|Blackwater is one of the last major paddling destinations that I had yet to visit. I wanted to get to it last year, but other opportunities filled the spring and fall months and Blackwater is no place to be from June through September. It is the quintessence of Maryland brackish marsh. Sparsely settled and almost unvisited, it is a great place to see wild life without crowds.
The weather had been cool, windy and wet. For two days there was to be a brief respite in the unsettled weather as one low passed on into Canada and another came barreling across the plains. In between was just enough time for a two day visit to the lower bay and the mosquito and no-see-um infested marsh. Two days of cold temperatures and strong winds that would keep the little blood suckers in the grass and off of me.
The first day, a cloudy and windy day, I spent investigating Fishing Bay and paddling the Transquaking River. The second day dawned bright and clear with a blustery Northwest wind of 20 knots. It felt more like November than mid May. The cloudless blue sky and crisp morning temperatures promised another day free of the little devils that can make life so miserable in the marsh on a warm humid calm day.
The colonial and post-revolutionary economy of southern Maryland was very dependant on the cash crops grown on these fields. Transported to market by many small boats sailing up the Choptank and Pocomoke Rivers, tobacco and cotton was loaded at the wharves and unloaded at Baltimore and Norfolk, returning with manufactured goods.
I left Cambridge for the 20 mile drive to the launch site at Shorter's Wharf. On the way there I passed large fields freshly plowed and others blooming with a solid carpet of buttercups. Small farm houses in various states of repair told the story of the difficult living to be made farming corn and wheat. These same flat fields once yielded a lucrative crop of tobacco and cotton under the cruel whip of slavery. Large plantations made great profit from the enforced labor of the slaves and soon faced economic death after the emancipation. In fact, Harriet Tubman, famous for her participation in the Underground Railroad, was from the Blackwater district. The nearby Pocomoke was one of the important routes for moving runaway slaves to the north.
The Blackwater River was never one of these commercial highways however. It is too shallow for most boats. It twists and turns in wide areas of salt marsh. Even the "land" around here barely qualifies for the name. Wet and easily flooded, it is just barely above the high tide mark for miles and miles in from the marsh. A strong spring tide leaves many of the roads here covered twice each day. A hurricane passing nearby requires most of the county to evacuate.
I left Cambridge at 7:00 AM and drove out to Hooper island, about 20 miles southwest of the city along empty country roads. I saw a Sitka deer and a wild turkey in the fields along the road. Last year I had done a nice paddle on the Honga River (write up pending by Julio Perez) and I had forgotten to take my camera so I did not have any pictures of the launch ramps for this area. The Honga River and Hooper Island area is a great place to paddle also. Today the bay side was a little rough, but the Honga looked very pleasant, at least close to Hooper Island itself. There were a number of new buildings being constructed, but other than that, it looked as if not much had changed here in the last 50 years. There were only a few "for sale" signs, so hopefully the local economy, so dependent on the troubled seafood industry, is doing well enough that the original residents do not have to move away.
By 9:00 AM I arrived back at Shorter's Warf launch ramp on the Blackwater River. The tide was near full and the current was ebbing strongly under the bridge right next to the concrete ramp. There is a shallower ramp on the other side (east) of the river downstream of the bridge. Both the car approach and the ramp itself are muddy. The ramp on the west side of the river is steep and hard concrete. There is a large parking lot and a porta potty. No drinking water is available.
The current runs hard through the closely spaced bridge trestles that are adjacent to the ramp. Exercise caution when pulling out into the strong 2-3 knot current. The current is less everywhere else, as the bridge is the most restricted part of the river. However, the Blackwater runs with significant reversing tidal currents and a plan that takes advantage of the current will allow a much longer mileage trip with not as much effort. The current lags the tidal phase by about one hour (slack current is about one hour past high tide), at least on this day of 20 knot northwest winds.
I wanted to get up into the marsh area northwest of the bridge landing, but I was in no mood to fight the strong wind AND the strong current. I decided to paddle down the Blackwater River toward Fishing Bay riding the current until the tide changed and then I would ride it back up the river, paddle around the open bay later in the afternoon when the wind was forecast to weaken and then ride the current back down to the launch ramp and my vehicle.
