|The Delaware and Beyond - The Adventures of J1&J2, Sojourn II|
by Jay Doering, a.k.a., J2
Shortly after that adventure J2, a salt water sailor, suggested a follow on trip picking up from where we left off at the mouth of the river and continuing on to the Jersey shore. It seemed a little bit of a pipe dream at the time since we lacked the right equipment and, more significantly, our skills were marginal at best. What made the fantasy even more imaginative was the thought that we could accomplish this the following year. We talked about it all Winter and Summer (talk’s cheap) but when Fall arrived we had to face facts and postpone for another year, but not without first resolving to do something about our short comings. The first break through occurred with J2’s retirement. Amazingly, he received a going away gift of a 17 foot fiberglass IMPEX. Not coincidently, as it turned out, J1 purchased one at the same time. So with the most significant piece of equipment taken care of we attacked the experience issue next. That was also easier than expected with wintertime practice sessions at a local high school swimming pool to develop fundamentals. The following Summer involved much practice on the Susquehanna River. By the time Fall rolled around an honest self assessment of our skills still turned up deficient for the open ocean conditions anticipated in the Delaware Bay. Another Winter and Summer of practice was needed. It did the trick and we confidently prepared for our trip in the Fall of 2004, ….and then Ivan hit. Both of us had our homes flooded by the sixth worst flood on the Susquehanna and another year was lost. This year, 2005, we were determined to make it happen; and we were successful.
“They’ll get sucked into the prop of a passing ship if the water cops don’t arrest them first!” went the “wisdom” of the bartender at Schaeffer’s Canal House on the C&D canal, passed on to J2’s father-in-law and thence to J2’s concerned wife. Ever since the conception of this kayak trip from Havre De Grace, Maryland to Cape May, New Jersey, J2 and paddle partner Jay Mackley, a.k.a. J1, had been the recipients of doom and gloom. Not that there was a lack of cause for concern. This adventure would be a stretch for us. While both watermen since our youth, we hadn’t begun kayaking until our mid-fifties. Our only significant accomplishment to date occurred in 2002 with a decent of the Susquehanna River from its source at Cooperstown, New York to its mouth at Havre De Grace on the Chesapeake Bay. We used 13 foot Walden Scouts, the kayak equivalent of a day sailor.
Preparations focused in two areas; food and navigation. J1 has a significant interest in the former and J2 passing skills in the latter. Since this would be our first journey in our IMPEX “Serenity’s”, we did a number of trial and error runs at loading the boats relying heavily on all advice we could garner on the subject. In general we found that, properly loaded, the boats performed as well, if not better than when empty, including Eskimo rolls.
A late September window was selected with an estimated travel time of six days. Despite hurricane season, this time of year was chosen to minimized the annoyance of the voracious insect population in the Delaware estuary, gain the benefit of warmer water temperatures residual from the Summer season, and optimistically, increase the probability of seasonal northerly breezes. Two out of three were achieved. The wind failed to cooperate.
The harbor lights of Havre De Grace were already beginning to give way to a gray dawn. The town is located just off Interstate 95 within convenient reach of major population centers. Increasing daylight revealed rows of new waterfront condos with a wealth of pleasure craft gracing the foreground. Winding through moored sailboats, we worked our way into the Chesapeake and began our seven mile crossing to Turkey Point on a magnetic heading of 160. For the first several miles the bay was calmer than we would have anticipated with the estimated 10 knot breeze. As visibility improved the reason became obvious. The grass beds shown on our chart of the upper Chesapeake were far more extensive than the green tint on the paper indicated. This is great news from an environmental perspective. The water in these beds was unusually clear. We could easily see a submerged paddle blade at a depth of five feet. The beds were obviously expanding and cleansing the Susquehanna as it discharges into the bay. Breaking out of the grass beds at about 3 miles reduced drag on our boats and paddles but also brought a mild chop which was just beginning to white cap. Those conditions held until we fell into the lee of Elk Neck.
The next leg of our first day’s journey was coasting along the eastern shore of Elk Neck with the inland waterway/shipping channel on our right. It was Sunday and as expected there was an abundance of pleasure craft of various sizes and shapes. Some showed a little more courtesy than others but in no case were we inconvenienced in their presence, in fact the whole experience was very social. The commercial traffic in the channel, which is a main thoroughfare between Philadelphia and Baltimore, was light and confined to a few barge-tows and oil lighters. We were traveling northeast to reach the Chesapeake terminus of the C&D (Chesapeake and Delaware) Canal. The canal has a long history back to the early 1800’s. Originally built with lock chambers to offset the tidal induced currents, the upper reaches lacked sufficient natural input to accommodate the water use for locking through the maritime traffic. The early solution was an enormous reciprocating steam pump to re-elevate downstream water. The pump in its original stone enclosure is on exhibit in Chesapeake City near the western end of the canal.
