MD - Sassafras River - 2002/04/20 to 2002/04/21

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Sassafras River - 45 miles - Overnight camping

By Steve Rohrs

Betterton public landing on the Sassafras River

Julio Perez and Author at Betterton public landing - Steve Rohrs

It was in the high 70’s and the wind was blowing at 12mph as we prepared to launch at a public ramp in Betterton. Our plans were to explore all of the 15 mile long Sassafras River and as many of the 17 side creeks as possible in a day and a half of paddling. Julio and I were to leave from Betterton and head east up the Sassafras.

Hank, who was to get a later start, would launch in Georgetown and head west until he met up with us to continue the voyage up the Sassafras River. We selected Betterton since it was at the mouth of the river and would give us the longest trip possible.

Georgetown public launch

Georgetown Launch Ramp

Betterton, a town with a population of around 400, was established in 1906. Betterton was once a thriving beach resort and is located on the site of an early farm named 'Fish Hall'. When the first house in Betterton was torn down in the early 1900's, skulls were found under the floorboards. Historians tell us the skulls had been buried to keep the 'ghosts' away! With the coming of the steamboat, Betterton developed as a resort. The Turner family was a main force in this development and the town was named for Richard Turner's wife, Elizabeth Betterton. With the decline of the steamboat traffic, the influx of visitors diminished. Today it has been developed as a residential and resort community. When we arrived the local townspeople were busy with a large cleaning project on the beach and surrounding park areas. The beach, which was adjacent to the launch ramp, was of considerable size and I’m sure it’s a popular summer destination for the Kent county residents. The park includes bathhouses, free picnic areas and free daily parking. The parking area is closed from 10pm to 5am so overnight parking will have to be found elsewhere in town.

For day one we had originally planned a eastward route navigating along the shoreline of all the creeks on the southern side of the river. Day two was going to be a return trip hitting the creeks on the northern side as we made our way back to Betterton. The first day’s route added up to be over 33 miles which would be tough to complete with a noon start so we visited only the more interesting creeks and coves. And interesting it was. We had not paddled more than 15 minutes before coming upon a flock of 15 plus swans – the most I’ve ever witnessed together in one spot. Next we passed Gut Marsh that was full of young red maples. The shoreline ranged from low lying wetlands to 40 foot and higher clay bluffs in as little as a 250 foot distance.

Swans on the Sassafras

Swans taking flight - Steve Rohrs

Osprey nest on utility pole

Osprey nest with fledgling - Steve Rohrs

As we approached Lloyd Creek we heard the familiar chirping of an osprey. Upon looking upward I noticed a nest sitting atop a telephone pole. When full grown, the fledgling in the photo will weigh 4 pounds and have a wingspan between 4.5 and 6 feet. Like bald eagles, ospreys often reuse old nests, adding new material to them each season. Ospreys prefer nests near water, especially in large trees, but will also nest on artificial platforms as the photo shows.

Cliff swallow nest

Cliff with swallow nests

Some of the bluffs were as high as 70 feet and dropped straight into the river. It was somewhat reminiscent of an area in Baja, Mexico between Loreto and La Paz known as the Wall – albeit on a smaller scale. In the picture on the right Julio is under one of the higher bluffs on the river just at the entrance to Lloyds Creek. It’s hard to see in the photo but a colony of Cliff Swallows have their nests in the wall of the bluff. Throughout the trip we saw these birds doing their own version of stunt flying, a technique known as aerial foraging, which is how they catch small insects near the waters surface. As we approached Lloyds Creek we noticed a strong current flowing into the narrow entrance of the creek. As we were discussing whether or not to enter, the decision was sort of already made as we were quickly flowing into the creek at about 2 knots. We were both surprised at the relatively low degree of development along the shoreline.

Calm waters in the rain

Calm waters

After paddling a few more miles we pulled out at Turner Creek Park for a quick snack and to stretch our legs. Turner Creek Park is a 147 acre park with a nice public landing. The park contains several historic houses and some nature trails. Right on the landing is the last remaining pre-Civil War granary still standing along the rivers of the Chesapeake. It currently houses swarms of bees and barn swallows.

