The author finds the gem of Poquoson’s Chisman Creek too late for a good look, but, happily, there’s always next year.
by Jody Argo Schroath
If I were a Norseman in horned hat and animal hides, I’d blame it on Loki, that trickster of the gods. Since I am not, but rather a cruiser in khaki shorts and flip-flops, I blame it on the perversity of modern life. In either case, it seems to me that there is an immutable law that just when you find something more than usually interesting you are cut short, either by the exigencies of an appointment to lay waste to some foreign land, in the case of the Norsemen, or by the necessity of being somewhere else in time to do something you have agreed to earlier, which in my case was dinner in Yorktown, Va. And that is why I saw—but didn’t see—Smith’s Marine Railway on Chisman Creek, off the Poquoson River. It was early in the summer, and Skipper the ship’s dog and I were making Riverwalk Marina at Yorktown our southern Bay headquarters for a month aboard our Endeavour 36 sailing cat Zen. This gave us a great chance to make forays here and there, but return to home base, where we also kept the car for emergencies like laundry and buying nuts at Whitley’s Peanut Company across the York River bridge in Gloucester. One of these forays, a few days before we were to leave for Harborfest in Norfolk, was to skirt the Poquoson Flats around the Big Salt Marsh Wildlife Refuge and ex-bombing range, going as far as Whalebone Island (more about that expedition at a future date). On the way back, we would make a short detour up the Poquoson River’s Chisman Creek. Then we would scoot back around the corner to the York River and Riverwalk for dinner with friends who were driving down from the Northern Neck and would spend the night on the boat. So all in all it was pretty important that the boat was back at Riverwalk that night so they could sleep on it, if you see what I mean.
I had stopped on the Poquoson the year before, but had spent my time exploring Cow Island—part of the Big Salt Marsh refuge—from inside the river and then thoroughly enjoying a visit to York Haven Marina on Bennett Creek. There I had been impressed with the pride and knowledge that everyone I met on Bennett Creek had in the old Bay-built workboats that I saw everywhere. (I was about to discover that pride extended to other parts of the Poquoson as well.) The following day I had left for Mobjack Bay without stopping to give the river’s Chisman Creek branch more than a quick glance. Now I wanted to have a better look. But once again I hadn’t left myself enough time. I hadn’t thought I’d need it. After all, at about two and a half miles, Chisman is pretty short, with no navigable tributaries to explore—at least not with Zen, which has a draft of nearly 4 feet.
The name “Poquoson” began as an Algonquin word meaning the boundary line between two elevated tracts of land. During the 17th century, the English settlers adopted the word, and for a while it entered the vocabulary of the English settlers as a deed description. So, if I’ve got this right, that would make Chisman Creek a “poquoson” between Crab Neck and Fish Neck—or in modern terms, between the communities of Seaford and Dare.
The Poquoson Flats reach out two miles into the Bay along the five miles of marshy coastline between Back River on the south and the Poquoson River on the north that makes up the bulk of Big Salt Marsh. Like the Susquehanna Flats at the top of the Bay, the Poquoson Flats attract a lot of wildlife, especially waterfowl, and its bomb-pocked marsh is now a national wildlife refuge, strictly off-limits to human visitors. I spent the day skirting the edge of the flats, watching the birds and trying to persuade Skipper that great blue herons were really our friends. The sun was not far off the western horizon as I worked my way back north toward the Poquoson. I more or less followed the Poquoson Flats daymarkers past “5” and then headed north-northeast nearly to the York entrance channel before turning west-northwest over the top of the flats to the Poquoson River entrance channel. As is often the case in this splendid shoal-water-and marsh part of the world, the entrance channel begins long before the river entrance itself comes into view. In this case, it is nearly five miles from the channel’s beginning at Poquoson River Junction lighted buoy “P” to flashing red “14” off York Point at the river’s mouth. But the water is deep for the first couple of miles of the entrance, so coming around the edge of the flats, I joined the channel at green “5”, a mere two and a half miles out. My depthsounder was still reading 10 feet as I made the turn at “14” to Chisman Creek. (I gave “14” a wide berth, since shoaling has been reported to be encroaching on the channel at this point.) Just beyond the entrance, I passed first Cabin Creek to the north and then Boathouse Creek to the south. Cruisers transiting up or down the Bay, find the entrance to Boathouse Creek a good place to anchor, safe from most storms and convenient from the Bay. Another popular spot to drop the hook is out on Chisman Creek itself beyond Boathouse Creek. On this day, Skipper and I had the creek to ourselves—not counting the boats stowed away in slips at several small marinas and at the docks of the creek’s waterfront homes.
From the creek’s entrance, I could already see Chisman’s most imposing marine facility, Dare Marina, with its long L-shaped dock and large dry-storage building. Gliding past the boats there and squinting into the setting sun, I nearly missed the highlight of Chisman Creek (at least as far as I was concerned), Smith’s Marine Railway. Sitting at its modest pier was a handsome old workboat—I am ashamed to say I don’t know whether it was a big buyboat or a small scalloper—and in front of it a graceful old deadrise and beside it a knife-thin skiff. On shore, sitting up on the marine railway, was an old cabin cruiser. In the yard were a handful of other boats, all of them equally intriguing. Smith’s Railway, I learned later, dates from the 1840s, when J.F. Smith moved from Mathews County to Cheeseman Creek (as Chisman was then called) to find trees suitable for building boats. Smith descendants have been building and repairing boats here ever since. Nearly every historic boat you can think of has been hauled out on its railway at one time or another. Oh, how I wanted to stop and go ashore! But it was well after working hours and the yard was silent. And I was running on borrowed time. Reluctantly, I turned Zen around and headed out Chisman Creek, then out the long channel and west to the York and friends and dinner. Happily, the couple standing on the dock with overnight bags set down beside them had not yet reached a full boil when I finally pulled up to the dock and threw them the lines a modest 45 minutes late.
I never did get back to Smith’s Marine Railway. Too many other countries to lay waste and too many appointments to keep. But when spring comes this year, I’ll head down the Bay, and you can be sure I’ll keep my dinner engagements to a minimum until after I’ve been back to Chisman Creek.