A cruise on the Coan River, an anchorage on Kingscote Creek . . . it's all part of that vision thing.
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard Goertemiller
On a recent day smack in the middle of the work week--and under a bright blue sky besides--my friend Hal and I gathered up a complete set of tuna salad sandwiches and set out from Sandy Point Marina on the Yeocomico River aboard Journey, an Albin 28, to visit our next-door neighbor, the Coan River. Farmers, I believe, check out the neighboring farms all the time--or at least they did when I was a young blister. In those far-off days, the farmer I happened to be riding with would invariably slow the car or truck down every 50 to 80 yards to see how the neighbors' crops were doing: Look how high the Johnsons' corn is! Look the Petersens must have a new combine! That kind of thing. Well, if farmers can do it, Hal and I figured, boaters could too. Besides I had a particular hankering to go back to the top of Kingscote Creek, one of my all-time-favorite anchoring spots, just to make sure nothing had changed and no one had moved the tractor--metaphorically speaking.
I have often heard people say that the Yeocomico and the Coan rivers, which lie side-by-side a dozen miles or so up the Virginia side of the Potomac River from Smith Point, are as alike as two peas in a pod . . . or, as I would put it, two footprints from the same cosmic chicken. Really, just look at the chart, and there they are: two colossal three-toed chicken feet. In person, too, they have a lot in common. Both are intensely rural--more rural now, very likely, than they were a century or two ago, since the tobacco trade, canneries, steamboats, boatbuilding and, to a large degree, fishing are now all gone. Their two principal towns--Kinsale on the Yeocomico and Lewisetta on the Coan--once bustling with commerce and boats, are now populated with a few dozen houses and twice as many pleasure boats. Both rivers offer beauty, peace and anchorages galore for visiting cruisers, though few amenities like restaurants and nightclubs. And both are enchanting destinations with plenty of deep water and . . . well, you get the idea. But each, of course, also has its own characteristics and personality. The Yeocomico, for example, sits considerably higher in the water, with its principal port, Kinsale, sitting on a small bluff. Lewisetta, on the other hand, rides so low in the water that it seems perpetually likely to disappear under the next high tide. And indeed throughout its history it has been half-drowned by countless storms that rolled unchecked upriver from the Chesapeake Bay. Lying at the leading edge of Travis Point at the mouth of the Coan, Lewisetta is the first landfall in a very long fetch out of the east, which makes it susceptible to everything from a nor'easter to a hurricane. But after each storm, half-drowned and badly battered, little Lewisetta has shaken itself off, rebuilt and picked up where it left off, its general store still open for business and its marina still bristling with masts.
On this fine day, after passing the "birthday cake" (flashing red "2") at the entrance of the Yeocomico, Hal and I turned Journey southeast to pick up red nun "4" about three miles away and just outside the Coan, being careful to give shallow Judith Sound a wide berth. Unlike the entrance to the Yeocomico, which is pretty straightforward--allowing for the usual shoaling off both shores--the way into the Coan demands respectful attention and a few hairpin turns. Sloppy navigation can leave the unwary hard aground. Happily, the channel is well marked. We turned southwest at "4", skirted green "5", and then zigged to port to take red "6" to starboard. About half a mile beyond "6", with Lewisetta on our right, glowing yellow in the morning sun, we reached the point where the Coan takes off in three directions--the Coan proper to port, the Glebe more or less straight ahead and Kingscote Creek to starboard. Since we wanted to end the day on Kingscote Creek, we now turned left to follow the torturous path of the channel around Walnut Point, which juts far out into the Coan branch of the Coan (if that makes sense).
