A trip into the Little Wicomico River is a trip back to the Bay’s good old days. [4.13 issue]

by Jody Argo Schroath

The first time I crossed the Little Wicomico River it was by car. My husband Rick and I were heading back to Kinsale, Va., from Reedville, Va., with friends. We had left the main highway to follow Sunnybank Road (Route 644) deep into the countryside, passing early summer fields, already deep green with soybeans and bright with young corn. We came to an abrupt halt as the road seemed to plunge into the water, emerging on the other side. We had reached the Sunnybank Ferry, one of Virginia’s two free car ferries. (The other, the Merry Point Ferry, crosses the Corrotoman River to the south.) Sunnybank has been toting horses, mules and eventually Ford minivans across the quartermile stretch of the Little Wicomico since 1906. While we waited for the cable-pulled ferry to make the trip across from Kayan to pick us up, we piled out of the car to look around. We were used to the Northern Neck’s lack of bustle, but the Little Wicomico seemed to be under an enchantment. Aside from the screech of an osprey doing some aerial reconnaissance, there was no sound. There were no boats, no people. Even the ferry seemed to be moving on tiptoes. We too fell silent. We rolled aboard, exchanged a minimum number of words with the captain, and rode across the river in silence.

For ten years that followed that visit, I would think about that almighty quiet each time I passed the Little Wicomico on my trips up and down the Bay. I thought about, but I never went back. I wanted to, but I quailed at the thought of tackling the river’s famously tricky entrance—with its swift current and shifting shoals—with my small sailboat’s undersized motor and heft keel. Then one day a couple of years ago, when I was making the passage in an Albin powerboat—powerful of engine and shallow of draft—I finally felt ready to take on this dragon. Which, of course, that day turned out to be a thoroughly tame lizard, thanks in no small part to a dead-calm day and recent dredging of the entrance channel. The depthsounder never blinked below 6 feet. I cruised blithely through the narrow stone entranceway, dodged a fisherman who was drifting in his skiff across the middle of the channel, passed along the wooden bulkhead and, hey, presto, I was inside. Here the channel took a jog to starboard to skirt the remnants of an island and a broad shoal bay.

Did I find that almighty quiet within? Not a bit of it. Instead, the entrance jetties had apparently acted as some kind of temporal worm hole, sucking me in and then spitting me out into a river still living in the 1950s. As I idled along the channel, the river around me was busy with working boats. Deadrises, skiffs, dredgers, head boats, all shuttling in and out of nearby creeks with all the industry of Madmen in porkpie hats and string ties. Along the shore, old wharfs and seafood plants stood cheek by jowl with green-roofed farmhouses. I felt like Captain Kirk in the Wild West episode. Where was I? Everybody knows that you can spend many weekdays on the Potomac River and never see another boat. Or the James. Or the Patuxent. In solitude, I had often wondered what these rivers looked like in the old days, when every river was a working river? Now I knew: It must have been a lot like this. Somebody forgot to tell these people that things had changed.

The Little Wicomico—or “Little River” as it has been known since Captain John Smith wandered by—can claim one of most persnickety entrance channels you’ll find on the Bay. Not only does it shoal every time you look at it cross-eyed, but it also has a pesky current that comes barreling through the narrow entrance. Oh, and then there’s often a crosswind and the small fishing boats that are forever drifting picturesquely across the channel.

Given its location, of course, the Little Wicomico is lucky to have an entrance at all. The Northern Neck, particularly its lower Potomac shore, is riddled with deep-water creeks that are now landlocked by silt deposited by the storms that have battered its exposed shores. The Little Wicomico, lying at the tip of that point, is particularly vulnerable. In fact, since the days of that peregrinating Captain Smith, the river’s mouth has shifted half a mile to the south. Riprap, wooden bulkheads and frequent dredging are all needed to keep this opening from closing as well. It’s a constant battle; since my last visit early last year, silt has already encroached from the north, piling up behind the northern jetty.

On said most recent visit, I had run into the Little Wicomico to escape a storm I could see pounding across the Bay toward Smith Point Light and me. As I quickly dropped the sails on Zen, my EndeavourCat, I could feel the wind being sucked southeast into the storm. Zen’s 4-foot draft was shallow enough, I figured, so I ran for the jetties, dodged the inevitable boats drifting across the channel, and dove back through the worm hole. It was good to be back! Everything was as it had been before. People going about their business . . . and doing it on the water. Once inside, I headed for Ellyson Creek, the river’s busiest tributary and the easiest one to enter. Slough Creek, the first navigable creek to the south, would have offered better protection from the coming squall—and a good refuge at Smith Point Marina—but its entrance was trickier, and its 4.5-foot depth deserved a more thoughtful approach than I was willing to give it at the moment. So I opted for Ellyson. Here the wind riffled the water, sending a short chop up the creek. A little more than half a mile along, I found a little unnamed cove, protected on three sides by trees. There I brought Zen to a halt and turned her bow into the wind—now from the south. As the sky darkened to black and then green, the creek emptied of boats. A minute later, the squall arrived with a vengeance. Happily, it was only a glancing blow, and soon it had swept by Smith Point and was headed toward Point Lookout. Before the last shower had ended, the boats were back on the water and work was resumed. I too got underway. Just down the creek, I passed the old oyster dredge Five Daughters as she lay with her tender at a loading dock.

At the mouth of Ellyson Creek, I started to turn back into the Bay, but then thought better of it. The sun was out again, and I was in no hurry to leave. I picked up my cell phone and called the Kinsale friends from that long-ago ferry trip. Why not drive down and meet me at Cockrell’s Marine Railway, and we’ll find a place to anchor out for the night? The meeting was arranged. Along the way, they stopped at the Callao Supermarket and picked up dinner—by coincidence, a thoroughly 1950s meal of fried chicken, gravy and biscuits. We whiled away the afternoon exploring the river above Cockrell’s, returning at dusk and to a lovely deep bay I had spotted opposite Flood Point near the mouth of Cod Creek. There we dropped the anchor in 11 feet of water. And as the sun set and moon rose, the Little Wicomico became almighty quiet once again.