Cold weather's no barrier to a crazy good cruise on the upper Chesapeake Bay.

by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

This is my idea of a great northern Bay weekend cruise: A trip to the piney-woods-crowned top of the Bay--up the Northeast River, say, with a leg-stretching stop somewhere like Charlestown, Md. Then, at day's end, dropping the hook in a brand-new anchorage, like Cara Cove on the Northeast, perhaps . . . or, even better, Piney Creek Cove around the corner on the Elk River. There you could sit on the doorstep of the C&D Canal and watch the shipping come and go.

"Let's do that," I enthused to a progression of friends and family members. "It's only November. That's not too late."

"You're nuts!" they said, one and all. "You are seriously nuts!" Finally, a volunteer stepped forward: my dog Skippy. (In truth, he doesn't know how to say "no.") So at daybreak on a bright blue Saturday in November, the Ship's Dog and I, bundled up to the teeth, cast off the Albin 28 Journey's lines from JPort in Annapolis and set off for the northern Bay.

It's almost eerie to cross Annapolis harbor without having to weave through swarms of sailboats, powerboats, kayaks and the occasional Naval Academy mini-battleship. Eerie, but nice. Hooray for late-season cruising, I thought! I gave the fishing boats collected around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge a wide berth, passed through the center span and headed up into the empty upper Bay.

The sky was intensely cobalt blue and the visibility seemed infinite. I soon passed Love Point at the northern tip of Kent Island, then Swan Point, as we followed the Tolchester Channel east to hug the shore and then north again. With a draft of just over three feet, Journey didn't really need to stay between the markers, but the channel was something to aim for. I kept her at the channel's edge, though, just in case I failed to see a tug and barge or 12-story RORO sneaking up behind us. (I say I, because although Skippy is a great conversationalist--that is, he lets me do all the talking--he's forever falling asleep on watch.)

Just off Worton Point, we followed the channel as it turned northeast, and three hours after we had left, we passed Howell Point at the mouth of the Sassafras River. In the distance, I could already see Elk Neck jutting out beyond Grove Point, the northern entrance to the Sassafras. Beyond that, I could just make out the low shoreline between the Susquehanna and Northeast rivers, seeming to hover just above the Flats. I love the intimacy of the upper Bay, where you can often see both sides and the top, all at the same time. It seems almost like lake boating-until you turn around and realize you can just about see clear down to Dixie.

At Turkey Point at the tip of Elk Neck, I throttled back from our get-there speed of 13 knots, and we ambled north, slowly now, hugging the steep shoreline of Elk Neck State Park to stay in deep water and avoid the Flats, now a superconductor of reflected sunlight. Skippy unfolded himself from his get-there position (wedged between the passenger seat and the cabin bulkhead) and took up his working position at the stern, on the lookout for herons and other known threats to national security.

About noon, we reached Cara Cove, the first good anchorage beyond Turkey Point. Cara Cove sits just about opposite Carpenter Point at the entrance to the Northeast River and carries four to six feet, except along its shoreline, where it gets shallow, not surprisingly. It offers pretty good protection from everything but a westerly blow. It looked inviting, but it was too early to stop yet. The sky was still clear and the wind negligible, and I figured we had another four hours before we'd have to drop the anchor for the night.
So we kept to the channel up the Northeast, and two miles later we were at Hance Point, another good anchorage in a southerly or easterly blow. Just beyond that we crossed the river to Charlestown, where the docks stretch out to the edge of the channel. Skippy looked at me pleadingly from his position at the stern, so we sidled up to a dock and went ashore.

Charlestown is a nice little settlement, full of old houses and history, and the wistful air of a town bypassed by both time and the highway. Founded in 1742, Charlestown was meant to be a major port for the transport of goods and services. And it was set up as the county seat. But fate and the hurricane of 1786 changed the course of Charlestown's history by improving water access to Havre de Grace and Baltimore. The coupe de grace came when the county seat was moved to Head of Elk, now Elkton. The rest is history-or non-history. Yet, there is much to be said for the quiet life in the historical backwaters, and Charlestown's thousand or so residents consider themselves the better for the oversight.

Skippy and I enjoyed our stop in Charlestown very much, though perhaps not for the same reasons. While I chatted with people at Charlestown Marina who were industriously winterizing their boats and cursing the end of the season, Skippy found plenty of interesting smells and a satisfactory number of bushes. We both enjoyed walking down Water Street to the stone wharf, which was built over the old cribbings of the town's 18th century wharf. While I studied the various historical markers, Skip watched the seagulls feeding in the shallows. We walked back toward town and peered into the windows of the antiques shops, which were closed, and then clambered back onto the boat and onto the river.

The sun was already beginning its descent into the west, so I turned Journey south again, and we retraced our route until we were below Turkey Point once more. This time we rounded the point and headed up the Elk River. Three o'clock.

If this had been summer, I would almost certainly have made a beeline for Veazey Cove on the southern shore of the Bohemia River. There, we would have found shelter from the late afternoon squalls that habitually come tearing across the Bay out of the southwest.

But this was late fall--almost winter in my almanac--when the bad weather is likely to come out of the north. And for that, Piney Creek Cove, set into the north shore of the Elk, seemed like just the ticket. Or at least that was my working hypothesis.

Piney Creek Cove is just over a mile wide and half a mile deep, from Hylands Point on the south to Oldfield Point on the north, making it a broad rectangle that, on the map, looks like an artificial construction, a harbor built to order. It's not, of course. Inside the cove, the depth varies from six feet to . . . oh, about a teaspoon, with the best water apparently toward Oldfield Point, where a ferry service once took passengers across the Elk. But shoals shift, bottoms change and part of the fun is to sound out your own personal gunkholes. Sometimes the actual depths match the charts, but just as often they don't. The trick, of course, is to find the variations that fall your way.

With that in mind, I worked in along the north shore until we were well inside. When I thought we were about as far in as prudence would allow, I pulled forward and then went up front to drop the hook. With no wind to push us back, I nudged the motor in and out of reverse to set the anchor. Done. Now we had a front row seat for the entrance to the C&D Canal. Just about a mile beyond Piney Creek Cove, the channel turns off the Elk into Back Creek and the canal. That meant that all the canal traffic would pass right under our nose.

And perhaps it did. We didn't see it. Within minutes of dropping anchor, the sun dropped below the horizon, taking the day's warmth along for the ride. Skippy and I dove as one for the relative warmth of the cabin. Shortly afterward we were burrowed deep into our respective beds and sound asleep.

The next morning, I pushed open the cabin door to find a river full of whitecaps, with a knife-sharp wind out of the northwest shoving hard against the ebbing tide. Overhead, clouds scudded fast into the east, making a strobe light of the rising sun. Out on the river, a tug pushed a loaded barge slowly upriver toward the canal; a small schooner under power fought its way downriver through the foam.

I shivered and poured out the last of my coffee. "You're nuts!" my friends had told me. "I must be nuts," I told Skippy, as he headed back inside the cabin. I knew where his get-there place was going to be today. I sighed, pulled on my watch cap, zipped up my jacket and started the engine.

An hour and a half later, we were threading our way into Turners Creek on the Sassafras. Here, I knew, we would find a refuge from the wind and a place to dock the boat for a few hours. I could make some more coffee while we waited for the wind to subside. Skippy could run off the cold and find a few bushes.

A few minutes later, sitting at a picnic table overlooking Turners Creek, I sipped hot coffee and watched the last of the clouds blow out. Things were looking up. "Hey, who's crazy now?" I asked Skippy.