Virginia’s Eastern Shore waters are notoriously thin, but a cruise up its Pungoteague Creek is a sure thing. 

by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by  Dick Goertemiller

If I were to tell you that Pungoteague Creek is directly off the Bay between Matchotank and Butcher creeks, you might just shrug and head back to the bar for another mojito, leaving me with a story untold. But if you’ve been around the Chesapeake for a while and take a minute to think about it, you’d be able to make an educated guess about the Pungoteague just from the name.

“Sounds like a lower Eastern Shore kind of name,” you’d say, still edging toward the bar. “So it’s probably a lower Eastern Shore kind of place—low, marshy, agrarian and, by and large, empty.”

Right on both counts, I’d reply. Following the Pungoteague upstream, you’d meander past Hancock and Buckland guts and then a few miles into the interior, finally heading off north, while its tributary Warehouse Prong peters out into marsh to the south, nearly coming up against Bobtown Road. In short, it’s a typical, lovely, timeless Virginia Eastern Shore creek, much like Onancock Creek to the north and Nandua, Occohannock and Nassawadox creeks to the south.

“So if I already know what it looks like,” you’d be likely to say, now looking at me a little like the wedding guest buttonholed by the ancient mariner, “Why should I make the trip all the way down there to see it?”

Well, I’d answer, it’s a seductive kind of place. An amalgam of water, land and sky so intertwined that it’s hard to know where one stops and the other starts. On the other hand, I’d add in an offhand way, some people love that part of the Bay for the danger.

“Danger?” you say, startled. “Are there pirates? Or alligators?”

No, no, I say quickly, I simply mean the danger of running aground. I know people with a five-foot draft who consider exploring the Virginia Eastern Shore’s creeks fine sport. I can’t say I agree with them—I consider it more of a benign form of Russian roulette—but they swear by it. To be fair, these people grew up in the area, so they have an advantage over the rest of us, since some of the chart soundings were taken about the time the Cubs won the World Series. I went into Occohannock Creek the year before and loved it. And what’s more, I didn’t run aground. So last fall, when I was traveling down the Eastern Shore in an Albin 28, which has a draft of less than three feet, I thought I’d have another go.

“And so you went to Pungoteague?” you ask before you realize your mistake.

Yes, I reply, settling down to my story at last. Before Skipper and I left Crisfield last September on our way to Cape Charles, I picked out Pungoteague Creek for a visit because It had plenty of channel markers, which meant that at least somebody thought it was still navigable. We headed south out of Crisfield, passing through Tangier Sound between Tangier and Watts islands before meeting up again with the Bay proper. About seven miles south of the Watts Island warning light, we came to Pungoteague Creek channel’s first markers, nearly two miles southwest of its entrance. Here we passed the battered old concrete-filled caisson that was once Pungoteague Creek Light.

There are several of these old caissons left on the Bay, but this one has a particularly interesting story. It is the caisson on which rested the last iteration of Pungoteague River (as it was called then) Light—the first screwpile lighthouse built on the Chesapeake. That was in 1854. In 1856, just 459 days after its completion, the lighthouse was destroyed by an ice floe. That record that still stands as the shortest lifespan of any lighthouse on the Chesapeake, and possibly the whole country. The federal government started to rebuild it, then decided the spot didn’t really need a lighthouse. Instead, a private beacon was constructed on the remains of the old lighthouse and continued in service until 1908. That was the year the Cubs won the World Series. More apropos, that was also the year the government decided the spot did in fact need a lighthouse, the cockeyed remnant of which stands there today.

Past the caisson, we followed the markers across the area known as the Mudhole, making a long lazy arc toward the creek’s entrance in nice deep water—nearly 20 feet in some places. Beyond “8”, the channel makes an S-turn, south around daymarker “9” and then north and finally south again between Klondike and Warehouse points. Just before we entered the creek, we came near what is left of Scarborough and Finneys islands. On the thin spit of deep water that separates larger Finneys from the mainland, a lone fisherman sat patiently in his small skiff, his line over the side; beyond him, the silhouette of a long abandoned house, stood black against the deep blue sky.

I slowed to look at that ribbon of water between island and mainland, and I knew that it was in just such a place that the real game is played. I imagined motoring slowly in, feeling ever so carefully along narrow channel for deep water. I imagined the beauty of the view behind the island. I imagined dropping the anchor and savoring the soft breeze that would blow in off the Bay, skimming that waterlogged pair of islands. Then I imagined running aground. I sighed. I wanted to be a player, but I knew I was still strictly bush league. Besides, I told myself, if I did ground, I’d have to get off by myself. (Skipper’s contract does not call for kedging off by swimming toward deep water with the line in his teeth.) And besides it wasn’t even my boat. No, much better to play it safe here in the main channel. I idled a few minutes more and then continued the S-turn into the creek. Wimp!

Outside the channel, a paper-thin layer of sandy-green water separated us from Hacks Neck to the south and Klondike Point and Sluitkill Neck to the north. (Who can not love this place for its names alone?) Beyond Buckland Gut and Horse Hole Creek, lay the once bustling settlement of Harborton, where the steamboats stopped and later barges carried away small mountains of Eastern Shore lumber for the mills at West Point at the top of the York River. As we rounded the point of the old wharf, we found a fine boat ramp between a set of short docks. I saw no reason not to stop, so we did. Skipper was delighted. He prefers this variety of exploration, anyway, with its opportunity for sniffing, foraging and what not. We strolled along the shore road—aptly named Shore Road—until it turned away from the water a short distance beyond at Taylors Creek. Across the creek I could see the Eastern Shore Yacht and Country Club, and across the Pungoteague, the docks of an old campground.

Returning to the boat and once again scrutinizing the chart, I saw that the markers came to an end just ahead. It’s hard to get to know a place when you have to walk upstream to get there, I thought, disappointed. Ahead of us lay Evans Wharf and Boggs Wharf, but would there be enough water to get us there? The chart showed a thin strand of suitably deep water, so I determined to press on. I was not going to wimp out this time. Beyond “16”, on the northern shore, a long narrow road snaked through the dusty fields to end at a point I concluded must have been Evans Wharf. One down.

I followed the deep water across the creek to the tiny bay marked on the charts as Boggs Wharf. Here it was harder to pinpoint an old shipping point. Half a dozen private piers reached toward the channel, but I couldn’t be sure of any wharf. I scanned the shoreline upstream with the faint hope that I could spy Mount Nebo, a name that tantalized me on the chart. Surely I’d be able to spot a mountain in this long flat land. It was not to be. At this moment the depth alarm sounded, entirely robbing me of any desire to keep going. Meekly, I turned the Albin around and headed back for “16” and safety.

Leaving the creek a few minutes later, I paused once again to study the water between Finneys Island and the mainland. Next time, I told myself, and then turned south for Cape Charles. 

[7.12 issue]