As we worked our way up towards Welsh Point on the north side of Back Creek, the natural beginning of the canal, we noted a reasonably strong current favoring west to east traffic. This was a pleasant surprise since the measured flow in the canal on previous days heavily favored east to west travel. The whole issue of current in the canal was part of the pre-trip mythology, with dire predictions of water velocity that would overwhelm our paddling ability. Fortunately J2 had a “coincidental” encounter with an old sailing buddy who was able to steer us towards the information we needed on the internet. (http//:www.co-ops.nos.noaa.gov/cbports/3CURTS_cc.html) The day before departing some of the mystery was cleared up by the real time data available, along with predictions. The biggest lesson learned was that the maximum velocity normally ran about 2 knots making “upstream” paddling, if necessary, quite possible since our normal cruising speed is about 4 mph.
We also had passed the Corp of Engineers facilities without a nod, and later, when passing a rather official looking craft all we got was a friendly wave. The canal was very wide and commodious. While the surface got a little confused at times from multiple wakes there was nothing that even bordered on unpleasant. We easily maintained about 5 mph with the current boost, and in the sheltered environs of the canal banks we experienced no appreciable wind.
Our transit took about three hours bringing us to the exit breakwaters by 5 PM. What we saw ahead gave us a rude awakening! Immediately beyond the light towers at the canal entrance, a combination of tides, wind, and current were producing a treacherous looking and confused mass of 3 foot waves that appeared more to erupt than to roll. The peaks of these messy waves were being sheared off by a strong upriver wind from which we had been spared in the canal. After assessing our options which were slim in the inhospitable environs at the Delaware end of the C&D, we decided to “give it a try”. First we inventoried the ships around us since we would soon be sharing river space with them. A container ship and a collier were in the anchorage area to the south of the canal. Another appeared to be far down river but its direction couldn’t be determined. There were none behind us in the canal or upstream on the river. So we felt confident that we could begin the crossing. Experience had taught us not to hesitate in rough waters but rather to maintain a strong forward stroke which, when necessary, doubled as a brace. Because of the randomness of direction and frequency of the waves, we were soon separated as we each maneuvered to avoid being turned broadside in the soup, while at the same time attempting to make progress towards the New Jersey side of the river 2 miles distant where we were sure that we would find a decent campsite. Later we both admitted to a good measure of terror. The adrenaline was pumping, wiping out ten hours and thirty miles of paddle induced fatigue. J2 was first to reach the green “1N” bell buoy and begin the cross channel sprint. By this time the worst of the messy chop was behind and all that remained was approximately 20 knots of head wind and more orderly 3 foot waves on the starboard bow. The quarter mile of channel seemed to take forever to cross but finally red “2N” passed by the starboard side and J2 reached the relative security of shallower water. Meanwhile J1 was caught in a different current and carried off course to the South. Eventually he too reached the channel’s edge. He had a little more of a race since a southbound ship had emerged and was closing on our position. After he too had made the dash, he caught up with J2 at the shoreline below Oakwood Beach, NJ. As he beached his boat he said, “That made the top 10!” (stupidest things we ever did) …Perhaps, but it also served to punch a couple of holes in our sea kayaker apprentice ticket.
To our great disappointment, the nemesis southerly wind that had so challenged our river crossing the evening before had only strengthened during the night. Where was that pleasant northwest breeze that is so characteristic of Fall? We weren’t sure how our arms and shoulders, wearied by the previous day’s protracted paddle, were going to hold up against this unwanted opposition. To make the best of it, however, and to assure that we had plenty of “fuel” for whatever we would accomplish this day, J1 concocted a hearty oatmeal breakfast prepared on his skeletal two burner propane stove powered by a very light weight fuel cylinder about the size of a hair spray can. The cylinders were capable of three days worth of cooking when utilizing the efficient methods J1 had developed. Our supply of four fuel bottles was twice what we needed but added little weight or volume to our gear.
