Here's proof you can't believe everything you read . . . except this: A cruise up the Bush River is a lot easier than you may think.
text & photos Jody Argo Schroath
Don't you just hate it when the Coast Guard or some other variety of maritime law enforcement comes tearing up to you with lights flashing and megaphone blasting because you have innocently stumbled into some forbidden part of the Bay? Or worse, a U.S. Navy patrol boat comes racing up as a guy in fatigues stands by his stern-mounted machine gun? I really hate when that happens! Which is why I have always given two of the Bay's rivers, the Bush and Gunpowder, a wide berth. On the charts, the two are crisscrossed with thick purple lines and dotted with warning notes such as "Restricted Area" and "Unexploded Ordinance." More than enough to keep this meek mariner way out of their way.
Until this summer, that is, when I was feeling pretty frisky and decided it was high time to give them a try. So in June, I dug out a copy of Coast Pilot 3 and looked up section 334.140, as directed by the chart notes. As I read, I felt my jets cooling with each paragraph, until they nearly froze up. Since the Bush and Gunpowder rivers are largely within the Aberdeen Proving Grounds--the national center for arms testing and a lot of stuff I'd rather not know about, like chemical warfare--there are indeed restrictions. Two pages of restrictions for the waters in the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to be exact. First, there are the hours when the Bush and Gunpowder rivers are generally open to boaters. These, the Coast Pilot says, are between 5 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. weekdays and 5 p.m. Friday until 7:30 a.m. Monday on the weekends. Then there are the restrictions about what you're allowed to do once you get there. For example, I read, it's okay to water-ski--but not to touch bottom if you fall off the skis. Also you're not allowed to swim. I don't know about treading water. And you mustn't get out of your boat . . . except to water-ski. Also no touching land, docking or grounding (as if you choose to do that last one in the first place!) Y ou can fish, except where indicated; traverse the rivers, except where indicated; and anchor, except where indicated. You can set pots and pound nets if you get permission, but you can't complain if they get shot-up or bombed. You get the picture.
I put the Coast Pilot away and let a few more months go by. But not without related incident. Coming down the York River one day, a U.S. Navy patrol boat (with the aforementioned guy at a stern-mounted machine gun) came roaring alongside to let me know in no uncertain terms that I had, despite two GPSs and a paper chart, gotten too close to the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station just above the Coleman Bridge. Did I mention that I hate when that happens?
By the time the boating season was winding down, however, I got to thinking again about making a trip up the Bay. I decided to start with the Bush River, because, unlike the Gunpowder, it is almost entirely surrounded by the Aberdeen Proving Ground and therefore more restrictive and, I reasoned, more likely to be, um, interesting. Well, it made sense at the time. This time, I left the Coast Pilot on the shelf and called Aberdeen's range operations number instead. A polite and cheerful, yet obviously official person answered the phone and explained that a lot of what I'd read about the restrictions is true in theory but not in practice. "We try to keep both rivers open to traffic most of the time," he said.
"So, if I came up there on a Wednesday, for example, I could go in?" I asked, desperate to avoid flashing lights and public address systems.
"You can just call us on channel 68 when you get here, and we'll let you know," he said.
"But I don't want to come all the way, just to find out it's closed that day," I persisted.
"Just go up to one of the patrol boats and let them know you want to go through, and they'll let you in during a break," he said.
Whoa, I thought to myself, that's way too easy! "Okay, thanks for your help," I said, and immediately reserved a boat from Chesapeake Boating Club for the following weekend.
So it was that early on a Saturday morning in October, armed with a couple of tuna salad sand-wiches, a baggie of peanut butter dog treats and four bottles of water, Skipper the dog and I said good-bye to family and friends, left Back Creek in Annapolis and set out for the Bush River. The predicted five-knot northerly was blowing 15 from the west as we plowed north through a beam sea and I wrestled with the wheel of the Albin 28 to keep her nose on a heading of about 30 degrees. Eventually, Pooles Island hove into view off the port bow, and a few minutes later we crossed the imaginary purple line into Aberdeen's restricted territory. I looked this way and that and then both ways over my shoulder, but saw noth-ing. No flashing lights, no bull horns, and best of all no machine guns.