I paddled out into the current and quickly aligned my boat to shoot through the bridge. With the wind and the current, it required only an occasional correcting stroke to glide along at nearly 4 knots. The Blackwater south of the Shorter's Warf bridge meanders through the salt marsh in great folded loops (see map below) Small leads through the marsh appear on both sides of the river. The strong winds rippled the surface of the water with the tops of the wavelets being tumbled forward overtop themselves. Waves bent around the corner preannouncing a section of the river that looped back upwind. Small white caps formed on a few of the longer stretches where the wind blew straight up or down the river. For two hours I enjoyed the "downhill" ride until I came to a T intersection in the river where both directions appeared to be the same size. I had prepared a large scale section of the map below, but since I had planned on paddling to the northwest of the bridge, the corner of the map cut off just at the T and I could not tell which way the river turned to empty into Fishing Bay. I observed the current headed into the branch on the right and I decided to take that one. After about 10 minutes however it turned north and west and I was fairly sure that I had made the wrong turn. I returned to the intersection and headed into the other lead which was also flooding. This would be consistent with my taking the other branch. I then rechecked the branch I had come down from the landing and found that it also was flooding, a reverse of what I had thought. Apparently the tidal current had turned just about the time I made my decision as to which branch to take and the basis for my decision, to continue to follow what I thought was the ebb tide toward the mouth of the river, was in fact incorrect. Since the tide was now turning and I had already been out for 2 1/2 hours, it seemed as good a time as any to turn back.
The flood current on the way back was not as strong as the ebb current, probably due to the wind. The strong gusts blew the brim of my hat down over my eyes and brought the kayak almost to a standstill. When the side wind caught the blades of my paddle, it affected my balance in the boat. The light chop sent a spray off the bow and the wind drove it back into my glasses. It was a lot nicer on the way down river. By 1:00 PM I was back at the launch ramp, where I stopped briefly for more water before setting out up river once again.
On the way back, I ventured into one of the small side leads headed north off of an almost closed loop. The taller common reeds right along the shore form a curtain that makes viewing the interior of the marsh difficult. There are breaks in the curtain every once in a while where the lower green marsh grass of the interior comes all the way to the bank. In these spots one can look across the marsh and see the ribbon of taller reeds snaking across the marsh, foretelling the direction of the lead. The main river also has its telltale side curtain. In the smaller lead there were more turtles and birds. I saw two nutria, the beaver like rodent that is causing so much ecological damage to the marsh and one of the five bald eagles on the day.
North of the bridge the reeds along the banks are much more sparse and the view of the bird life is better. There are many more birds visible on the more open shallows. I saw 5 bald eagles, one fish eagle, and many osprey, great egrets, egrets, curlews, sanderlings, terns and gulls.
At the first turn in the river there are two signs with arrows indicating a canoe trail. I did not have any map of the trail, since the visitors center was closed for construction, so I stayed with the main river channel following my own map and plan. I picked up the trail once more as I passed through a pond and out into the main bay. The trail is marked by occasional small white signs on posts or more frequently on osprey nesting poles. In between signs are bamboo poles with pieces of high visibility ribbon of red and green color marking the deeper water in the very shallow bay. I found that in many places that, if not following the marked path, there is not enough water even for a kayak.
I followed the shore as the water was deep enough there and headed north with the intention of paddling up the long finger of water shown on my map. But when I got to it, there were many partially submerged stumps sticking out of the very shallow water. It was not possible to proceed very far into Meekins Creek and I did not want to get stranded by the soon to be ebbing tide.
I paddled out past Bull Point, scouting out enough water to keep my kayak afloat. I circumnavigated a small island where I picked up the canoe trail once more. I followed the markers back toward Twin Pond Marsh, which consists of a number of small grass islands and partially submerged grass banks, unlike the solid water show on my digital topo map.
I followed the canoe trail which took me over to the northeast bank where I lost the trail when I could not sight any more bamboo poles. I did find an osprey nest with an arrow pointing back in the way I had just come. Without a schematic of what the trail was supposed to do, I was confused and abandoned the trail idea and decided to look for the outflow of the main river channel as depicted on my map. I spent about an hour paddling around in the area named Harper's Marsh and never found the entrance. The topo map did not seem to correspond well with the actual features and I was not convinced I knew which lead was the channel. Since it was getting late and I did not want to commit to a downwind mistake that I would have to pay for by paddling back up wind, I decided to head back the way I came. I followed the trail markers back into the channel I had exited from and was once more in the main channel. From there I could see that earlier I was very close to finding the main channel and one more turn would have brought me to a recognizable point without the backtracking and the extra miles.
