Veteran cruiser Diana Prentice finally gets the chance to fossil hunt along Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs, and is quite besotted by the whole thing. Her two young grandchildren? Not so much.
by Diana Prentice
photo by Jody Argo Schroath
Growing up in Harford County, Md., where my narrow world sloped gently toward the Bush River, I held a few misperceptions about Southern Maryland that persisted into adulthood. For example, when novelist Tom Clancy put his protagonist Jack Ryan’s Chesapeake home high on a cliff, I was certain that it was over-dramatization. This wasn’t any Maryland topography I knew.
Even after a few seasons of cruising the Chesapeake, my geographical ignorance continued—until the time my husband Randy and I happened upon Calvert County’s craggy shoreline. On that crisp autumn day, Cove Point Light and the keeper’s house gleamed low against the bold backdrop of russet cliffs—cliffs that stretched from the mouth of hte Patuxent to Chesapeake Beach. Frankly, the scene left me awestruck. I owed Mr. Clancy an apology.
Further revelations came a few years later. During a stopover at Flag Harbor, I walked northward on the beach under the cliffs and returned with a perfectly formed scallop shell the size of my palm. I learned the real significance of my find only later, however, when Randy and I were visiting the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Md. My shell was not just old, it turned out, but had been vacated by its dweller between 8 and 18 million years ago, when all of Chesapeake countryside was covered by a warm, shallow Miocene-era sea. Now layer upon layer of debris from that era, long trapped in the eroding cliffs, is reappearing in the sand beneath the cliffs. Thousands of keen fossil hunters are drawn to the area each year.
And last year I joined that throng of enthusiasts. Calvert Marine Museum, the only Maryland facility actively preserving this ancient natural past, also leads fossil field experiences. So last July, with grandchildren Cedric and Leah in tow, I joined one of the guided expeditions.
The appointed morning dawned gloomy, with the threat of worse to come. To make matters worse, we arrived unprepared for pelting rains and daylong bluster. In a steady drizzle, we met our guides and fellow fossil hunters at Cove Point Lighthouse. And as we trudged together to the water’s edge, I wondered about our chances of finding anything at all.
The answer to that question was almost immediate. Ignoring the rain, our guide and his helper gamely scooped up handfuls of wet sand, then proceeded to extract ancient sharks teeth and shells each time. Deftly they picked out black shiny fragments of sting-ray dental plates, dainty spiral Turritella shells and smooth-edged, buff-colored chips of long-ago sand dollars. After the excitement of the first few shark’s teeth, however, the grandkids gave up, their enthusiasm extinguished by relentless downpour. They returned to my van and huddled with their books, while I, overtaken by fossil-fever, refused to quit. After years of searching for those elusive shark’s teeth, I was energized by finding them on my own at last.
After lunch, our group reassembled at the museum to discuss what we’d found. All eyes were drawn to the gigantic megalodon tooth that a lucky girl and her parents had discovered on the beach that morning. After that, we all trekked off to see a model skeleton of the extinct megalodon. The megalodon, a huge and thankfully extinct shark, is thought to be one of the largest, most powerful predators that ever lived.
When the following day brought welcome sunshine, I drove the children a few miles up Route 2 to Calvert County’s Flag Ponds Nature Center and its beach. A short hike through the woods took us to a breathtaking Bayside stretch of sand. Cedric and Leah immediately raced to the water. For the next few hours, as the kids splashed in the shallows I sat on the shore and sifted. The next day, we did the same. By the end of the second afternoon, my pile of tiny prehistoric teeth numbered two dozen. I was a full-fledged fossil junkie.
Since most of Calvert County’s steep shore is privately owned, access to the cliffs’ beaches is limited [see Cruiser’s Digest below for details]. Where there is access, there is also generally a fee, followed by a lengthy but pleasant hike to the beach. Boaters, on the other hand, have more options—though there are several security zones in the area. Several weeks after my days of fossil-hunting with the grandkids, I still wanted more. Finally, on a hot, windless day in August, I saw my opportunity. Randy and I motored Strider out of the Severn River and turned south. About five hours later we were southwest of green can “77A”, well north of the security zone around the nuclear power plant near Cove Point. Our goal was Flag Ponds Nature Center, seen on the chart as a tiny hook of land about half a mile below Flag Harbor. Since charted depths abruptly change from 6 feet to 6 inches, we crawled along, deciding to drop anchor in about 14 feet.
After lunch I put-putted the mile or so to the beach, landing the dinghy in an area north of the park, south of a cluster of homes. It felt as if I’d entered another world; it was close to civilization yet felt intensely remote. As I strolled south, gentle waves lapped bottle-clear over my toes and everywhere chunks of scallop shells and other fragments of Maryland’s Miocene past gleamed from the sand.
