At the tail end of her trip up the ICW, our author finds a visit to Fort Monroe is a breeze by boat . . . but the real surprise is up on the ramparts.
by Jody Argo Schroath
Cousin Max and I pulled in the lines and pushed off from the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center and headed north into the early morning mist. We'd spent the night tied up to the bulkhead, listening to the unaccustomed sound of automobile traffic (the welcome center doubles as a rest stop for U.S. 17) and slowly freezing to death. Now in the pale winter dawn we felt our way toward the center of the narrow channel. It was a biting mid-December morning, and the cold mist had settled down over the summer-warm water like a broody hen over her eggs. Max and I sipped our coffee and scrutinized each shape on the surface as it slipped out of the fog. Was that a snag? A rock? For three weeks we had been working our way north out of Sebastian, Fla., bound for the Chesapeake Bay and Annapolis aboard the Endeavour Cat 36 my husband Rick and I had just purchased in Punta Gorda. Rick, Max and I had started in shorts and flip-flops; now Max and I were piling fleece on top of sweatshirt to keep out the chill. (We had long since put Rick ashore in Charleston, S.C., to fly back to work.) Even Skipper, who had begun the trip a little uppity at finding himself promoted to ship's dog of a full-size boat, was now more concerned with finding a warm blanket or a small patch of sunlight. On the positive side, by the time we reached the Dismal Swamp, we had the waterway pretty much to ourselves. No jostling for the deep water.
We had entered the canal the previous afternoon through South Mills Lock, pulling up to the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center a few hours later. Now we were only a few hours from the canal's northern end at Deep Creek Lock. After that we'd find ourselves on the Elizabeth River and Norfolk. Norfolk! Golly that sounded good! A trip is a trip, but winter was closing in, and Christmas was just a few days away. Max had promised his family he'd be back by then. And so had I. So the thought of Norfolk was pretty sweet as we motored the last few miles of the ICW. Gradually, the fog lifted, and, sure enough, a few hours later, the lock gates swung open to let us in. Suddenly it was all over. We were back in the tidal Chesapeake, and picking our way cautiously through the mighty maze of ships, barges, docks and bridges that make up Norfolk's working waterfront. We circled for an hour waiting for the Gilmerton Bridge, passed under a final railroad bridge, and finally there were no more bridges to negotiate. Nothing but wide-open Bay!
And now we were a little overwhelmed by the prospect. When you're following a river--or in our case, a ditch--you choose your stops based on the time of day and distance to the next stop (okay, and the weather, fuel and the location of that excellent seafood restaurant Auntie Maude recommended). Now we could go east, west or up the middle. It was almost too much. It was also late in the afternoon. We needed a quick decision because in December it's pitch dark by five, especially on an overcast day like this one. Scanning the chart, I searched for a good place. Willoughby Bay? Hampton River? Suddenly I had it. Of course! It was the perfect spot, and one that until last year wouldn't even have let us in--Old Point Comfort Marina at Fort Monroe! Until that famous old military installation was turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2011, the marina there had been restricted to military personnel only. Now it was open to everyone--like us. I reached for the phone and arranged for a slip and a fill-up.
"Head for the end of the entrance to the Hampton Roads Tunnel," I told Max, who was at the wheel. "We're going to go in right behind it." We soon spotted green "1", which marks the entrance to Phoebus Channel, and behind it Old Point Comfort Marina, tucked neatly behind a long breakwater with openings at each end. Fifteen minutes later, we were tied up along a face dock and ready to explore. We would have only about an hour before night closed in.
Leaving the marina, we crossed Ingalls Road, skirted the old quarantine station and St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, then wandered through a silent neighborhood of brick homes and tree lined streets until we saw the entrance to the fort itself, old gray stone and gun holes, surrounded by a moat. Yes, really, a moat! As we took the road across the moat to the entrance tunnel, we peered down into the still water below with the faint hope of spotting an alligator or a few hungry piranha, or perhaps a semi-retired sea serpent. But all was serene. Once we had entered the fort, we had a choice to make. The Casemate Museum closed at 4:30 p.m., which gave us less than half an hour there and then only a few minutes of remaining daylight to walk around. As we hesitated, Skippy cast his vote by bolting up the ramparts. "I guess we'll walk around," I said at the trailing end of the leash.
Naturally, having had only three weeks of looking at water all day every day, we immediately followed the rampart around so that we could look out over the Bay. It was a commanding view of the Bay and Hampton Roads. It's no wonder they built a fort here. It's strategic importance had been clear from the beginning. The English colonists built Fort Algernourne here in 1609 to protect their Jamestown colony. Two centuries later, following the Americans' defensive failure in the War of 1812, the U.S. government established a coastal defense system, with Fort Monroe as its largest stronghold. A few years later, the Union moved quickly to reinforce it against the surrounding Confederacy. Well into the 20th century, the old stone fortress stood as a heavily armed bastion of defense--until the long-range bombers and aircraft carriers finally made it obsolete. After that the fort was stripped of its arms and designated the home of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, preparing soldiers for war. Now that's all over. The army is gone and the old fort is a newly designated national park: Fort Monroe National Monument, open year-round for activities such walking around and exploring the grounds. In a few years, the National Park Service says, it will establish a series of public programs for the facility, but for now it's an excellent place for exploring, with more than enough to satisfy everyone, from the history buff to the person who just likes to look at the water.
And then we had a surprise. I don't remember when or where along the ramparts we spotted the first one, but the irony was inescapable. Max saw it first, a small granite stone set just off the grassy path. "Mr. Spook Shea," it read, "Nov. 1945–Feb. 1962, Army Dog, World Traveler and Our Best Friend." I found the next: "Barksdales Gallant Dog Jeb, 1940–1954." Then simply: "Toby McGuckin, 1941–1957, A Good Dog." Max and I moved from one to the next, stopping to read each one. Here atop a fortification that once bristled with 16-inch guns capable of firing a 2,000 pound projectile 25 miles were dozens of monuments to the faithful Jebs, Tobys and Spook Sheas, dear to memory of Fort Monroe's generations of military families. "Buck Garay," read another, "Here lies a part of our lives, Col. and Mrs. Garay." And finally, "Skippey, Beloved by the Heflins."
Modern-day Skippy (beloved by Jody), Max and I walked back through the day's last light to the marina and the boat. Two more days and we'd be back in Annapolis and Max would be on his way back to Florida and endless summer. But as a welcome back to the Chesapeake Bay, our stopover at Fort Monroe had been perfect . . . and a strong inducement for many visits to come.