Beaver dam

Julio at the beaver dam

Next we continued heading east until we met up with our friend Hank. Together the three of us explored Freeman Creek and came across what was probably the nature highlight of the trip. Paddling up this creek as far you can and with a fairly high tide will bring you upon one very large beaver dam. Beaver dams can be over 1000 feet wide but this one being close to 200 feet across and nearly 4 feet high is by far the largest the three of us had ever seen. The lodge was about 12 feet wide and 4 feet high. One of our photos shows the beaver slide – their main entrance if you will.

Camp on the Sassafras

Kayaks resting in camp

Since it was 4:30 pm and we still had 6.5 miles of paddling to reach camp we decided to head directly there. Originally we thought about staying at a B&B for the night in Georgetown but fortunately that morning we had breakfast with an acquaintance that arranged for us to camp on some unused land that a friend owns. With the wind picking up we were glad to make camp by around 6:00pm so that we could be setup and well fed by dark. I slept for the first time in a Hennessy Hammock, a 1.6-pound ultra light shelter that hangs from any two trees and sets up in just a few minutes. Julio used the tent and Hank just roughed it on the ground under his tarp. The next morning after a fairly thorough “leave no trace” check we manned our kayaks and started towards the head of the river.

The tide however, was not in our favor at this point in the day. Just as we passed Jacobs Creek and Fox Hole Landing our kayaks ran aground. It took a bit of maneuvering to find a channel past this point and from there we had to hurry to the end since the tide was still ebbing. Close to one mile later we saw the route 301 bridge and not wanting to listen to the rumbling of 18 wheelers for long we turned right around and headed down river. It was a pleasant paddle the rest of the day with the wind at our backs. It wasn’t until nearly 1:00 pm that a peaceful rain started and it continued on and off for the next four hours. A light rain is always a joy to paddle in and it has the added advantage of keeping the boat traffic much lighter than normal. On the return trip we passed the Grove Neck Wildlife Sanctuary where we saw more herons and a pair of cardinals. Then we rounded Grove Point heading northwest just long enough to give us a straight southeast shot back to Betterton riding the 2-foot high wind waves that had been stirring up all day in the Chesapeake.

Misty fog at Betterton end point

After 2 more miles and a few thrilling wave rides we landed in the surf at Betterton beach just before 5:00 pm. As it turns out, paddling for 15 hours and covering nearly 43 miles still was not enough to reach our goal of completely exploring the Sassafras. We had to skip 3 smaller creeks for lack of time and Mill Creek for lack of water. Oh well, as if we really needed an excuse to go back!
Other nearby trips

Susquehanna Flats Three Lighthouse Tour

Elk River and Bohemia River

Trip Facts
Departed: 4/20/2002 12:00 pm Returned: 4/21/2002 5:00 pm

Time & Distance: Paddling time including lunch breaks: 15 hours. Approximately 43 miles

Overcast and raining High of 75 degrees Low of 46 degress
Wind speed varied North to Northeast between 8.5mph and 15mph with gusts to 19.5mph
(Note: We were somewhat protected by the high bluffs on part of the northern shoreline)

Steve Rohrs / Dagger Magellan
Julio Perez / P&H Sirius
Hank McComas / Mariner Express

Put In & Take Out for Steve & Julio:
Betterton Public Landing (N39 22.238' W76 3.769')

Put In for Hank: End of Sassafras Street (N39 21.816' W75 53.222')
Take Out for Hank: Betterton Public Landing (N39 22.238' W76 3.769')

Observed 04/20/2002
Mean Temperature71.2 F
Max Temperature78.8 F
Min Temperature62.6 F
Cooling Degree Days5
Growing Degree Days10 (base 60F)
Dewpoint60.9 F
Snow Depth0.0 in
Sea Level PressureN/A
Standard Pressure29.85 in
Visibility10.00 mi
Wind Speed9.07 mph
Max Wind Speed13.81 mph
Gust Speed19.56 mph
High Tide4:16 pm
Low Tide10:51 pm
Observed 04/212002
Mean Temperature52.1 F
Max Temperature60.8 F
Min Temperature46.4 F
Heating Degree Days12
Dewpoint46.2 F
Snow Depth0.0 in
Sea Level PressureN/A
Standard Pressure29.97 in
Visibility9.11 mi
Wind Speed8.73 mph
Max Wind Speed14.96 mph
Gust SpeedN/A
High Tide4:42 am
Low Tide10:20 am




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