"All right, then, in we go," I told Skipper and headed for the first marker, green "2", not far inside the Bush. I'd like to say that Skipper and I felt like Captain Cook and his crew, pushing back the boundaries of the known world. But I can't. Far from feeling like brave explorers, we felt more like just another couple of boaters out for a cruise on a busy Saturday on the Bay. I felt a lot less like Captain Cook and a lot more like Captain Crunch. (Skipper, I'm sure, just kept feeling like a dog--so much more sensible, of course.) Everywhere we looked, there were boats! Fishing skiffs by the gross, sailboats by the dozen, trawlers by the bucketful.
"No water-skiers though," I pointed out to Skippy, who sat quietly until I tossed him a peanut butter dog treat, then went up on deck to see how the fishing was going.
Looking around, I decided that just about every second boater on the Bay had already figured out that the entrance restrictions weren't as strict as they'd been made out to be and had probably been visiting the Bush River regularly since the age of three. But despite that, the Bush River was a lovely place, with miles of unspoiled shoreline. Though when I say "unspoiled," I don't mean that there weren't unexploded bombs lying among the bushes or gosh-knows-what by-products of chemical warfare experimentation mixed in with the topsoil. No, that's why you're not supposed to touch anything. But it all looked pretty anyway, except maybe for that place at the entrance to Lauderick Creek, which looked a lot like the Bates Motel.
Doves Cove was a good example of the Bush River's quiet beauty. Deep enough to drop anchor in five to six feet of water as far as Barren Point, its shoreline is tree-lined and innocent of human habitation. Although I could see by the chart that it shallowed out along the shore, the center of Doves Cove remains at least four feet deep nearly half of the way in--which is as far as I went. I had turned off the river just before green "5" and motored to the center before dropping the anchor for a quiet hour of tuna-sandwich eating and surveillance of the river traffic. It was an ideal little cove, reasonably protected from all directions but east. But when it came time to continue our cruise, it occurred to me that whatever evils lurked in the bottom mud were about to come aboard with the anchor. Hmmm. Perhaps a little extra rinse-off.
Leaving the cove and again heading north, I could see Towner Cove and then Redman Cove across the river, busy with fishing boats. Cruising the western shore, I looked up Lauderick Creek and saw white PVC posts marking a channel from green "WR7" at the creek entrance into a small marina. I followed the channel nearly to the marina with four to five feet on the depthsounder, and then spun carefully around to leave the same way. Just above Lauderick Creek, we left the restricted area, though the western shoreline remains off limits for landing as far as the railroad bridge, about a mile farther north. (Don't worry, it's all on the charts.)
Ah, the railroad bridge. The Bush River's low-lying railroad bridge is the end of the line for most sailors and other high-aspect powerboaters--unless they've had the foresight to check the bridge-opening schedule. The bridge doesn't open on request, unless that request has been made days earlier by the Bush River Yacht Club. And even then it opens only twice a day on weekends during the season, and not at all off season [see sidebar]. Opening the bridge is no simple operation and calls for a certain amount of painstaking disassembly and then reassembly--because the high-speed trains that now use it require a seamless rail. All of that means that passage beyond this point is generally limited to boats no taller than 111/2 feet. (A further pitfall for cruisers with a draft of more than four feet is the depth above the bridge, which varies from two to five feet.)
I knew that the Albin 28's theoretical air draft was about nine feet, but just to be sure, I maneuvered the boat parallel to the bridge opening and then looked from the top of the boat to the bottom of the bridge and back again until I felt pretty sure we'd fit underneath.Satisfied, under we went. We emerged into what felt like a small lake in the middle of a small town. Directly ahead was the colorful and impressive Bush River Yacht Club, which despite the very restrictive low bridge, has maintained an active schedule for the past 70 years. To the left and right were several marinas, including Otter Creek and Flying Point, both of which offer transient slips, and dozens of pleasant homes. Two creeks--Otter Point and Church--lead off the river to the left and right, but both are better suited to boats with even shallower drafts, so we drifted to a halt in front of the yacht club while I dove for the second tuna sandwich, and a handful of crunchy dog treats for Skippy. We munched our respective meals in companionable silence, enjoying the late season sunshine and then started the trip back downriver.
Our cruise up the Bush River had been only about seven miles long, from Abbey Point at its mouth to just off the Bush River Yacht Club, but it had been well worth the trip--especially considering it was a lot more visitor friendly than I'd been thinking it would be all this time. Full of dog biscuits and tuna sandwiches--respectively--Skipper and I left the Bush late that afternoon and headed for home, back to friends and family. We'd had a fine trip. No flashing lights. No megaphones. And best of all, no machine guns!