|Our day started with a 7:00 AM meeting in Bel Air where I put my kayak onto Julio's truck and just finished tying it down when Steve arrived in his van with his Eddyline Falcon 18 on top. We headed out toward Havre de Grace and over the Mouth of the Susquehanna River on the US Route 40 bridge. The $4.00 toll there only needs to be paid once per year if you get in the correct lane to buy a decal good for one year. We continued up and around the head of the Chesapeake Bay to arrive in Betterton, the start of our overnight trip, at 9:22 AM.
The lifeguards at the beach were removing the winter's collection of driftwood pushed up high onto the beach with the recent high spring tides and assembling it into a big pile at one end of the beach. Clearly this was opening day for this beach. I stayed with the boats while Steve and Julio shuttle Julio's truck to our pickup point in Gratitude about 20 road miles away. They were gone about an hour and a quarter. When they returned, they parked their car on a neighborhood side street as the large parking lot at the beach does not allow overnight parking. We departed the beach at 10:38 AM in complete calm under heavily cloudy skies.
In many places the cliffs are eroding from the constant wave action at their base. We could see many places where the soil had recently slumped under the pressure of the recent heavy rains. In other places the soil is more compacted and the cliffs form vertical faces of strong soil. Here cliff swallows dig their nest in tight colonies of closely spaced holes. The active little birds fly in and out of the holes all day, gathering insects for their chicks Julio was able to get a nice Cliff swallows nest close-up with his new Olympus digital camera.
The eastern side of the upper Chesapeake bay is characterized by tall cliffs of iron oxide, red colored soil. The cliffs are most prominent on Elk Neck, a spit of land between the Northeast and Elk Rivers. But the land is quite high along the entire section from Elk Neck all the way to Gratitude and Rock Hall at the mouth of the Chester River.
Along the high banks are many large trees with dead limbs serving as lookout perches for bald eagles. We saw our first of some two dozen bald eagles we were to spot this day. We saw adults with their distinctive white heads and tail feathers and immature eagles with a salt and pepper look and no white marking. Many times the eagles would fly a little further down the coast and we would see it again as we paddled up under its perch once more. Several eagles were down on the shore picking at carcasses of dead American Shad and an occasional carp. There were more eagles along this coast than the smaller and usually more numerous ospreys.
The main large ship channel hugs the eastern side of the Chesapeake in the upper bay. The channel is very narrow here and the big ships have to steer carefully in restricted channel. For us, the channel was still well away as we proceeded down along the shore. But if you needed to cross the channel to get to the other side of the bay, take care to pass behind the very large, very powerful and deceptively fast ships, tugs and barges in this channel. ( See page about safety around large commercial shipping.)
We took the left turn at the corner at the end of the Sassafras River and headed south down the Chesapeake Bay along the eastern shore of the Bay. The shore here is sparsely developed. The banks are high and lined with large trees in a buffer zone creating a verdant shoreline.
We stopped at a small clearing where there was a small beach house. While we were munching our snacks sitting on the porch of the closed up house, a truck pulled up and unloaded the makings for a picnic. We asked belatedly for permission to be there, and after a stiff reminder that this was private property, it was granted. Apparently we were on and had been paddling by the 3000 acre Andelot farm, an incredibly beautiful location on the edge of the bay, worth god knows how much if it were ever to be developed. We finished up quickly and launched on down the bay.
About every 4 or 5 miles along the shore are 75 foot high towers that look like fire towers. They face toward the bay however. I speculated that they were either for observing or directing the shipping traffic down the narrow channel. Julio thought they might be for observation of the gunnery range of Aberdeen Proving Ground that lay on the other side of the Bay. That range is still actively used today. Both the live fire and the unexploded ordinance on that side of the Bay makes that shore off limits.
We continued down the coast and turned into a bay and paddled into the pond at the Coast Guard station in Still Pond. We decided that time did not allow us to explore the 2 1/2 miles to the end of Still Pond and still explore all of Fairlee Creek, which was our objective. The little Coast Guard Station here has a basketball court and an little screened cabana next to the dock with a grill and a small beach. Clearly, the inmates are living large here. We exited out the narrow exit from Still Pond riding the 3 knot current caused by the narrow constriction at the outlet of Still Pond.
We headed south once more and, around the next point, we entered the bay north of Fairlee Creek. Fairlee is a very popular place for power boats from the western side of the bay to gather and anchor along the shore. Many summer weekends there are over 300 boats in this creek. They build a fire on the beach and party on the boats. There is a food stand and bar under some palm trees next to a bandstand on the opposite shore. Like Still Pond, the water runs quickly through a narrow entrance to the creek which continues for several miles.