Well fortified, we broke camp leaving our rather pleasant, river’s edge site behind and pushed out into the onslaught. Placing our bows directly into the wind put us right on course for Artificial Island which lay about three miles ahead. The going was very slow. It was only with great effort that we made any progress at all and there was no prospect of any improvement since our travel would require passing down the west side of the “Island” pushing us into a ship anchorage area and eventually force us to skirt the shipping channel. Compounding the natural features was the security exclusion area in front of the Salem Nuclear Station perched on the west bank of Artificial Island. All of these features would force us well out into an area receiving the direct impact of waves raised by the south wind after whistling up the Atlantic coast, getting scooped up in the mouth of Delaware Bay, and then being funneled down by the configuration of the land masses at this point. And as though this horror were insufficient in itself, we had some mythology regarding the vertical convective currents produced by the warm water from the nuclear plant discharged at the bottom of the river. We were told, unfortunately from a reliable eye witness, that as this nuclear energized brew surfaces, its vertical velocity adds considerably to any turbulence already on the surface. All this was agitating the mind of J2, the navigator, as our ever more diminutive craft edged towards the upriver point of the island. With growing concerned that the conditions would be too severe for making any progress, J2 called for a conference. Sneaking behind the point produced sufficient shelter that we could regain our breath and composure, and talk about our options. As it turned out, J2 thought he remembered seeing a possible pathway behind Artificial Island shown on the charts. While he hadn’t included that region on the convenient laminated “trip ticks” he had created for the adventure, he thought that the information may be available on the original NOAA charts he had buried in his rear compartment. With no place to land on the sedge shoreline, extracting the charts would require some delicate work by J1 unpacking J2’s boat while rafted together bow to stern. Breaking the watertight seal of the hatch cover and carefully removing gear, J1 was able to extract the chart folder and restore order in the hold without loosing one article overboard despite the water surface which was still choppy even in our “sheltered” location. As J2 reviewed the large chart, his memory of a possible route was confirmed. He also discovered that he had included a satellite image of the interconnected tidal creeks copied from the Google Earth site. Equipped with a possible way around Artificial Island and even the Hope Creek jetty which only compounded the misery of our planned route, we turned east and paddled a mile across Black Ditch Bar to the mouth of the Alloway Creek. Carefully counting the turns of the creek in the otherwise featureless sedge, we came upon the first of several interconnecting channels that defined our possible bypass. The concern with this diversion was that the area is laced with literally dozens of similar channels forming a virtual maze enclosed by abrupt, slippery sedge banks topped by wonderfully scenic but impossible to penetrate grasses at least ten feet in height. The prospect of becoming lost in the thousands of acres of sameness without even a way to exit our boats to stretch our legs let alone cook a meal or camp was very real. As it turned out the chart was about 80% reliable and with the added information from the Google satellite image, we began to feel very comfortable with our situation. As an added bonus, the surroundings were magnificent. One of the remarkable things the Js discovered on this journey was that New Jersey is amply supplied with near wilderness for those who are willing to slow down and access it in a way that preserves the equanimity of the environment for the observers. How this could happen in a State that is otherwise well populated and industrialized has to do with the areas themselves. The abundant marshlands in the Delaware estuary have typically been inhospitable towards development other than by filling to create higher ground. While this is possible and has been done, other factors such as aggressive insect populations, impenetrable marsh grasses, and the greater attractiveness of the nearby Atlantic coast resorts have mercifully assisted in keeping Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May County coasts of the Delaware very unpopulated. In recent years, conservation activities have also been a factor in tying up large tracts of wet lands to preserve the Atlantic waterfowl flyway.
As we approached the mouth of Hope Creek, the wild conditions from which we had been so mercifully spared were again upon us, but this time without all the compounding factors. Finally, back in the Delaware we resolved to land on the first bit of sand beach we could find and we were immediately rewarded as we rounded the south point of the mouth of the creek. Already we were gaining the benefit of another physical phenomena of the estuary. Where sedge is exposed to the river and bay, the waves and tide deposit a fraction of the river’s burden of silt against the otherwise inhospitable sedge banks. Thusly deposited, the remains of what was once fertile soil from the Delaware drainage basin is transmuted into thin ribbons of white sand, typically just enough to provide for a dry tent site with a million dollar view! The southern exposure of our intended haven provided our first opportunity to “surf” into the beach on the north bound swell. J2 tried first with awkward results followed by J1 who let out a whoop as he greased it on.
While our beach front property pleased us immensely, there was a mild cause for concern regarding the tide. It was three hours to high tide according to our tide charts lifted from Tidesonline.com. The evidence of the height of the tide as indicated by the position of driftwood and sea grass lying on the beach was ambiguous. With our tents pitched all the way back against the sedge there remained considerable uncertainty whether or not we were out of the river’s reach. As it turned out, to our combined relief, the tide crested exactly at our front tent pegs leaving a foot or two of margin. And since we would be awake prior to the next high tide in the morning, we felt secure in our location.
One of the mysteries encountered by J2 when laying out the intended course of our adventure was a symbol on the Upper Delaware Bay chart just south of Hope Creek designated “MONUMENT”. As we looked southeast from our camp, sure enough, there was a peculiar obelisk mounted atop cylindrical caisson filled with concrete. It was only a short hike to the curiosity to read the inscription, if any. To our surprise, the monument was placed in 1906 and it proclaimed that this was the eastern end of a line beginning with a similar monument at Liston Point, Delaware, drawn to denote the official mouth of the Delaware River. So, through no deliberate forethought on our part, we found ourselves camped at the mouth of the river, poised to begin our adventure into the reputedly wild and wooly Delaware Bay. And at the moment, that description was no myth.
After again erecting a driftwood kitchen, J1 combined our dinner of clam tortillas with our intended supper of pepper/cauliflower soup into a very welcome feast. During and after dinner we discussed the obvious problem that lay ahead. If the strong southerly wind did not let up, we would have to cut the trip short since our Cape May pick-up, planned for Friday, could not be delayed due to schedule commitments. The thought of failing to reach our destination was distressing to both of us since one of our strategies to counter any timidity we may have in executing our adventures is to tell as many people as possible of our plans leaving us honor and ego bound to succeed or ???...! But reality was now staring us in the face. J2 and wife Carol had scouted the coastline weeks before, finding any possible point accessible by car for just such a contingency. During their reconnoiter they also validated cellular reception which turned out to be strong at every location making the cell phone our communications instrument of choice. The Jays discussed the various pick up points (perhaps five, total) resolving to try to make it as far as possible then defend our honor on the basis of sever wind conditions.
