose with the grass stocks in such short supply and in such a fragile condition, even a modest impact from swans could stymy efforts to rebuild the troubled underwater aquatic vegetation. I think we should look to ourselves first though.
The shore of the mainland here is moderately developed. It heads due north along a very shallow coast. We followed it until we came to the southern outlet of Taylor Island Creek. We turned into Taylor Island Wildlife Management Area. The marsh here winds around through marsh grass among tall pines. Osprey and bald eagles wheel over head. The thick grass fills the low banks and snails crawl up and down the stalks, while mussels filter the water pulsing in and out of the marsh. The channel through the marsh is very convoluted. A good map or a GPS is recommended for the paddle through this marsh maze and on to the upper reaches of Taylor Island Creek.
We paddled north up the creek and stopped at the ramp near the bridge over Taylor Island Creek. We went into the small store there. It must have a considerable history. The stamped tin ceiling, the dark wood shelving behind the counter and the swayed wide yellow pine boards on the floor spoke of its long use as a small community store. There was a restaurant at the store as well as a small grocery. The ice cream we consumed hit the spot on this warm afternoon.
In the small creek in front of the docks at the ramp, we spied the sailing life boat pictured on the left. The radar reflector and the unusual craft drew us over for a closer look. The logo on the bow told us that this vessel belonged to the National Outdoor Leadership council, the group that trains mostly young people via outdoor adventures. I had seen this particular boat sailing the open Bay north of here in prior summers.
We paddled out of Taylor Island Creek into the southern side of the Little Choptank. We turned west to head for James Island some 3 miles to the west. Incredibly enough, the wind which had been from the east and the northeast for the last three days, turned into the northwest to oppose us as we paddled to the island. It stayed out of the northwest until we reached the really nice beach on the middle of the three islands that form this group.
We landed on the north end of the beach. There were two open deck kayaks on the south end of the beach. We pulled the kayaks well up onto the beach and walked down to meet our neighbors. The young couple was out for a day paddle. After a brief conversation, we returned to our boats and set up the tent. We then took a really nice swim off the smooth sand beach. The water was warm but still refreshing after a long day of paddling 26 miles.
The sun was now shining and we used the opportunity to dry some of our clothes, sleeping bags and other equipment. The strong sun and brisk wind, which had returned to the east, dried the items quickly. We started a fire at the high tide line from the plentiful drift wood washed far up on the beach. We utilized the charcoal and partially burned wood that was already collected at this site of a previous fire. Supper was cooked on our gas camp stoves as we sat around the fire until darkness had enveloped us. The wind off of the water drove the smoke toward the trees in the island's interior and either the wind, or the smoke, and perhaps both, kept all the bugs away. Julio turned in and I stayed up to watch the fire a little longer. I stayed until the coals burned down low and then I covered the fire with sand. During the night, the tide came in and completely drowned the few smoldering coals deep in the sand..
The next morning began before sunrise, as we wished to make an early start for a final day into Cambridge. We had a long day of driving after we reached Julio's car. We had to retrieve my car in Crisfield and then drive the three and a half hours back home. We had a quick cold breakfast and were on the water before 7:00 AM, but had to return to the beach when I discovered that I did not have my right paddling glove. I did not find it on the beach and decided I must have inadvertently packed it into a water proof bag now nestle deep within the bow compartment of my kayak. I decided just to wear the right glove of my old pair that I had brought along in case these new gloves did not work out well. The new REI paddling gloves had been very comfortable and this would be the last trip for the stinky old gloves that had seen two seasons' duty. By the time we were once more headed north from the island, it was 7:10 AM, still our earliest start.
The wind was about 15 knots from the south. We rode the waves north to the peninsula on the south side of the Choptank River. We made the 13 miles in just two and 1/2 hours, an average of 4.5 knots. The wave surfing really helped our speed, but it was more tiring than just straight paddling as most of the waves were not big or steep enough to catch easily. I had pulled a muscle in my chest that morning and wasn't able to accelerate onto the waves as I usually could. Julio reached the rest spot first and pulled up onto the marsh grass. I followed and pulled into a slot between two reed covered projections. I was about to step out of the kayak into the water when I decided that it would be a good idea to check the water depth here. Even though the kayak was right against the bank, it turned out that the water here was a surprising 3 feet deep. If I had not checked with my paddled, it could have been an embarrassing dismount from the kayak cockpit. And Julio had is camera out and would not have been merciful.
We paddled the remaining 12 miles into Cambridge, arriving at 1:45 PM after two more stops. During our passage up the center of the Choptank river, we were passed by a long line of 25-30 power boats, all steaming at full throttle and headed for a common destination further up the river. No doubt it was some power boat club on a summer weekend outing. The tremendous wakes thrown by these inefficient boats were in the wrong direction to help us out. The slowly subsiding wakes reflected of both sides of the shore and made the water both noticeably rougher and more inconsistent as the crossing trains of waves made a jumble of the water surface. Clearly our isolated trip to the wilds of the southern Bay was over. We landed at the beach in front of the Visitor's Center, packed our kayaks, headed for McDonalds for some calories, then were on our way to Crisfield. There we put my boat onto my roof rack . I got back home at 8:00 PM after a most satisfying work week trip.
EPILOG: The Crisfield police had become concerned about my car being parked at the ramp lot for more than a day. They somehow got the information that three men in a canoe had left Friday (actually two men in two kayaks on Monday) and had not returned. They were concerned that perhaps there was a problem. They ran the tag and contacted the police in my home town who came to my home and left a note for my wife. She contacted the police and assured them that everything was going according to schedule. I had provided several people with float plans for the week, but had not posted them in the window of my van as it is not a good idea to let potential vandals know how long one plans to be away. However, in the future I plan to post an emergency telephone number in the window and, perhaps, contact the Crisfield police to let them know about any car that will be parked overnight. Kudos to the Crisfield police department for a thoughtful and caring response.