I continued back down the river as the wind dropped and the sun grew warm on my face. Nine hours of strong wind and sun had left me with a slight burn. I put some effort into my paddling with the current that had turned once again to my favor as I feared the diminishing wind would allow the local armada of insect to set out on their forays. I returned to the launch site and just had the kayak loaded onto the car top when the no-see-ums descended in an impressive cloud. With a quick retreat to the car, I managed to escape without been bitten as they were only accumulating not biting. I sat and watched the sun dip beneath a low cloud. The swallows danced over the water and slalomed through the pier pilings catching the mosquitos in mid air, ending a wonderful day in the Blackwater.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is located on the eastern shore of Maryland, approximately 12 miles south of the town of Cambridge, in Dorchester County. Blackwater was established in 1933 as a refuge for migratory birds. The refuge includes almost 26,000 acres, composed mainly of rich tidal marsh characterized by fluctuating water levels and varying salinity. Other habitat types include freshwater ponds, mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, and small amounts of crop land and managed impoundments that are seasonally flooded for waterfowl use.
Blackwater is also a haven for several troubled species including the threatened American bald eagle, the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, and the recently de-listed migrant peregrine falcon.
Before its designation as a Refuge, the marshland along Blackwater River was managed as a fur farm. Muskrats were the primary species trapped. Most of the wood-lands, including islands, had been timbered. Remains of old drainage ditches and furrows which crisscross in some existing woods indicate past agricultural use.
A daily permit is required for all visitors to the Wildlife Drive unless they possess an annual pass or lifetime passport.
- Private vehicle - $3.00
- Pedestrian, Bicyclist - $1.00
- Commercial Van or Bus up to
20 passengers - $15.00
21 or more passengers - $25.00
- Hologram for NPS pass - $15.00
Passes are available at the Visitor Center and include either a current Federal Duck Stamp valid July 1 to June 30 ($15); a Golden Eagle Passport ($65); a Blackwater NWR Pass ($12), valid one year from date of issue; Golden Age Passport for those 62 years or older ($10); or the Golden Access Passport free for the blind and permanently disabled.
Visitor Center hours are Monday - Friday 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. The Wildlife Drive and associated trails are open from dawn to dusk every day.
Directions to Blackwater:
From Easton, MD heading South (East):
From the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, follow Route 50 East to Easton. From Easton continue South on Route 50 East. Cross over Senator Frederick C. Malkus, Jr. Bridge (Choptank River Bridge). Follow Route 50 (approximately 4 miles) until you come to a traffic light just past the Dorchester Square Shopping Center (Center includes Walmart and Food City). You will see a brown sign directing you to the refuge. Turn right at this light onto Route 16 West (Church Creek Road). Follow Route 16 straight through a traffic light at Snow's Turn, until you pass the South Dorchester High School. At the blinker light, turn left onto Egypt Road just past the school buildings (first road past the traffic light). There is a small store with the letters D.D.U.S.T. across from Egypt Road. Follow Egypt road for approximately 7 miles and it will dead end at Key Wallace Drive. You will see a brown refuge sign directing you to turn left onto Key Wallace Drive to go to the Wildlife Drive, or turn right onto Key Wallace Drive to get to the Refuge Office and to the Visitor Center. After turning right onto Key Wallace, the Refuge Office (headquarters) will be the first building on the left, and the Visitor Center will be the second building on your left about 2 miles.
From Salisbury, MD heading North:
From Salisbury head north on Route 50. Once you are almost in the town of Cambridge, you will come to a traffic light with an Exxon station on your left. Before the light there should be a large brown sign on the right directing you to the refuge. At the light you should see the Dorchester Square Shopping Center with a Walmart and Food City. Turn left onto Route 16 West (Church Creek Road). Follow Route 16 straight through a traffic light at Snow's Turn, until you pass the South Dorchester High School. At the blinker light, turn left onto Egypt Road just past the school buildings, the first road to the left). There is a small store with the letters D.D.U.S.T. across from Egypt Road. Follow Egypt road for approximately 7 miles and it will dead end at Key Wallace Drive. You will see a brown refuge sign directing you to turn left onto Key Wallace Drive to go to the Wildlife Drive, or turn right onto Key Wallace Drive to get to the Refuge Office and to the Visitor Center. After turning right onto Key Wallace, the Refuge Office (headquarters) will be the first building on the left, and the Visitor Center will be the second building on your left about 2 miles.
Should you get lost...our phone number is (410) 228-2677 for the Visitor Center or 410-228-2692 for the Refuge Office. Happy traveling.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
2145 Key Wallace Drive
Cambridge, Maryland 21613
Hearing impaired visitors may call
the Maryland Relay Service at TDD/800-735-2258 voice