Walnut Point is my second favorite part of the Coan. Like Lewisetta, it's low in the water, so low that if you stand on the bow of the boat--well, even in the cockpit, if you're taller than a cocker spaniel--you can easily see the Potomac beyond it. To tell the truth, it's that water-land-water thing that I'm in love with, which is probably why I find the Coan so entrancing. As we wound back and forth through the slalom of daymarks before entering the broad deep channel beyond, we had a good look at the point and its solitary green tin-roofed farmhouse, a battle-scarred survivor, defiant amidst a stand of hardwood and firs. Fifty years ago and more, you would have been hard put to find enough room there to swing a dead cat (figuratively, of course) anywhere in the vicinity of Walnut Point. A tomato canning factory was just the last of centuries of commercial activity centered on this spot, which at one time or another hosted fish houses, resort hotels, shipping depots, a steamboat stop and more. Bugeyes, pungies, skipjacks, rams and clippers could all be found at anchor or tied to the Walnut Point wharf. Now its little bay is empty, a fine place to drop anchor. As we passed the last marker, a lone fishing skiff sputtered by us, while behind the trees, we watched a single sail glide silently out of the Potomac and into the Coan. It is a perpetual irony that now, when the Bay's population is xponentially higher than ever before, its waters are emptier than they've ever been.
Deep in introspection and tuna sandwiches, we dawdled up the Coan for two miles or so until the river narrowed at Bundick. Along the way we motored up nameless creeks and backed into an irresistibly cozy looking cove. Reaching Bundick at last, we slipped the motor into neutral to take an informal farmer-type inventory. Here is what we found. On the Bundick side: two rusting grain silos and a barge landing--still in use, I believe--assorted boats on trailers, a beached workboat, innumerable pilings from long-gone docks and piers, a handful of martin houses and a large motorhome. On the other side, site of Coan Wharf and the lost village of Coan: one private home and a few crumbling remains perhaps glimpsed in an anarchy of briars. Here and at Bundick, ships once loaded grain and tobacco, the steamboat once stopped with supplies and passengers, and, until 1943, Harry Smith pulled vehicles across the river by cable, one car at a time.
As Hal and I scanned the shoreline for evidence of the old cable crossing, we realized we were squinting hard into a sun not far above the horizon. Where had the day gone? So instead of ducking beneath the power lines that cross the river here (at 60 feet, theoretically) and continuing upriver perhaps half a mile to Nokomis, where the channel peters out, we spun the Albin slowly around. Time to head for Kingscote Creek.
Kingscote Creek is the small toe on the Coan foot of the cosmic chicken. It's considerably shorter than its fellow toes--and in fact is about the same size as the Shannon Branch, the Yeocomico's smallest tributary. It's also less interesting than either the main stem of the Coan or the Glebe, with fewer hidey holes and fewer interesting side-streams . . . that is, until you get to the end. But that doesn't mean that a trip up the Kingscote isn't perfectly pleasant. The shoreline is populated with watermen's homes, modest summer cottages and a few farms, all very . . . well . . . pleasant. In any case, it's a short trip of less than a mile to the head of Kingscote Creek. Then, just beyond a fine old wooden boathouse topped by a little cupola, the creek opens to starboard into a lovely but very shallow little cove. And beyond that, the creek ends in a panorama of farm fields, piney woods and marsh. The payoff is the view over the marsh: the thin band of Travis Point and beyond it Judith Sound, followed by the tip of Hog Island, with the wide Potomac beyond, and finally--when the humidity is low and the sky clear--the Maryland shore, nearly seven miles away. It makes for a water-land-water-land-water-land grand prize that never fails to take my breath away. Here at the top of Kingscote Creek you are in the world, but also apart from it, if you'll pardon the metaphysics. From a practical point of view, it means that when the wind is blowing hard up the Potomac off the Bay, you can hear the waves hit the long sandy beach along Judith Sound, but still be lying serenely at anchor on the still water of the Kingscote. Here too is a great place to watch birds. Osprey and eagles, of course, as well as shorebirds and field birds. I've never seen otters here, but I expect they're here as well.
I released the anchor, and we drifted slowly back with the gently ebbing tide. For a little while, we watched the ospreys above the pine trees and a blue heron in the marsh below. We watched the marsh glow red in the setting sun. We unwrapped the last of the tuna salad sandwiches. Yes, we decided, this neighboring farm was doing just fine.