James Island, at the mouth of the Little Choptank River, is a beachcomber's
paradise--and mosquitoes' heaven.
by Jane Meneely
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
Some time ago, I met an Eastern Shore waterman who told me about his sizeable collection of arrowheads. Some of them he had found in farmers' fields, right after the spring plowing. Others he had picked up along various river banks. But one of his favorite spots, he confided, was James Island, at the mouth of the Little Choptank. Good enough for me. I'd found only one arrowhead in my whole life--lying in the gravel along the water's edge on a Miles River beach--and I sure wouldn't mind finding another. I made a mental note then and there to take a good look the next time I found myself there.
That time came last spring, after I had persuaded Brother Henry and my sister-in-law Pat that a trip to James Island would be a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. We'd just come through a stretch of sopping wet spring weather, but now the rain had finally stopped, and word had it that drier weather was afoot. It seemed like a reasonable shakedown cruise for the boat after a restful winter, so off we went aboardINSSA, motoring through the break-water at the mouth of Rockhold Creek. A few fishing boats bobbed in the white-capped water of Herring Bay, and a single tug hauled a barge south. Otherwise we had the Bay
The Western Shore faded astern as little by little the Eastern Shore gathered definition, and before long we could see the wide gap where the Choptank River opens up to the Bay. We passed below the Sharps Island Lighthouse (which always seems to me to be leaning anxiously over the open water, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of the Sharps Island homes, churches and farms that had sunk beneath the waves a century ago). Another six miles south by east and then we were there.
Coutesy of time and tide, James Island is now actually three small islands. Tall stands of loblolly pines rise from the tough clay that still resists the relentless push and pull of the water. But the remaining islands aren't long for the world. Soon enough they too will be rubbed away. The gaps between them are ever widening--more even than I remembered from my last visit--leaving them now little more than oversized hummocks.
We had reasonably fair weather. The northeast wind had settled down as we crossed the Bay, and the air was warm. We anchored between the southernmost island and the small hollow of Oyster Cove on the "mainland" of Taylors Island. The chart showed plenty of water (13 feet), with rapid shoaling to about a foot in a wide apron around the islands. We had towed the dinghy, so it was at the ready for a landing party. We piled in.
The James Island beaches are like great catcher's mitts, trapping all kinds of flotsam along their shores, including the huge deadheads that come walloping down the Bay from the Susquehanna. Driftwood of all shapes and sizes weaves itself into the dense cord grass that rings the shore. Weathered boards, old crab pots, and workboat detritus are threaded with the occasional bit of trash. Thirty years ago we would have found oilcans and soda bottles everywhere--especially after a full winter's exposure. I expected truckloads of Styrofoam cups and cardboard juice boxes. Instead I counted four glass liquor bottles, a couple of plastic jugs (one still tied to a long crab line), and bits of paper and plastic--perhaps a single trash bag's worth. Better than the old days, anyway, though I was sorry I hadn't grabbed a trash bag before leaving the boat.
After we had clambered ashore, I began to poke through the bits of twisted wood in hopes of finding a bushel-basket bottom. (They make good cheese boards, and my old one had finally broken.) I had lots to choose from, so choosy I was, picking them up and discarding them when a better one came in sight. Almost out of the gate Pat picked up a stray duck decoy--the cheap plastic kind, but a fun find nonetheless. Then we saw, sitting on the high-water mark, an empty terrapin carapace. It was intact, right down to the delicate backbone inside. That was as good as an arrowhead any day.
We wandered over the island for a good bit. The "high" ground of the interior was thickly carpeted with pine needles. My feet sank through them as if they were soft mud. Noting the scraggly lines of washed up debris that formed the high tide mark, we deduced that the island was often nearly deluged. Its perimeter was variously sandy beach and clay bank, crisscrossed with fallen or washed-up tree trunks--ample seating, anyway! The beaches would make a lovely warm weather spot for picnics and swimming, but you'd want to pick a day with a good breeze from the west, to knock away mosquitoes and flies. There is enough standing water on the island to breed mosquitoes aplenty . . . and black flies. If this isn't wicked black-fly territory come August, I'll eat my flyswatter.
We headed back toINSSA, carrying my new cheese board, the decoy and the terrapin carapace with us. I'd like to say there was a glorious sunset, but in fact, the sky was still overcast and dreary, with the barest touch of color along the western edge. At least it was spring, so the light lingered, and we had a pleasant meal aboard before turning in.
We chose to stay put for the night, but began to regret our decision when the wind picked up after midnight and danced us around the anchor.INSSAcan be noisy in a blow. But I have overnighted here on other occasions with no problem; the steady breeze kept the boat cool, as I recall. It is fairly exposed, however, and if that's not your cup of tea, there are plenty of duck-in spots nearby.
And if you decide to come to James Island to do a little prospecting of your own, and if you get lucky and find an arrowhead, just don't tell me about it. I'm still looking for number two. Not that I'm complaining; that terrapin carapace is pretty swell. . . .