By Jody Argo Schroath
A great blue heron, wings fixed and head retracted, bisected the empty river, flying fast and low like a bass boat headed for a new hot spot. Unlike a bass boat, this efficient fishing machine was silent, utterly silent . . . like the Bohemia River over which it flew on this drear spring day.
Above the heron, a low ceiling of cloud spread dark and unbroken as far as the eye could see. The sky, the water, the vegetation—a landscape in monochrome. Only the suggestion of green at the tree tops betrayed the season. . . .
“Tell me again why we’re here?” my friend Kathy asked as she emerged from the Albin 28’s cabin, pulling on a powder blue fleece and shivering ostentatiously in the chill air.
Reluctantly I tore myself away from the heron and the melancholy river to look at her. “There are in fact two reasons that we’re here,” I said, “One reason is that it’s late April, and I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to get out, even if the weather is still lousy.”
“All right, I can understand that,” Kathy said. “But why does getting out mean coming all the way up the Bay to the Bohemia River?”
“Ah, that’s the second reason, which is a little more complicated,” I replied, then paused to think about it for a minute before plunging ahead.
“You see, all of the other rivers I can think of in the Chesapeake were named for places back home in England—York and James, for example—or took the Indians’ names—Potomac and Rappahannock, to name two—or were named for something about the geography or use—like Gunpowder and Back. All of them, that is, except the Bohemia, which is named for an ancient kingdom in central Europe.”
“Where is Bohemia?”
“Where was Bohemia would be more accurate, since it’s been defunct for nearly a century. Mostly in the Czech Republic,” I said. “Prague was its capital. Good King Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame was one of its kings—a thousand years ago.”
“I see,” Kathy said. “We came four hours up the Bay from Annapolis on a cold gray day because this river was named for a country that doesn’t exist. What was the river called before that?”
“The Oppoquermine River.”
“Oh, I suppose you’d just get used to saying it, like Punga-teague and Piankatank,” I said. “Still, to our ears Bohemia sounds rather romantic, don’t you think?” She saw the treatise coming and sighed. “I know I’m going to regret this, but go ahead and tell me why this river got named Bohemia and, especially, why we’re here.”
Instead of answering right away, I turned my attention back to steering the boat. We had left Ford Landing at the north entrance to the Bohemia behind us, and I now eased the Albin slowly into Veazey Cove, to see how far in we could go before we ran out of water. With an eye on the depthsounder, I answered. “The reason we’re here now is that the Bohemia in the summer is a crazy popular place. In another month or so, this place will be full to the brim with people having a good time—rafting-up, picnicking, water-skiing and swimming. It will be chockablock with kids and parents, aunts and uncle, friends and boats.”
“And you’re saying that’s bad?”
“No, of course not.” I pointed to where I had been watching the heron a few minutes earlier. “Look, here in Veazey Cove there are often a dozen or more boats rafted up. Added to that are the boats going to and from the C&D Canal, just around the corner. They pull in here for the night or to wait for the tide to change.”
We had gotten about halfway into the broad cove, and the depth now dropped to four feet. I turned to run parallel to the cove’s shore. “That’s that,” I said to myself, the question of how far being answered. I turned back to Kathy. “Obviously Veazey’s not very good shelter against a north wind—or anything close to it,” I said, “but there are other places upriver that will solve that problem. I’ll show you in a little bit.”
“That is all very useful information,” Kathy said, “and on some level it’s even interesting, but I still haven’t detected a point. So far, I see that instead of lots of people we have no people. But why?”
She seemed to be getting a little testy, so I tried again. “I wanted to come here exactly because there would be nobody here. I wanted to see the Bohemia just once without the beer and skittles, without the kids and dogs and hotdogs—except Skipper, of course.” I looked around, and then not seeing him asked, “Where is that dog?”
“Where he’s been since we passed Love Point,” Kathy replied, “asleep in the cabin, probably pulling the covers over his head.”
“Oh,” I said, as we edged past Battery Point at the eastern edge of Veazey Cove. Across the river were three of the river’s more than half-dozen marinas: Two Rivers, Bohemia Vista Yacht Basin and Bohemia Bay Yacht Harbor. The Bohemia is only four miles long, but has more than its share of marinas.
