A cruise to Irish Creek on the Choptank River turns up short on gold but long on lessons.
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
Splash went the anchor and out came the lunch--ham and cream cheese sandwiches, red grapes and ice-cold water. My friend Jean and I would have settled for the water. The Bay was in the midst of that seemingly endless heat wave that stayed on like an unwanted guest and melted steely resolve into small puddles of indolence. Nevertheless, here we were, anchored behind Deep Neck on Irish Creek off the Choptank River. Jean had made the tactical error of stopping by to visit on her way south from Maine--where it had been cool and drizzly. She hadn't known, and I hadn't bothered to inform her, about the heat wave that had all of the Chesapeake Bay in a death grip. So when I proposed a cruise down from Annapolis to the Choptank, she said, "Sure!"
Irish Creek, tucked between Broad Creek and the Tred Avon River, is either ignored as a cruising destination or dismissed outright as unexceptional and virtually inaccessible. Why, with so many beautiful creeks to choose from when cruising the Choptank, consider Irish Creek? Sounded like a challenge to me. "We're going to ignore all those popular and beautiful creeks," I explained to Jean. "Instead, we're going to see for ourselves whether Irish Creek is as unexciting as it's cracked up to be. Maybe it has charms as yet undiscovered. If it does, we'll be the ones to find them!"
Well, we can't always be right.
The trip down to the Choptank on the Albin 28 was as pleasant as a bright and hazy day with the promise of punishing heat can be. We descended the Bay past Poplar Island and then turned east in search of Knapps Narrows, which was utterly lost to view in the thick morning haze. Finally, we spotted flashing green "1" and, just beyond it, red marker "2". Somewhere between there and flashing red "4", the Albin's shallow water alarm began to beep. Yipes, the bottom was coming up fast! I backed off the throttle and looked behind me to see whether I'd wandered out of the channel. Didn't look like it to me. I eased the boat this way and that, trying to find some water. Right in the center of the channel, the bottom finally dropped off, and we proceeded--more gingerly--along our way. Ah, yes, the Bay's constantly shifting subaqueous landscape is certainly one of its charms. Just as we were debating whether the Albin, with a theoretical eight-foot height minus antenna, would clear the Narrows' theoretically 12-foot-high bascule bridge, an outgoing research and educational vessel made the question moot by signaling for an opening. The Albin should have had plenty of clearance, but I was in no hurry to test that theory--the consequences of failure were too painful to contemplate.
Knapps Narrows was deep in its mid-week siesta, so there was little activity and few boats to contend with in the narrow channel, and we were coming through the other end. Entering the broad Choptank, we saw few boats there either. Actually, we could have been mid-ocean for all we could see; Harris Creek, Broad Creek and the Tred Avon were all lost to view in the thick, humidity laden air. So we zeroed in on our goal with the boat's chartplotter and--I have to confess--a few other gizmos I had brought along as well: my iPhone's Navionics app (look for a comparison of smartphone navigation apps in an upcoming issue of CBM), as well as my notebook computer's MacENC program using a USB stick that turns the computer into a GPS (this is both a great and inexpensive gizmo, by the way), and, oh yes, an actual paper chart --two of them, in fact. Does that sound obsessive? No, really. I was just, uh, testing the new technology to share with our readers. Yes, that was it.
Back to the trip. Not surprisingly, we were able to make a beeline to the first marker (green can "1") for the channel into Irish Creek. Unlike some of the markers that followed, it was where we expected to find it, which is to say, where it is on the charts. After that, things got kind of confusing, not to mention alarmingly shallow. It is true that the charts disagreed on exactly how deep the Irish Creek channel was--7 to 10 feet on one and 6 to 8 on another, for example, but nowhere less than six. Hah! We immediately found many examples of less than four. Happily the boat needs only three, so we managed to get in, though I'm not altogether sure how, since the markers seemed to have moved about like giant chess pieces, while some seemed to have been knocked out of the game altogether. Marker "3" had moved a couple of squares closer to "4", which was where it was supposed to be but seemed to have lost its number (so maybe it wasn't "4"). There was marker "6", but it showed up sooner than expected, while its place was now held by "8", faithfully standing guard over the shoal off Edwards Point. When we had rounded Edwards Point--which offers the creek's first protection from weather blowing in off the Choptank--we found deeper water off the port shore, though not up to the charts' more optimistic predictions. When we took a break from marker spotting, we found the creek populated with pleasant homes, centered in generous green lawns--nice enough, but, well, unexceptional. Undaunted, we turned up Haskins Cove.
Call us slow learners, but by the time we had worked our way into Haskins Cove, it finally dawned on us that we should ignore the markers altogether and follow the poles instead. Poles as in "sticks," of course, not people of Central European derivation. For hundreds and probably thousands of years, mariners have marked shoals and channels, especially ones that shift often, with dead trees and sticks. So it was here. The people who used the creek all the time knew where the bottom had shifted most recently and so had created their own navigational system. It had just taken us a while to realize what was right under our nose. We put down the charts and switched off the electronics (except for the boat's, which gave the all-important depth soundings) and simply kept an eye on the poles. What had been tedious trial and error now became a walk in the park.
With new-found confidence we ghosted past more homes, a few watermen's docks and back out of Haskins Cove, still looking for that pot of gold. We were just working our way out of a final, unnamed cove, when we found a tiny bay, bounded by a large property and a single road that looked like a causeway heading out to Holland Point and which turned out to be Deep Neck Road. Here we felt we could stop without having the impression that we were looking over someone's back fence. This seemed to be the best anchorage to be had on the creek, so it was here that we dropped the hook and pulled out the lunch. We ate under the blazing midday sun, sitting on the swim platform with our feet dangling in the water.
"Well, I guess everybody's right," I said to Jean. "We've found no secret treasure here. And the markings are tricky and the depth on the way in is very iffy. On the whole, perhaps not a worthy cruising destination."
"That's certainly true," Jean agreed, "though since this is the only creek on the Choptank I've seen, I have nothing to compare it with."
"Well, we can certainly rectify that," I replied and then suggested that we head up the Tred Avon, where just about every creek is a gem. "But first let's take a swim to cool off."
"Sounds great!" Jean said, reaching for her swimsuit. "Why didn't you tell me it was this hot? I can't wait to get in the water."
Just then, of course, the first jelly showed up. Then the second. Then the third. In less than a minute, the whole big jellyfish team 'had assembled for calisthenics right off the swim platform.
"Never mind," I said. "Let's just pull up the anchor and get going. We can stick our heads out the window when we get back on the river to cool off. We can pretend to be Labrador retrievers."
So we upped anchor and picked our way carefully out Irish Creek, picked up speed at last as we headed for the Tred Avon. Oh, well, I thought, there's not always a pot of gold in every cruise. But we had a good time and we learned that the oldest technology is sometimes still the best.