Adding to the wind, the sky was now becoming ominously dark. Perched as we were upon a flat plain of marshland and water, we were hoping that any weather to follow would not include thunderstorms. Soon rain began as darkness settled in and we retreated to our tents. Despite the physical strain of the day, the agitation of possible “failure” kept J2 awake although obviously the thought had little effect on J1 as evidenced by sonorous emanations from his tent. For a while the rain was driven by the strong south wind causing out tents to strain against the tie down lines. As the evening wore on, however, the rain diminished and wind began a counter clockwise shift towards the north breathing new life into the expedition. This satisfying turn was sufficient to allow J2 to slip off to sleep in the early hours of the morning.
“Hey, it’s time to get up!” It didn’t seem like it was time to get up but the expedition’s only time piece was J2’s watch secured to the water proof chart holder on his foredeck so there was no way to check it from the comfort of his sleeping bag. “What d’ya think about paddling in the dark?”, was the next verbal assault. Finally J2 mustered enough consciousness to ask, “What time is it?” … “Early” … “HOW early!!!???” … “OK, it’s 3 o’clock”…. (abusive exclamation follows) … “I couldn’t sleep any longer and I though we should take advantage of the wind shift” … “I could sleep a lot longer and I think paddling in the dark is a dumb idea!!!” … “OK, take a nap an we’ll start when you wake up.”
That’s how day 3 began, and of course J2 couldn’t get back to sleep, so bright eyed and bushy tailed J1 and sleepless J2 packed their gear by flashlight, knocked down a couple of odd tasting power bars and launched under a very clear but dark sky. J2 lifted a magnetic heading to Mad Horse Creek off his chart and began to follow it because there were no lighted navigation aids along the coast for the next 10 miles, well beyond our 2 to 3 mile horizon. Dead-reckoning in the dark with only the magnetic compass bearing was the only option. The shore line was so dark and featureless that it’s only signal was the sound of the waves, blown before a northwest wind of increasing intensity, breaking against the sedge banks. Meanwhile, J1 thought that the only visible navigation aid, which in all probability was bell buoy “6L” with a 2.5 second red flash, marked our destination. In fact it was in mid-bay. Thought processes in the dark and at 3 am are notoriously unreliable. Soon we were separated to the extent that loud voice calls could not be heard. Due to the relative positions of the quarter moon in the eastern sky and the two kayaks, J1 was able to maintain visual contact with J2 but not vice versa. To a large extent, our safety margin relied on maintaining close contact with one another to assist if either was overturned and had to wet exit. J1 attempted to signal with his head lamp but that small light blended with the brighter lights of a couple of commercial crabbers further away so it failed to serve as a useful beacon. Compounding the situation was the wave action that was building as we moved further out of the lee of Artificial Island. During the day these waves were going to be useful for “surfing” but in the dark they were a real threat to broaching us. Eventually, J1 worked his way close enough to J2 that communication could be re-established. For the next half hour or so the magnetic heading was followed until both of us thought we could make out an unlighted tripod tower marking Mad Horse Creek, probably used by local watermen in pursuing crabs and oysters. The waves were getting steeper due to the shoal water off the mouth of the creek and it was becoming even more difficult to keep bow ahead of stern in the following seas. Figuring that we were off the creek and being able to faintly make out a point of land to our east, we decided to make for the creek and wait out dawn before proceeding. The whole episode was a good lesson for both of us!
Sitting quietly in our boats with bows “anchored” in the bulrushes, J2 dozed heavily as dawn slowly broke. Soon we could clearly make out the features of the land and conditions in the bay with ease so we dislodged ourselves and exited Mad Horse Creek. Resuming a southeasterly course, we were treated to almost perfect sea kayak conditions. For the next three hours we surfed with abandon feeling the cool northerly wind on our backs. Easily making 5 mph and enjoying the wilderness scenes to our left, our morale soared as the previous evening’s thoughts of failure faded quickly. Passing Arnold Point and then sighting the Dunks Point tower gave us an estimate of our progress. Within two hours of our departure from Mad Horse we approached the islands forming the mouth of the Cohansey River. Our attention was drawn to the peculiar looking navigation aid marking the Ship John shoals off in the distance to our right. By now there were a number of boats in the area tending crab lines, an industry still very active in the Delaware Bay judging by the thousands of crab line buoys we passed in our three full days following the Jersey coast to Cape May. This increased activity subtly shifted our “wilderness” mind set of the last 24 hours to a “vintage shore” paradigm that would persist for the remainder of this day and into the next.