“And the reason I wanted to see the river without people in it,” I said, pulling my train of thought back onto its track, “was that I wanted to see what Augustine Herrmann saw when he chose this spot because it looked like his native Bohemia.” Herrmann (since orthography was not an exact science in the 17th century, the name is spelled variously Herrmann, Herrman and Herman) not only changed the river’s name to Bohemia, but he named his property Bohemia Manor and he even added Bohemius to the end of his own name, just to be sure everyone knew he was from Bohemia. Herrmann came to the Chesapeake by way of New Amsterdam when he was sent by Peter Stuyvesant to talk the Calverts out of enforcing their claim to the Delaware Bay by invading it. Once he had accomplished that, he decided he’d like to live here on the Oppoquermine and went to Lord Baltimore to ask for land in exchange for mapping the Chesapeake. Lord Baltimore complied, granting him tens of thousands of acres from the now Bohemia River into Delaware. He was also made a citizen of Maryland—its first naturalized citizen, in fact.
I took a deep breath and looked over to see whether Kathy had dozed off since she hadn’t interrupted my story. She seemed awake, so I blurted out what I’d really wanted to say all along: “And I wanted to see it that way because I’ve been to the original Bohemia, the former kingdom, without actually seeing it. Twice.”
“I feel a long story coming on,” Kathy said.
“I’ll save it for dinner,” I promised.
By this time we were well clear of Battery Point and headed for Long Point. Before we reached it, I turned the Albin sharply to port to take the river’s first marker, flashing red “2”, on our starboard. The channel narrows here and stays narrow until just beyond the 30-foot high Route 231 bridge, though the water outside the channel can be five to six feet deep. Beyond heavily riprapped Long Point, we spotted Long Point Marina, the first of the Bohemia’s south-shore facilities. Soon after, we passed the entrance to Scotchman Creek and its low fixed bridge. Scotchman is a lovely creek, best explored with a kayak or dinghy, so I eased the throttle into neutral, and we coasted up to the empty outer dock at the marina there, called Aquamarina Hack’s Point.
“Why are we stopping?” Kathy asked.
“So many questions!” I replied. “It’s time for lunch. . . . Oh, nice to see you again, Skipper!”
“Hooray!” Kathy exclaimed happily and jumped down onto the dock. I snapped a leash on Skipper, and we trailed along after her rapidly retreating figure. “Where are we eating?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Hacks Point General Store. It’s the only place to eat on the Bohemia River.”
“You mean it’s better than everything else?”
“No, it’s the only place to eat.”
“Just wait. You’ll like it.”
Kathy, Skipper and I trooped single file across the Glebe Road bridge over Scotchman Creek, past the entrance to Richmond Marina, just up the creek, then turned left as Glebe Road made a sharp turn at Ferry Point Road. Three moderately short blocks later, we walked into the parking lot of Hacks Point General Store.
Leaving Skipper attached to a picnic table, we went inside and ordered the special of the day, homemade chili, then took our order outside and rejoined Skipper. The chili was hot (both kinds of hot) and delicious and the ideal antidote to the day’s chill. Hacks General Store offers the usual sundries, like dish soap and Little Debbie cakes, but it also has comfy chairs and a sofa coffee-bar style, with six varieties of horse magazine on the coffee table (horse farms are a big part of the northern Bay). Most important for our purpose, the general store features a popular deli with a wide range of sandwiches made on demand.
When we were done, we decided to walk over to Long Point Marina before going back to the boat. The neighborhood of Hacks Point, which is part of the town of Earleville, consists of modest cottages and neat small homes, many of them empty on this off-season midweek afternoon. At Long Point, we chatted briefly with the only person we found, hard at work on a power station at the end of one of the docks. Yes, he told us, the water at Long Point was only three feet deep in the slips, but it was a great place to keep a shallow-draft boat. He had kept his boat here for years, he said. Where did he boat? I asked. “We usually just motor straight across the river and drop anchor off the beach there,” he said, pointing at the opposite shore. “It’s a great place to swim and picnic, and there are always lots of people and kids there. That’s the best thing.” He added: “But if I go out of the river, it’s usually to the [Susquehanna] Flats to go fishing.”
