by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
 

"That's not right," Mary said, as she and I stood along the bulkhead behind the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., looking out of the harbor toward the Miles River. "It's not ‘Speak for yourself, Miles.' Priscilla told John Alden, ‘Speak for yourself, John.'

"Yes, I know," 
I replied, a little exasperated by her insistence on accuracy, "I was just making a comparison between Miles River and Miles Standish."

It was Mary's turn to look a little chafed. "What's Longfellow got to do with this anyway? This is the Chesapeake, not New England. The Courtship of Miles Standish was about the Plymouth Colony."

"Yes, I know," I said again, "My point was simply that the Miles River, especially the upper Miles, is a lovely river that almost nobody sees, because they all make a beeline for St. Michaels." I pointed at a couple of boats, a Grand Banks trawler and an Alberg 30, both of which were on their way into St. Michaels harbor. "Do you see anyone except that crabber heading upriver? No, they come off Eastern Bay and take aim directly at St. Michaels."

"Well, and why not?" Mary asked defensively. This trip, after all, had been her idea.

"No, it's a great place, of course," I said quickly. "That's why everybody comes here. It's just that the rest of the Miles is lovely in a quiet well-behaved kind of way too. In fact, Skipper and I took a little cruise up the river this summer."

"Are you going to tell me about it?" Mary asked a little apprehensively.

"Of course," I replied.

"Then let's go find the guys and get some lunch while you're doing it."

A few minutes later, after we were seated in the Crab Claw with cold beers in front of us and the anticipation of two dozen steamed crabs soon to arrive. I began my story:

"It was Skipper's favorite kind of trip," I said.

"You were touring a butter factory?" my husband Rick interrupted facetiously.

I sighed. "No, it was a John Smith trip, the kind where we explore every creek and bay. Skipper likes that because it means we go very slowly, so he can go up on the bow and play scout."

Mary's husband Roger started to make a comment, but happily at this moment the crabs arrived, so I had the floor to myself as everyone set to work cracking and peeling. I began my story again:

Skipper and I left Eastport early in the morning so we'd have all day, I continued, picking up my story again. We had a bumpy ride across between Thomas Point Light and Bloody Point Bar, left over from a storm that had passed through the day before. And it got bumpier still after we turned to make the run up Eastern Bay. I don't know why that turn around Kent Island always seems so rough.

"Remember the time we were coming south against the tide in the Vega?" I asked Rick. He nodded. "We were sailing and sailing and not getting anywhere," I explained to Mary and Roger. "In fact, we were going backward until it occurred to us to tack against the tide."

But to get back to my story, Skip and I had had no such problem in the Albin 28, of course--just a knot or two off the speed--and once we got well inside the Bay, the chop smoothed out and the rest of the trip was as smooth as could be.

Our first foray was up Tilghman Creek, just inside the mouth of the Miles. I know it doesn't qualify as the upper Miles, but who can pass it up? It has everything packed into a short space: a perfect cove at the entrance for dropping anchor, beautiful old workboats to admire, a tiny and intriguing cemetery, great old homes with big old trees and a small municipal dock at the end. We made a second side-trip up Long Haul Creek, just north of St. Michaels. It's not as charming as Tilghman, but it's plenty popular because of its proximity to St. Michaels, and of course the Miles River Yacht Club is there too. It also has several good anchorages: one smack dab in the middle of the creek, just beyond the entrance, and another at the top of the southern branch. We passed a two-boat raft-up just off the yacht club, and then a flock of Optis--sails up, but on hard ground in the parking lot--as we headed for the north branch. Soon, though, we were back on the Miles and headed upriver.

For me, "upper Miles" means all of the river past St. Michaels, though others might argue that it really begins where the river makes a sharp left at Newcomb. In any case, St. Michaels is nearly at the halfway point between the river's official entrance--between Tilghman Point to the west and Bennett Point to the east--and the bridge at Maryland Route 370, nine miles upriver. The Miles narrows just about the bridge, but stays navigable for another two miles. Its two upriver tributaries, Glebe and Goldsborough creeks, have just enough water to stick your nose in and drop anchor, but not much else, except in a dinghy. Skipper and I gave each of these a quick look, but stayed in the main stem until we ran out of water. Like upper reaches of many Bay rivers--the Severn and South rivers come immediately to mind--the Miles upstream of the bridge is a lot like a neighborhood playground, with youngsters and parents enjoying the water without worrying about dodging big boats and their wake. I gave these merrymakers a wide berth, while Skip kept a sharp watch from his lookout post at the bow. Then I swung the boat around and headed back downstream.

As we emerged from the under the bridge, we came on a small catboat tacking upriver, shoved along by on the late afternoon breeze. I slowed to watch its progress and to admire the large old homes keeping their centuries-long watch along the shore. A little while later, the wind fell off as the sun hovered above the horizon. It would be dark soon, but I had saved the best part of the upper Miles for last.

The entrance to Hunting Creek lies two miles below the bridge, just before Long Point, where the river makes its turn to north toward St. Michaels and Eastern Bay. The entrance is a simple one, although it's crucially important to stay well off Long Point with its shallow water and submerged pilings. There is plenty of water to starboard, however, and a fine fair-weather anchorage just beyond.

As I turned into the creek, I could see that the anchorage was already occupied by a large trawler, so I set a course that took us between the private shoal marker and the trawler. Two minutes later, we had reached the creek's second marker, at the edge of a shoal that juts out from the other side of the creek. After that the channel broadens, with depths of 9 and 10 feet nearly to the shoreline. Then, three-quarters of a mile in, the lands breaks for a 100 yards or so. Here the Miles and the creek meet a second time, creating an intriguing "back door" for small boats--or those drawing less than 3 feet, at any rate--and a fine hot-weather anchorage for catching a southwest breeze blowing in off the Miles.

Not far beyond this inlet, Hunting Creek turns east, and where the creek was merely pleasant before, here it becomes something special.

The reason is largely architectural, I said. The Miles, and indeed the Chesapeake as a whole, is full of great homes, but here on this short portion of Hunting Creek, each place seems to have an enchanted personality of its own. In one spot, the fields of an old farm bristle with modern sculpture. In the next, the gardens are a horticulturalist's wonder of flowers and trees. And in another--my favorite--a pointy ochre Gumby of a house manages to establish a pitch-perfect harmony with its surroundings.

As Skipper and I reached this part of the creek, I put the Albin into neutral and we slowly drifted on the tail end of the flood tide. The air was still. The sky was intensely blue, the trees intensely green. The creek had barely a ripple. There was not a soul to be seen or a sound to be heard. Just beyond the ochre house, I went forward and eased the anchor over the bow, trying hard not to break the silence. Slowly I paid out the line as we continued to drift upstream. At 50 feet, I tied it off the rode and went back to set the anchor. Finally, I switched off the engine. Now I could hear what I hadn't been able to over the engine: the caws of a dozen crows, the buzz of a million insects. Nothing more. Just after dark, a light breeze struck up from the south. Skipper and I sat in the cockpit long after dark, sniffing the air and studying the stars, respectively. About 9, I climbed into the bunk and went promptly to sleep.

The next morning, the wind had picked up and a long ellipsis of polka-dot clouds lay along the western horizon. I started the engine, retrieved the anchor, and set off for home. The trip down Eastern Bay was rough, of course, and the trip across the Bay rougher, but we were back in Annapolis by early afternoon.

"Which just goes to prove, Priscilla," I concluded, "that you can have a lovely cruise on the Miles without stopping at St. Michaels."