There were only a few boats here today as it was early in the season and the cool drippy day had kept many boats from coming. The band was playing, but there were not many patrons at the bar. It was a quiet afternoon in Fairlee.
We went to the navigable end of the creek which became very shallow with water lilies, shallow muddy bottom and many logs. We ran up and over a few of them, completely hidden in the chocolate brown water. Large 3 foot long carp were mating in the shallows, rolling and splashing with lusty zest along the edge of the reeds. Their large brown and yellow scales flashed as they beat their tails against the water and splashed about. Several confused carp attempted a mating with the stern of my kayak as I turned the boat around in the creek, perhaps thinking that my 16 foot kayak was the mother of all carp.
At the very end of the creek, we heard the sound of falling water. An industrious beaver had built a large dam. The water made the pleasant sound as it escaped from one side of the two foot high stick structure. We had come to the end of Fairlee Creek. We turned around and paddled back down the creek, out the narrow outlet and bay and headed south once more along the shore.
The mosquitos here were not very active, which was surprising considering the amount of rain we have had in the last two weeks. Perhaps the smoldering mosquito coils kept them away. In any case, we went into our tents at the official minute of sunset, which we knew only by our watches as any indication of the sun was masked by the cloud cover, as it had been all day. In fact it seemed like it was 7:00 PM since about 11:00 AM that morning.
We pulled ashore at 7:00 PM to make camp. We set up our tents, Steve strung his hammock. Steve demonstrated yet another use for the versatile Greenland paddle, the Greenland carry.
We got up at 7:00 AM the next morning to another foggy day with the moisture dripping off of the trees, the ground and our tents wet by last nights rain. A quick breakfast and a repack of our boats had us paddling south again by 8:10 AM.
The banks closed in as we proceed up the creek. The sun had come out and the sky was a bright blue with puffy white cotton ball clouds. A cooling breeze of 5-7 mph softened the bite of the strong sun that drove us out of our dry tops and encouraged us to put on sun tan lotion.
Once again the wind was a very light 0 - 5 mph from the north and later coming in from the south. The fog had thinned, but the moisture hung heavy in the air and we could not see the western shore of the Bay which is easily visible on a clear day. We continued along the shore to gradually clearing skies. When we reached the last point before turning to the east, we stopped for a snack break on a small beach.
As the creek narrowed, the banks became lower and the development ended. Lush banks of spring time reeds provided perches for noisy and aggressive red winged black birds, fluttering and diving overhead as we passed. The overhanging tassels of the common reeds arched completely over the now small creek.
Further up the creek, the environment changed from a marsh like scene to one of a deeply wooded stream. The tidal current which we rode up the creek, now became a down fall current of a flowing stream. Large deciduous trees arched over the stream in dark coolness. Honeysuckle along the bank perfumed the air. At the very end a culvert under the road stopped any further progress. Here we turned back and headed for Gratitude with gratitude for a wonderful day to end a great trip.
Once out of Gratitude harbor we turned east and paddled the short distance to the south facing beach where Julio's car awaited us. We rode the small waves into the jetty protected pocket beaches. A soft landing on the sand of the beach brought our trip to an end.
Julio went to get his camera while I held his kayak. The mouse came out of the cockpit and perched on the rim. His beady black eyes and grey fur were ever so cute. Before Julio got back from the car, the little mouse leaped into the water and started swimming out to deep water. I positioned myself in front of him and got him turned back to shore. He tried to hide under a log on the beach, which is where he was when Julio photographed him.
As Julio was unloading his kayak, he discovered a mouse in his kayak. The previous night, his new PFD had been chewed by something as it was stored inside the kayak. He had forgotten to bring his cockpit cover with him and had only been able to cover the cockpit with his spray skirt. Apparently this little mouse got in through the skirt tunnel.
This trip may perhaps be the quintessential Chesapeake Bay trip. Easy to plan with plenty of launching places, good parking, very little concerns about tides or currents, protected water and friendly shores. A mixture of developed and undeveloped land, abundant and varied wildlife, from the spectacular, majestic eagles, to the common deer and turtles, to the stowaway mouse. Weather from cool and drippy to sunny and clear in the same day. Open Bay waters to closed creeks to intimate marshes to flowing streams. How could you pack more into just 40 miles? Try it, you'll like it.
We loaded up the three kayaks onto Julio's truck and then snapped the traditional Three Amigos portrait using Julio's infrared remote. After a short drive back to Betterton where we redistributed the kayaks onto Steve's car, we got back to Bel Air at 5:00 PM.