A trip to explore the upper branches of the South River gets a little sidetracked along the way.
by Jody Argo Schroath
The morning sun rose hot above the Eastern Shore; the Bay Bridge and Kent Island shimmered in a thick August haze. Across the Bay, I followed a workboat out of Back Creek into the Severn River, throttling back the Albin 28 until I reached the outer limit of the 6-knot zone; I sipped my remaining coffee (now inexplicably colder than the ambient temperature) and considered my destination: the upper branches of the South River.
"Upper branches," I mused aloud. The ship's dog, Skipper, immediately looked up eagerly from his nook in front of the passenger seat, thinking perhaps I had said, "Have some biscuits."
"Upper branches," I repeated silently this time. Rivers are forever being compared with trees, their branches the tributaries and their trunks rooted in this bay or that ocean. It makes sense, of course, because we understand the world by creating a comparison to what we know. The workboat veered off toward Hackett Point, and I took a last sip of coffee before opening up the throttle, heading now for the Tolly Point Shoal marker at the edge of the Severn River.
"Yggdrassil!" I exclaimed suddenly, causing Skipper to bolt to his feet and look around nervously to see if we'd suddenly been boarded. Finding only me, he sighed and returned to his own dog thoughts. Yggdrassil was the name the Norsemen gave to the enormous ash tree they believed connected all worlds, and contained and sustained life, nourishing it and being renewed by it. An ideal image for the work of rivers, I thought. . . .
But my ruminations were cut short--and just as well, really--by our arrival at Thomas Point Light, which marks the tip of the long Thomas Point Shoal at the northern boundary of the South River. We had arrived at our starting point and it was time to start paying attention to the task at hand. Besides, Skip and I needed to finish our explorations in time to meet friends for dinner at Mike's Restaurant & Crab House, at the southern end of the Riva Road bridge. Yggdrassil could wait for rum drinks before dinner.
I had decided to go visit the upper section of South River because for some reason the guide books--including, alas, CBM's own Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay--stop at the Solomons Island Road (Route 2) bridge, with perhaps a nod to Mike's at the Riva bridge. But why? With vertical clearance of 53 and 50 feet, the river's two fixed bridges present no impediment except to tall rigs, and the South River itself is clearly navigable well beyond that--in fact, to within a few hundred yards of U.S. Route 50/301. The upstream creeks of Gingerville, Broad and Beards get no mention at all.
Of course, all the guides do have plenty of good things to say about the South River's lower tributaries, below the bridges, often beginning their account with Selby Bay, followed by Harness Creek, Aberdeen Creek and so forth, ending somewhere around Crab and Church creeks, just south of the Route 2 bridge. And they are exceptionally lovely creeks. I have always found the charms of Harness Creek particularly irresistible--and this trip was no exception. As Skip and I passed Selby Bay to port, I steered the Albin toward the South's northern shore, where Quiet Waters Park meets the water in a kind of grand staircase, as if the river were the stage for a Greek amphitheater. Often, boats passing by will find they have an audience of people and dogs, watching the river.
Skipper and I too have sat there, pausing on our way to the park's dog beach. On this sizzling day, however, we played to an audience of one as we slid by the steps and into Harness Creek. Not far inside, we came to the entrance to one of the Chesapeake's legendary hurricane holes. The last time I'd been here, it was, appropriately, to escape a storm. Friends and I had been enjoying ourselves out on the river when we spotted a curtain of black mist under a wall of towering cumulonimbus about where Glebe Bay should have been. We immediately doused the sails, started the motor and made a dash for nearby Harness Creek. Inside the hidey-hole, the water was perfectly serene, the steep banks acting as a foil to protect us from the wind as the storm passed over then raced across the Bay. We had the place to ourselves when we arrived, but as we sat out the storm, two more boats joined us--both small enough to allow us all a little elbow room.
As Skip and I wound our way inside this time, however, we found our way blocked by a large trawler, swinging at anchor. So I turned the Albin around and we left Harness Creek to continue our trip upriver. This little hurricane hole is also the best way to access Quiet Waters Park. You can load Spot and Bowser--or Skipper--into the dinghy and pull up ashore. The park has miles of wooded paths, the aforementioned doggy beach and a good-size dog play area.
Back on our way up the river, Skipper and I couldn't resist detours into Aberdeen and Almshouse creeks and, finally, into the sister creeks of Church and Crab, which share a common entrance, so it could count as one detour instead of two. Like siblings, this pair of lovely creeks seem to be locked in an eternal rivalry for most tempting cove or sweetest anchorage. While Church Creek seems to gets more attention, Crab Creek is no ugly step-sister. It has its own tempting coves and a very fine hidey-hole where the creek curls east before petering off into wetlands.