The strong wind and absence of driftwood to construct a windbreak precluded a much longed for cooked meal. Instead we slathered peanut butter on bread and wolfed it down with a water chaser. Bread, peanut butter and water had been the staple for our ‘top to bottom’ trip down the Susquehanna River three years before and while it had kept us alive, it did nothing to stimulate the appetite. The copious amounts of water necessary to drive those substances into our stomachs was easily acquired on that earlier trip using a micro-filter in conjunction with the infinite supply of fresh river water. On a salt water trip, however, planning for water consumption becomes very important. We began our trip with a total of 9 gallons. J1 divided four gallons between three flexible containers which he distributed throughout his boat as loading dictated. J2 utilized seven recycled 3 quart plastic orange juice containers which he could pack securely into his mid-ship compartment. Both systems were satisfactory. While we did replenish our water one time, in retrospect the original 9 gallons would have sufficed for all our needs, both drinking and cooking. We averaged roughly a gallon per person per day.
When J2 approached asking if it were possible to obtain some fresh water, the congenial observers pointed to the hose laying on the table covered with fish scales and congealed blood and added some helpful advice, “Let’r run a bit and then ya ought’a be able to drink it.” Not wanting to appear to be a wimp, J2 followed their instructions and refilled the orange juice containers. By this time J1 had joined the scene and asked if there was a place we could purchase a cold soda. “Shur ‘nough, right over there at Al’s place”
Al’s place turned out to be Al’s Bait and Tackle shop across the street. It was a well stocked emporium designed to meet the needs of the sport fishing trade. The proprietor was pleasant and also helpful when asked about that day’s wind conditions out on the bay. He flipped on the weather broadcast and to J2’s surprise the report came across loud and clear. The previous evening at the Hope Creek camp, the reception on the weather band using our portable weather radio was insufficient to obtain a report. Later we discovered that although the reports originate in Mount Holly, they are was also broadcast from an antenna at the University of Delaware across the bay providing a strong signal capable of servicing the Cumberland and Cape May coast. As it turned out this was good news because the weather reports would play an increasingly important role in planning our travels for the next two days.
Refreshed by the cold cokes generously purchased by J1, the duo relaunched and exited the creek to coast the rustic water front of Fortescue looking for a convenient place to call home for the evening. The scene was memorable. Archetypical of the half dozen or so little settlements along the Cumberland County coast, Fortescue is separated from “civilization” by several miles of uninhabitable but very beautiful salt marsh. These outposts are constructed without obvious planning on rare spots where wind and tide have hurled sufficient sand on to the sedge to support basic human amenities. Fortescue, as with the other communities, is built around fishing, so “fancy” isn’t in their vocabulary. Several places rented boats for fishing including wooden row boats, a craft that has disappeared from the plasticized ocean coast not many miles away. The whole picture appeared to be a freeze frame from the fifties.
Our original plan was for soft beds and showers at the Charlesworth “hotel”, a converted cape cod, but to our great disappointment we learned that the town’s lone hostelry was open only on weekends in the Fall. Just south of town we found a short stretch of beach which appeared sufficiently commodious despite an abundance of rip-rap composed of concrete construction debris. After landing, J1 went right to work preparing another dinner/supper combination and again scored a major success. The repast had to be shared with some bothersome black flies but was otherwise greatly enjoyed. Afterwards the cook proceeded to completely unload his kayak and reenter the bay to practice beach landings in the gentle surf. Deprived of any meaningful sleep the night before, J2 declined the fun.
Every kayak trip should have a glory day, the day when it all comes together and it’s pleasure from reveille to taps. For old guys like us, glory has to wait at least a couple of days for our muscles to harden. At 58 and 61, this duo lacks spring chicken status, and despite J1’s physically active life style and J2’s systematic workouts to keep the ol’ body alive, when we hit the water for extended periods there’s an “adjustment” interval accompanied by “moderate” discomfort. But with the dawn of Day 4 the bodies were well rested, well fed, and well seasoned paddling machines. (some exaggeration possible) As the early twilight gave way to sunrise we were busy tanking up on oatmeal. Next came breaking camp which took more time on this trip than on our Susquehanna River run. That being our first experience, we had erred on the primitive side. Shelter then was a big plastic tarp strung between trees (impossible on the Delaware estuary) and food was cold, unappetizing basics which at times ran short. Under those conditions packing up took a couple of minutes. But now, older and wiser (and softer?), we had individual one man tents which required more time to pitch, and we cooked our food, so an hour plus was not unusual for getting underway.
Before we were ready to launch a visitor crested the small dune behind us. It was the proprietor of Al’s Bait and Tackle shop who had been so hospitable the day before. Out for his morning constitutional, he noticed our campsite and decided to satisfy his curiosity. It was a pleasant conversation during which we surprised him with our point of departure and destination. It was clear that our route is not heavily used by the sea kayaking community. In turn our visitor told us of his own interesting life pursuits. He manages the bait and tackle shop during the warmer seasons then heads for the mountains of Thailand for the winter. Definitely an interesting guy. That’s one of the sublime pleasures of this type of travel, the unique people you meet along the way.
