You’ll find Maryland’s Back River an increasingly pleasant place to cruise . . . even if you are the only sailboat in town.
by Jody Argo Schroath
The first sign of trouble came on the back of a southwest wind out of Baltimore that pushed the flat calm water of Back River into a Marcel wave of short steep chop. Not necessarily a bad thing unless you happened to be anchored uncomfortably close to a lee shore, which we were, so it wasn’t a good thing. Then too it was late on a summer afternoon, which further skewed the odds against us. Late summer afternoons are the natural habitat of the severe Chesapeake squall. The third strike against us is that we were not on the boat at all just then, but rather enjoying a picnic and stroll ashore at Rocky Point Park, just inside the mouth of Back River. We had been lulled by a day of near perfect calm, which even for a sailboat, had been ideal for a visit to Back River. Sailing up from Baltimore that morning, friends Kathy and Hal and I—and Skipper the dog, of course—had circled Hart Miller Island under a clean blue sky and soft offshore breeze before dropping the sails inside Hawk Cove just as the last wind ripples headed east across the Bay to fetch up somewhere near Fairlee Creek. Motoring now, we turned south to find the entrance marker and avoid the long shoal off Rocky Point.
Back River is not a prominent fixture on many cruisers’ list of favorite destinations, but it has its advocates and it certainly has hundreds of boaters who call it home. From a sailor’s point of view, Back River, though nearly a mile wide in spots, has too many shoals to tack and too many changes of direction to reach. For any deep draft vessel—sail or power—too much of Back River is too shallow. And for everything but the shallowest draft boaters and those who call it home, Back River is just too confusing, as evidenced by the fact that the charts—NOAA, Navionics, Garmin and NV, just to name the ones I’ve consulted—disagree on the depths and shape of the channels. The river has several marinas and good repair facilities, but few anchorages and, let’s face it, little scenery to make the challenges worth while—unless you fancy the bright gold towers of the massive Back River Wastewater Treatment near the top of the river, which resemble nothing so much as a couple of Russian Orthodox churches. And finally there’s the water quality. Back River, whose streams pass through some of the Bay’s most urbanized and industrialized neighborhoods, has long been considered one of the Bay’s most polluted waterways—and that’s saying something. But that, oddly enough, was one of the things that brought us to Back River on a beautiful summer day. Because the residents, marinas and boaters along Back River, including its northern tributary—the endearingly named Bread and Cheese Creek—have declared war on the pollution and debris and, for the last several years, have been volunteering in droves to do something about it. In the last few years, in fact, they have pulled uncounted tons of junk out of Bread and Cheese Creek alone, and even more from Back River itself. Unfortunately, though, debris is only part of the problem. The pollutants that flow through Back River’s veins (like the chromium-laced water from Bread and Cheese Creek) remain beyond the simple solution of a volunteer clean-up. But the good news here is that a $686 million state and local project to upgrade the wastewater plant will dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus released into the river. It’s a start. We knew that our cruise up the river, as far as Bread and Cheese if the depth held, wouldn’t prove anything. It would simply be acknowledging the good fight to bring back a good river.
So with three sets of eyes alternating between the water ahead of us and the three different sets of charts in front of us, we set out. Moment of Zen draws just under four feet, so we figured we’d be all right as long as we avoided the points and the shallow spot in the center of the river between Witchcoat and Stansbury points, which is charted at between 3 and 6 feet, depending on the source. So we turned west and then north, taking the deep channel (a low of 6 and a high of 15 feet) that follows the western shore before squeezing past red “12”, where the channel narrows at the center. Past Stansbury Point, we found nothing better than 6 to 6½ feet (these are roughly corrected for low tide). Opposite Deep Creek, the depth fell to 5, and just beyond that it dropped again and we called it a cruise. As we made our turn, we could just pick out the entrance to Bread and Cheese Creek and declared it a victory. As if someone had released a flock of doves to celebrate, a dozen gulls suddenly appeared and followed us all the way downriver, watching our wake for tidbits.
Back at Claybank Point, we spotted our second—and more tangible—goal of the day, Rocky Point Park. We sounded the depths between Claybank and Cedar points and dropped anchor not far offshore. From there we had a fine view of the nose-to-stern procession of boats in and out of the small inlet that leads into the park and its busy boat ramp. A few minutes later, the anchor set, we dropped the dinghy and joined the parade, our lunch carefully stowed out of Skipper’s long reach. Once ashore, we made short work of the sandwiches before setting out to explore the 375-acre park. An hour later, we were just admiring the beach when we spotted the wind-driven chop coming toward us across the river. Experienced Bay boaters all, we hustled back to the dinghy and were soon bouncing over the water and into the wind. By the time we had climbed back aboard and stowed the dinghy, the wind had swung northeast, pouring into the coming squall, and the temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees. With no time to pull up the anchor, I started the engines in case the anchor dragged and in another minute the wind swung to the southwest, the sky blackened wickedly and squall swept through, the brunt of it passing just to our south. Another 10 minutes and the sun was back in control. The temperature rose, and Rocky Point beach rapidly refilled. Back Creek looked as clean as a new whistle. It wasn’t such a bad place after all, we decided over coffee in the cockpit. In fact, we decided, we quite liked it, despite its few shortcomings. Nice marinas, a great park, gold domes and a nice navigational challenge.