As Skipper and I returned to the river after this last side trip, I suddenly realized that the day was rapidly getting away from me. The sun was already headed for the western horizon when we finally reached the Route 2 bridge, only six miles from our start at the Thomas Point Light. Yikes! Just before we slipped under the bridge, we passed two of the river's several big marinas--Liberty Marina to starboard and Pier 7 to port. Once past the bridge, we came to two more marinas and a popular restaurant to starboard--Oak Grove Marina, The Marina (formerly Mark's Marina) and Yellowfin Steak & Fish House. Now, finally, we had reached the first of the South River's upper branches, Gingerville Creek. I made the turn into the creek, breathing a sigh of relief to be turning away from the sun, which had been getting low enough to be a real nuisance. Since Gingerville Creek runs north to south, I was now sun-blinded only when I looked over at the western shore, which naturally turned out to be where most of the interesting coves were. There were, in fact, three nice little coves in succession.
The first and most intriguing cove lay directly beyond the creek's entrance, an entrance that appears broad enough, but which--as often happens--is made considerably narrower by the sand bar that leads off the narrow peninsula jutting out from western shore. Tucked behind this peninsula is the cove, well protected and shaped like a thumb, since its bay is as wide as its entrance. Along the north side of this bay, long docks extend into the deep water, but leave enough swinging room for perhaps three of four boats at anchor, though probably no more. Gingerville's second cove has a wide entrance, but narrows quickly to a point. Inside, a small sailboat inside lay to its mooring ball. This cove would offer a lot less protection than the first, particularly in a northerly or southerly. Looking east, opposite the point between the first and second coves, I saw Gingerville Yacht Center, with its bright turquoise buildings and covered slips. Above the marina, on a yellow clay ridge, I could just see some of the racks of graceful rowing shells belonging to the Annapolis Rowing Club. Directly beyond the second cove, lies the third. It is smaller than the first two, but no less inviting for a boat or two.
The navigable portion of Gingerville Creek is not much more than half a mile long, and for a good part of that distance I could feel more than hear the bustling presence of nearby Solomons Island Road. Despite that, it seemed to me that Gingerville manages to preserve its own sense of place, its high banks cloaked in trees and its homes looking serenely down on the water. On weekends, the serenity is likely somewhat ruffled by the many boats that populate this part of the river, but on this day, the Albin had the creek
Not so on Broad Creek, which joins the South just beyond the Riva Road bridge. Broad Creek too strikes north, but in this case for about a mile. Here the Albin was joined by a stand-up paddleboarder and a couple of fishing skiffs. Like Gingerville Creek, its banks are high and lined with trees topped with large homes. Here too I found a handful of tempting coves and plenty of deep water, with 11 feet at the entrance and eight most of the way upstream.
About halfway up Broad Creek, I passed Camp Woodlands, the Girl Scout Camp established here in 1944. I had thought perhaps I would be able to see its great tepee from the water, but I couldn't. The 12-sided Lambs Lodge, as it's formally named, was completed in 1945 and given a Merit Award by the American Institute of Architects for its design. The son of the couple who donated the land for the camp designed the tepee early in his career with the Annapolis architectural firm Rogers and Taliaferro, which eventually became the world-famous RTKL firm. Now a group of former campers is on a fundraising mission to restore the tepee to its mid-century glory.
After reaching the top of the Broad creek, I turned and headed back to the river, passing Porter Point--a long narrow finger of land that does not trail the usual shoal behind it for a change--at its entrance. This time we stayed on the South until we came to its navigable end, about a mile later. Here the South takes on the character of one of its own tributaries, an intimate neighborhood playground, with a small park and boat ramp, and one pleasant home succeeding another. When the docks ended, we stopped as well, and I slipped the Albin into neutral. Ahead of us, the river narrowed to a stream with broad wetlands on either side and, beyond, the U.S. Route 50/301 highway, busy as always with traffic and the pressing business of the world outside.
Rush hour, I sighed. Wait! Rush hour? I checked my watch. Five o'clock. Five o'clock? Oh my gosh, I was due at Mike's at five! I put the Albin back in gear and turned the wheel over hard. Sheesh, where did the day go? I called my friends and asked them to meet me out at the dock. They could take the lines. We'd walk Skip and give him some dinner. Then we'd go and have dinner. Wait, I still had to find an anchorage for the night! Well, surely Beards Creek, the last unexplored branch of the upper river, will have a good place. Every other branch in this Yggdrassil has at least one.
And so my leisurely explorations came to an abrupt end, shanghaied by the exigencies of ordinary life. But it all turned out just fine. Skipper got fed and walked. There was plenty of laughter with good friends. The dinner at Mike's was delicious. And it turned out there was this perfect little cove on Beards Creek. just opposite the Lee Airport run-way. I'll tell you all about it sometime.