As our friendly visitor was departing he cautioned us that he had heard on the weather radio that morning of a severe frontal passage expected about noon the next day. The unexpected reinforcement of this prognostication triggered a brief discussion between the Js and a quick decision that we would attempt the whole 30 miles to the mouth of the Cape May canal by evening.
We launched into pleasant conditions with a gentle east wind off our port bow. We find that a light head wind poses little obstacle to our forward progress, and in fact, the refreshment it provides can facilitate a greater expenditure of paddling energy. We made excellent progress for our first two miles bringing us to Egg Island where we encountered a busy but friendly commercial crabber tending his lines. We had a choice to make regarding the course adjustment required to enter into the large eastward sweep of the coast that defines the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. We could paddle another two miles southeast to Egg Island Point to begin our transit of Maurice River Cove or we could turn at False Egg Island Point and explore Straight Creek and King Pond as a potential shortcut. Since the east wind was already beginning to freshen we decided the passage through the marsh would provide a little headwind relief as well as a change of scenery from our open water paddling. We weren’t disappointed. While the serpentine creek probably didn’t reduce our travel distance, the waterway was glassy calm and the scenery and wildlife delightful.
Pulling the kayaks well up onto the beach, we walked up to East Point Light which was erected post civil war in support of the very heavy oystering industry up the Maurice River in Bivalve. Originally we had planned to visit this semi-preserved town with its fascinating waterfront but avoiding the approaching frontal system necessitated bypassing it for now. While strolling the grounds of the lighthouse we were treated to our only taste of the renowned Jersey mosquito on our journey. They lived up to their reputation and sent us packing! The lighthouse grounds were also the backdrop for a more pleasant encounter with a gentleman who was spending a few days following the Coastal Heritage Trail visiting the many light houses that grace the Jersey shores. He had begun at Sandy Hook and was soon to conclude a little further up the coast line we had just spent the last two days touring.
Back on the beach we refueled on some power bars and wonderfully dried fruit prepared by J1’s sister Deb. In fact about half of the food we consumed on the sojourn was created by this excellent cook. It was then dehydrated using an appliance she has for that purpose. Fruits, soups, potatoes and many other staples were deliciously preserved in this manner. This ample supply of good food not only made the trip more enjoyable but also supplied much needed energy. It was a quantum leap over the deficient fare on our 2002 river trip which not only lacked appeal but, on at least one occasion, rendered us half starved and practically unable to paddle. One of the keys to good kayak trips is improving on the last trip’s performance. We had done that.
Launching again, we began our magnum opus, an eight mile open water transit across a large curve in the bay’s coast line formed as it transitions from the underbelly of South Jersey into the Cap May peninsula. This leg would take us from East Point to Reeds Beach south of Bidwell Creek. Again, the distance, our low profile, and the featureless coast of the destination necessitated the dependence on a magnetic compass heading. This time, however, we would have to use our GPS to provide longitude readings to gage our progress due a lack of visual cues caused by our distance from the featureless coast we were following. We had an up to date weather prediction and we also made a careful observation of current conditions. The cumulus clouds overhead looked benign although we would keep a close eye on them during the crossing for any rapid thunderstorm development. If the wind or weather became adverse our contingency was to turn north to the nearest point of land, a detour that would require about an hour to complete.
Gauging the head wind, which by now was bending slowly towards the southeast, our normal cruising pace of 4 mph should have been slowed by at least a half if not one mph. But instead, as we edged away from the security of land, J2 noted from the indication on the GPS that our speed, instead of being diminished, hovered between 4 and 5 mph, obviously fueled by anxiety produced by the increasingly large expanse of water that surrounded us on all quadrants. Both paddlers later admitted to praying, in their own way, that the headwind would not increase. The net effect was strong, steady progress towards the distant shore partially hidden by our watery horizon.
In preparing for the trip’s navigation, J2 obtained the NOAA charts for the upper Chesapeake, C&D canal, and upper and lower Delaware Bay. By folding and color copying the applicable portions he was able to produce convenient 8 ½ by 11 hand held charts covering the entire route. These were waterproofed by machine laminating. For the lower Delaware Bay portion he added latitude and longitude scales to these “trip ticks” by carefully removing those scales from the original charts then temporarily fastening them to the edges of the portions to be copied. The result proved extremely useful when used in conjunction with the GPS for plotting locations and measuring progress.
J1 noted that use of the few available visual cues, particularly in the direction of our destination, was frustrating when compared to our river experiences where scenery, even on the longer reaches, changed with satisfying rapidity. To offset the mental impact of this deficiency of obvious visual feedback, he developed an exercise of carefully studying the sparse detail of the destination, and, at short intervals, reexamining the scene to discover some faint new detail. This routine not only consumed the monotony of the long paddle but also added a tangible component to the sterile feedback of the GPS.