We left Long Point and headed back to the boat, stopping along the way to take a quick look at Richmond’s Marina before re-crossing Glebe Road bridge. Less than a minute after pulling away from the Hacks Point dock, we were passing the marina and boatyard called Bohemia Anchorage, which is sandwiched between the Route 231 bridge and a stand of fine big trees. A good-looking facility, I noted, worth checking out next time through. We skirted the marina’s dock, which reaches to the edge of channel, and went under the bridge, choosing the marked passage through the far right span.
“We’re on our own now,” I said a few minutes later as we approached Georges Point, where the Bohemia splits in two—Little Bohemia Creek to the right and Great Bohemia Creek to the left. I don’t know how they decided which was going to get which since they both seemed to be about the same size to me. Both also have narrow channels of deep water (six to nine feet), though the Great Bohemia’s deep water reaches farther upstream. Neither creek’s channel is marked however. We followed Little Bohemia first and immediately found ourselves idling down a lovely winding alleyway of trees and farmland. I quickly got cold feet, though; I had noticed earlier, out on the river, that the GPS on the chartplotter was consistently and significantly mislocating us, so I thought it would be pretty foolish to depend on it now to keep us to a channel that was only a few feet wide. And if we were to run aground, I felt pretty sure Kathy wouldn’t be volunteering to walk out the kedging anchor. So we spun around and gave the Great Bohemia a try. It was, if anything, even more beautiful than the Little Bohemia. Here surely was a place unchanged by time. Trees along the creek blocked all but occasional tantalizing glimpses of the fields and fences, barns and great homes that lay beyond.
“Oh, I wish we had kayaks!” I said.
“We can only do so many things,” Kathy countered.
Yes, I thought, we always think we have such crowded lives, but what about the Colonials? They all seemed to live a dozen different lives. Thomas Jefferson, to take an obvious example, was famously a statesman, intellect, architect, farmer and inventor . . . and that was just before breakfast. Even the nearly forgotten Herrmann is referred to in biographical sketches as an entrepreneur, merchant, diplomat, mariner, surveyor and cartographer. His map of the Chesapeake Bay is remarkable for its accuracy, with every river and stream in its place. And that was in 1670! In addition, according to some biographies, Herrmann had a road constructed from the upper part of the Bohemia—quite possibly exactly where we were at the moment—to Appoquinimink River (which he obviously didn’t bother to rename), a tributary of the Delaware Bay. To get around an English embargo on foreign trade, ships loaded with tobacco would come up the Bohemia and then be hauled out and dragged on sledges by oxen the eight miles to the Appoquinimink, and thence sailed to Holland.
I came abruptly out of my reverie as I realized that the shallow water was quickly closing in on us and the oxen to pull us out were long gone. As beautiful as this was, it was time to go. So once again we spun carefully in our own length and left Great Bohemia Creek behind as well.
As we approached the bridge, I called Skipper—who had been pretending he was a hood ornament—back into the cockpit. Just before the bridge, we passed one of the river’s favorite beaches along the north shore. With no more than a foot or two of water, it was definitely too shallow for us, but it did look inviting, even on a cold dark day. On the other side of the bridge, however, the water is deeper closer to the beach, and we idled in to within a few hundred feet. Then we followed the shoreline until we reached the place I’d been looking for all along, Manor Creek, my favorite place on the river. The mouth of Manor Creek is nearly hidden by a spit of land that leaves only a narrow passage open to the river. Before we had reached it, however, we caught slight of its namesake, Bohemia Manor. Herrmann’s original home had overlooked the river just a few hundred yards from the current Bohemia Manor that now slipped into view, with its elegant Georgian lines and broad lawn sloping down to the river. The house and the creek lie in a lovely little cove that is a nearly perfect anchorage, a fact not overlooked by summer boaters. But it was not sufficiently alluring to capture our fancy this time. We decided to continue our trip back down the river.
T he afternoon was drawing to a close as we reached the first of the marinas on the north shore. I picked up the mike of the VHS radio and put in the call. “This is Bohemia Bay Yacht Haven,” the reply came. A few minutes later, we turned into the marina’s entranceway, marked by a little lighthouse, and nestled up against the marina’s long fuel dock. Just as we finished making the lines fast and hooking up the shore power, the clouds that had been hanging over our head all day drifted away to the east, and the sun at last shone. It lit up the tree-lined shores and turned the new green leaves neon bright. The boats lying to their moorings, shone ochre against the suddenly blue sky.