Travel & Leisure magazine calls this 30-some-mile stretch one of the ten best U.S. shelling beaches, and fossil enthusiasts exalt in its handsome harvests. In Calvert’s rich farm country along Route 2 paralleling the Bay, shark-teeth peddlers often set up shop between roadside produce stands. On this particular beach day, the sharktooth-fairy wasn’t bearing gifts. But I’m easily entertained and I happily collected sea glass, prehistoric scallops, arcs, moon snails, coppery-iridescent oyster shells and tightly-spiraled turritellas. Tidbits of the graceful snail Ecphora, Maryland’s official state fossil shell, also joined my growing collection.
After a couple of hours, I backtracked toward the dinghy, wading a bit farther out as I dawdled along, stopping now and then for anything that caught my eye. And there it was. In about six inches of water, lying all by itself on the sand, was the pièce de résistance: a shiny, smooth, one-inch-plus mako shark tooth. Not a megalodon, but an unusual find nonetheless. The creature probably shed it sometime during the middle Miocene, 15 to 18 million years ago. And to think it had waited all this time to find me.
Visiting By Sea The two times Randy and I anchored off the cliffs, it was for daytime only, heading over to Solomons to drop the hook in St. John’s Creek for the night. Even in calm weather, we don’t recommend overnighting in a place not recognized as an anchorage. The anchoring spots we liked off Calvert Cliffs were alongside Flag Ponds Nature Park and just south of Little Cove Point. Honor all security zones (you’ll find them on the charts), pick settled weather and be especially mindful of shallows and fishtraps.
Arriving By Land While the cliffs of Calvert Cliffs contain some of the richest fossil deposits of marine invertebrates in the world, you are not permitted to dig them out. In fact, for reasons of property rights and landslide potential, you may not walk of climb around on them at all—or even walk directly beneath them. However, you may root through the adjacent beach areas, as long as you do it below the high water mark. And since ancient sediments in the cliffs are constantly eroding, a fresh windfall is always waiting along the tide line, especially after a storm. But keep a close eye on those tides. Not only is the hunt best at lowest ebbs, but higher waters can be problematic along skinnier sections of beach—putting you directly under the cliffs or unexpectedly scrambling over collapsed scree and skirting fallen timber.
You won’t need any special equipment for your Calvert Cliffs experience, but serious scavengers like to bring scoops, kitchen strainers and even “lookie buckets,” which are ordinary pails on which the bottom has been replaced with clear plastic. Often the best finds haven’t tumbled up to the beach yet.
Of course, a tour of the Calvert Marine Museum (410-326-2042; www.calvertmarinemuseum.com
) enhances any fossil expedition. Docents are helpful and depictions of the Chesapeake’s Miocene story are fascinating. You may be surprised to learn that crocodiles once swam along the cliffs. Their teeth are found there, too.
CALVERT CLIFFS ACCESS POINTS
Bay Front Park
Maryland Route 261
Once called Brownie’s Beach, Bay Front Park is just south of Chesapeake Beach. The limited parking area fills quickly in high season, but it’s open year round for day-use with fees only charged during summer months.
Breezy Point Beach And Campground
Maryland Route 261 to Breezy Point Road
This small county park has a half-mile beach for a variety of waterside activities including camping. Open daily from May to October and weekends in the off-season, a fee is required.
Matoaka Beach Cabins
Maryland Route 765 to Calvert Beach Road to Matoaka Lane
Besides seasonal cottage rentals, owners of this old-fashioned, Bay-front getaway in the little community of St. Leonard welcome day-visitors. For a modest fee, a long beach with fossil-hunting possibilities is an easy hike from the parking area. Call ahead for directions and info.
Flag Ponds Nature Park
Maryland Route 2 and 4 to Flag Ponds Parkway
Lusby’s beautiful county-owned park, Flag Ponds, is open daily in summer, weekends in the off-season, with fees collected at the main gate. A pleasant half-mile hike takes you to an inviting point that juts into the Bay. Surrounded by shallow water and dotted with ponds, the broad sandy beach is fossil-laden.
Calvert Cliffs State Park
Maryland Route 765, about 5 miles north of Solomons
About five miles north of Solomons, this 1,300-acre day-use park requests an entrance donation. From the parking area, a gentle hike of 1.8 miles along the “Red Trail” leads through woodlands and board-walked wetlands to the Bay, ending at a short beach.
Cove Point Lighthouse
Maryland Route 2 and 4 to Cove Point Road (MD 497) to Lighthouse Blvd.
The Calvert Marine Museum offers beach access only during their guided “fossil field experience.” The museum recently opened the newly renovated lightkeeper’s house. Overnight visitors are allowed unlimited use of the private beach during their stay.