As Reeds Beach slowly became reality, J1 could discern activity on a stretch beach that appeared to divide the town along economic lines, if architecture is an indication. At first he speculated that the many specks he identified as people were late September, midweek, Delaware Bay bathers. Since none of those unlikely conditions added up, he developed a second, and subsequently correct hypothesis, that they were fisherman, or more correctly fisherpersons as it turned out. We closed on the north end of town near what appeared to be a very low end motel, closed for the season or perhaps even abandoned. About 100 yards off the shoreline we turned south on a heading that would vary little before reaching the Cape May canal. Recovering from the intensity of the crossing, we paddled at a relaxed pace in the calm condition afforded by the lee of the Cape May peninsula. Drawing near the town beach we were amazed by the diversity and the intensity of the fishing activity. It was audibly social with much good hearted banter between the racially and gender mixed (but consistently older) anglers. The appearance of this gathering contrasted with the fishing scenes more familiar to the Js, our home environs being a more homogeneous mix of “Dutchman” and “English” and fishing being predominately a male activity. One gets the impression that the south Jersey demographics are a well mixed eddy off the stream of humanity that has historically flowed across the State’s northern regions.
Sighting a quieter stretch of sand south of town, we beached our boats in order to consume a snack, stretch our legs, and even grab a early afternoon nap. Having completed 20 miles in about 6 hours since leaving Fortescue, our bodies were calling for a break. Rolling out the ground covers used to protect our tent floors, J2 was snoozing within minutes. Enough time elapsed in this state for the tide to encroach on his boat causing it to shift position and gently nudge him back into consciousness. Refreshed, we returned to the water resolved to put ourselves in a position by evening that would facilitate arrival in Cape May prior to the passing of the severe weather the next day. For the first time this trip, we discarded our spray skirts allowing greater freedom and ventilation in the cockpit. We would be paddling within easy swim to the shore line and the calm conditions posed little threat of a roll over. Coasting the Cape May peninsula was a high point of the journey. Though tired, we enjoyed the gathering civilization as we plied the remaining 10 miles to the canal.
Shortly after re-embarking, J1, the undisputed naturalist of the duo, noted a boy casting a throw net repeatedly into the shallow waters. When asked what his quarry was he replied “mullet”. That was enough to stir J1 into action. Artfully using his boat and paddle, he managed to corral a large school of the bait fish against a stand of marsh grass near the beach. Warning J2 with a shout of, “get ready”, he suddenly slapped the water with his paddle and the surface around him erupted as hundreds of the small silvery fish leapt simultaneously into the air. While great entertainment, this display of nature was also a preamble to a larger panorama that would unfold over the next half hour. As we worked southward an ever increasing number of bait fish were observed breaking the surface indicating a feeding frenzy below. It was the most fertile saltwater scene J2 had ever recalled seeing. Next our ever alert naturalist spotted a number of dolphin cavorting about 200 yards off our starboard quarter. As we focused our attention on the few that were actively surfacing, we suddenly noticed literally dozens of spouts which easily represented, by an order of magnitude, the largest pod of these mammals that J2, the saltier of the Js, had ever seen. Perhaps this season’s extended period of warm water, from which we had benefited during the wetter portions of trip, had also attracted unusually large numbers of these friendly predators into the bay.
The sun was getting seriously low in the sky as we neared our destination. The increasing magnitude and period of the swell was evidence that the bay was slowly transitioning into open ocean. J2 had a mild concern that beaching conditions near the cape would involve larger surf than had previously been experienced so we made a brief stop to re-equip ourselves with spray skirts. As it turned out, relatively calm conditions persisted right to the end of our journey that evening. The sun was just beginning to set as we reached the beach of the municipal park adjacent to the canal entrance, just west of the Cape May- Lewis ferry terminal.
After a truly spectacular sunset, the beach began to clear allowing us to unpack our gear. J1 set up his tent but J2, betting on a clear evening, only rolled out his ground cloth and sleeping bag, determined to spend this final evening under the stars. Since we were well ahead of schedule, plenty of food remained in reserve and J1 did his level best to prepare as much of it as possible. Sitting on the beach with our backs against our trusty kayaks, packing away more good chow, and surveying the aftermath of the sunset, day 4 came to a glorious close.
It was shortly after midnight that day 5 began for J2. Sleeping under the stars is a great way to be in touch with the night time environment, occasionally viewing the stars and listening to the night sounds. All that, of course, requires being awake and a night spent outdoors always provides sufficient extraneous stimuli to occasionally jolt one into at least semi-consciousness. The wind had now come around to the southwest and was strengthening. As it shifted to onshore, wave action increased as evidenced by the sound of the surf just a few yards away. The wee hours are not a good time to be thinking about your troubles because they tend to magnify and inhibit sleep. Thinking about the launch the next morning and the entrance between the stone jetties into the canal, J2 lamented that we had not taken advantage of the calm conditions the evening before and made entry into the canal. We had briefly considered it but were concerned whether or not a camp site could be found along the canal bank in the twilight. As we later observed, there are ample opportunities on the south side of the canal soon after entering. Getting back to sleep required surrendering to the thought that if conditions were too severe we could easily divert our pickup to our present location.