We collected Skipper and walked and walked, going methodically up and down each dock, examining every boat, returning to the Albin just as the sun disappeared for good and the chill returned like an unwanted guest.
After we had closed ourselves into the Albin’s cabin, I pulled out a pot of Bohemian potato soup I had made for the occasion and set it on the stove to heat. (Okay, I called it Bohemian potato soup for effect; potato soup is pretty much potato soup, good though that is.) I sliced a loaf of good crusty bread, and we sat down to eat. As we ate, I told Kathy how I had visited Bohemia without seeing it. It was a romantic tale, which is to say it was lamebrained in the doing but heroic in the memory. Here it is:
In August 1968, I was aboard a student ship sailing from New York, bound for Le Havre, France. (A student ship, for those too young to remember, was a small oceanliner just this side of the scrap heap whose passengers were composed entirely of college students on their way to study in Europe or coming back from studying in America.) During the eight-day passage, I became friends with a brother and sister who were returning to their native Czechoslovakia after a year in America.
While we were still at sea, news reached us that on August 21 the Soviet Union had invaded their country with troops and tanks, putting an end to the Czech’s short-lived Prague Spring—the precursor of 1989’s Velvet Revolution, which finally overthrew the Communist regime and ended Soviet domination. But the first attempt at freedom had ended badly, and the brother and sister were afraid they would be arrested at the border as Western sympathizers. So we, their new friends, decided that we would go with them, sneaking across the border from Austria to make sure they were safely picked up by relatives who were to meet them not far from the border to take them to Prague, where they lived.
Why we thought we would be more help than hindrance to them, I have no idea. But the brother and sister seemed happy enough to have the company, so we put the plan into action. We took a train to the nearest station to the Czech border, then walked along a back road for a while before leaving that to cross the border in the woods. When we were pretty sure we were over the border, we picked up the road again and walked on. Oddly enough, it worked. We waited just off the appointed intersection until the uncle’s car arrived, hugged the brother and sister good-bye, and retraced our steps until we reached the railway station and disappeared into free Europe.
It was a distinctly idiotic idea, but it had the result of causing me to look over my shoulder for several years afterward, and of having a secret kinship with that country. Not that I saw anything—I was much too frightened and it was much too dark.
I did finally get to Prague. It was a few years after the Velvet Revolution, and my husband, two daughters and I entered the new Czech Republic by car from Austria—in broad daylight this time—and headed for the capital city. I’d like to say I finally got to see Prague and its river, the Moldau, and the Bohemian countryside, but I got food poisoning from coffee I bought at a roadside stand only a few miles inside the border and spent the remainder of the visit suffering the consequences. I’m told it’s indeed lovely.
Later that night, the wind picked up and ushered in a new set of clouds. About 1 a.m. I could feel the boat tugging hard against its stern line, so I got up and doubled the lines before tumbling back into the cabin and bed. Since Kathy had called dibs on the dog, I pulled on an extra sweatshirt against the cold and finally got warm just as dawn brightened the portlights. We made coffee, took a quick walk in the cold gray dawn, and we were soon ready to go. We collected our lines and returned to the river, heading west out of the river and toward the Elk. The wind was calm and the water utterly still. A light mist rose along the shore.
“You know, it’s really quite beautiful, in an austere and colorless way,” Kathy said. “Like a black and white photograph,” I said. “Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked, settling herself in with a magazine. I thought for a minute and then answered: “Yes, I think I did. I still don’t know for certain, of course, but—in my mind anyway—this is what I missed seeing all those years ago. Only there won’t be any tanks waiting for us on Town Point. And this is why Herrmann picked out this place to call Bohemia.” Then I added, “On the other hand, I’m now definitely ready for the summer Bohemia, with all the beer and skittles!”
At the mouth of the Bohemia, we looked up and down the Elk for shipping traffic, then I pushed the throttle forward and we turned left for home, leaving the Old Country behind.