Rising in the dark, we began packing, a normal practice in stealth camping. Sensitivity to our pickup driver who would have to spend three hours with us returning to Boekel Landing on the Susquehanna dictated a sea water bath and a change into the one set of extra clothes we allowed in our packing strategy. Thusly refreshed, we again tanked up on oatmeal to fuel us for the exciting but brief mileage that remained. As dawn broke we could see that the jetties were sheltering our section of beach but that further out towards the canal entrance substantial seas were rolling in from the open ocean. We had to work at getting launched. J1, who has mastered small boat handling over the years, aided J2 off the beach and then was able to launch himself by rapidly entering his cockpit when wave action permitted and immediately paddling through the breakers without expending critical the time fastening his spray skirt. Passing the breakers, we paused for him to bail and fasten down his skirt.
We paddled in tandem towards the rock piles but the mounting seas required that we give each other sea room, so we allowed about fifty yards between us. The seas were angling into the canal entrance from the southwest and were building to about 5 feet, occasionally cresting and throwing water up against our chests. As we got closer, the regular pattern of the seas was broken up by the jetties and the action became unpredictable. Getting rolled in the entrance under these conditions had to be avoided at all cost. Successfully rolling back up would be unlikely and a wet exit would probably result in being washed up on the car sized boulders that comprised the north (downwind) jetty. To remain upright we had to keep our bow sufficiently into the waves to allow a quick turn into the crest if it appeared. But that kept us headed south when we had to travel east to get within the confines of the canal. What we did was paddle hard enough to hold our position against the 20 knot wind but, when possible, allow our bow to drop off a few points to port creating a crabbing action resulting in slow sideways movement though the opening and eventually into the lee of the South jetty. When we were through the ordeal and had regrouped, we agreed that in hindsight we hadn’t experienced any terror and that our skills and our confidence level had so improved over the last few days that we were comfortable in our ability to cope with the conditions. In a sense it felt a little like graduation day. We had joined the ranks, albeit low in the ranks, of true sea kayakers. We were so exhilarated that it took the next hour of transiting the canal to calm down. Not even the departure of one of the large ferry boats as we passed the terminal phased us. In fact we took pictures of the passengers manning the rail as they took pictures of us.
Paddling the Cape May canal was a relaxing interlude. The pleasure boaters tended to be more courteous and social than in the C&D. Perhaps it was the early hour also. A heavy mist was just lifting and the piercing sunrise produced a bright aura that made looking ahead difficult. Before we knew it, we were approaching Cape May Harbor. We turned right just before the road bridge that carries the remnant of the Garden State Parkway into downtown Cape May. This channel led into an anchorage containing what had to be a hundred million dollars worth sports fishermen, their huge fiberglass bows practically obstructing the waterway. There were houses to match, built out over the water with boat houses beneath. Passing under a low bridge we were next witnesses to a large commercial fishing fleet. The whole effect was a hearty welcome to Cap May for two long distance paddlers.
As we entered the harbor proper, we had the remaining task of finding our destination, the Nature Center of Cape May, an educational facility of the New Jersey Audubon Society. A friend of J2’s had advised that these folks were “kayak” friendly and would probably allow us to secure our boats on their facility’s grounds while awaiting pickup. We had a street address from the internet and directions that located them near the water close to the Coast Guard Training Center. Since the latter was obvious, we headed in that direction hoping to see some sort of sign. As we closed on the Coast Guard facility we saw two persons about to launce a Hobie Cat in the strong wind for some serious fun. We pulled up to the beach and received directions which indicated that we had overshot our goal by only a couple hundred yards.
We secured our boats and gear and headed for downtown like a couple of sailors on liberty. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror yet but judging from the wide berth we were receiving on the sidewalks I knew the situation wasn’t good, despite our seawater “bath” that morning. J1, an aficionado of things antique, was enthralled with the buildings and architecture we saw. We dined, quite appropriately, at the Ugly Mug. They did their best but the fine cuisine didn’t measure up to the output of the team of Jay and Deb Mackley who had now spoiled J2 for all future camping experiences.
While we ate, the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. A gale let loose sending the elderly tourists who filled to streets of Cape May scurrying for cover. But the Js relaxed under the awning of the Ugly Mug stuffing their own mugs and reflecting on their wise decision to beat the front.
Returning to the Nature Center to sit out the rest of the storm and await the arrival of our wheels, we conducted a debrief to be sure that we accurately captured our memories and also to critique our decisions. Before we knew it Carol Doering had arrived, and after we loaded the boats on top of the Jeep Cherokee and packed away the gear, two very tired graduate Sea Kayakers were whisked back to the security of the Susquehanna River.
One of the chief charms in a boatman’s life is its freedom, and what the freedom is no one knows until he throws aside the chains of every-day life, steps out of the worn ruts, and, with his kit beside him, his oar in his hand, feels himself master of his time, and free.
Nathaniel Holmes Bishop … “Four Months in a Sneak-Box”