Having grown up on the Chester River, the author
set out to see how time has treated it, and what
he found was pleasantly familiar. [September 2005]
By Robert Whitehill
Photography Michael C. Wootton
The early spring morning is chilly as photographer Mike Wootton and I set out on his 19-foot center-console for a daylong run on the Chester River. It's been awhile, and I'm happy to be back. As a "from-here," I've been out on the Chester in every season. I've sailed log canoes on it, fished it, landed on it from the air and even crossed it on ice skates. Three years years ago I cruised its length up and back in an electric boat on an adventure that ultimately took me far south of its wide flat waters. When it was over, I was happy to come home, back to the
familiar embrace of this long winding river's quiet shores.
Thanks to conservation efforts, strict zoning and stalwart families who have endured stiff inheritance taxes for generations without parceling off their riverfront farms and woodlands, most of the Chester River looks a lot like it did a half-century ago. But all is not as it seems, ever. From a distance, I've been concerned about the river's future, and I've talked with various folks in the know about it. Like all of the Chesapeake, the news on the Chester seems to be a mix of good and not so good. But today I want to touch base with the river itself, see it with my own eyes again.
We set out from the ramp at the Chestertown Marina at 0-dark-thirty, and head downriver at an eye-watering 20 knots. There's a slight mist rising near the shoreline that doesn't hide the fact that on the east side of the river, the Queen Anne's County side, a fair number of nice houses sit cheek by jowl—by rural standards at least. To the west, on the Kent County side, is Chestertown, where historic waterfront homes give way to the Chestertown Marina, a group of townhouses next to a small park, and then the Chester River Yacht and Country Club. About a mile and a half downstream, as we round Primrose Point and enter the stretch of water called Devils Reach (so named for its hairpin turn), the views open up on both sides to cattails, woods and expansive farm fields rolling down to the water. Even where the hand of humanity is plain to see, this is still a gorgeous fetch of water.
Hulbert Footner, in his delightful and informative bookRivers of the Eastern Shore, says that "after the Choptank, the Chester is the noblest of Eastern Shore rivers, more than a mile wide until after passing Deep Point [about ten nautical miles south of Chestertown], then averaging half a mile almost all the way to the head of navigation. Toward the mouth, it is confused with a maze of deep inlets . . . but the shores of the upper reaches generally roll up unbroken." The river is astonishingly deep in places—up to 50 feet—and the current rolls powerfully through its snaking turns. Yet despite the curves and current, the breeze often flows off the shores in ways that make it easier to sail here than you might expect.
For centuries the Chester carried sailing ships big and small, first to its early settlements like New Yarmouth, believed to be settled on Grays Inn Creek in 1675, and later to the vital colonial port of Chestertown. After the sailing ships, steamboats kept the commerce rolling on the river. Footner writes of an interview with an old steamboater (whose name he gives only as Captain Will), who sailed on theEmma Ford, the
B.S. Ford, the
Gratitude, among others. He remembers the boats hauling peaches, wheat, corn, people and canned goods. "Ain't nothin' stopped the Chester River steamboats [except] ice," Captain Will says.
This morning we come upon another piece of the river's economic history—its fishery. Waterman Sam Joiner has tied up his boatSouth Pawalongside
Margaret Ann, a workboat belonging to Dick Manning Sr. and Dick Manning Jr. Aboard
Margaret AnnJohnny Grussing has just helped the Mannings haul a mess of huge fish out of a pound net, one of eight nets this team works on the Chester. Joiner is buying a few catfish the Mannings have culled from the white perch and mud shad.
The Chester's catfish can run upwards of seven or eight pounds, Joiner tells me. I had no idea this river still carried such monsters. The Mannings will keep what Joiner doesn't take, and Dick Sr. will truck them down to Kool Ice & Seafood Company in Cambridge, Md., as he does every afternoon, six days a week. Joiner, meanwhile, will make his sales from a holding net near the Chestertown dock off the end of High Street, where he has as many as 6,000 pounds of live catfish ready for buyers. The market for catfish, he says, is changing. "Selling the big catfish is harder now. There's farm-raised ones, and they get sold at around two or three pounds, which works out to one fish per serving at the restaurants."
As for the market for white perch, Dick Manning Jr. says most of their catch goes to Asian buyers in New York City. "They buy the individual fish," he says. "Seems like they're the only ones under age fifty these days who still bother to clean and cook their own fish. Most anybody else who eats fish gets it at a restaurant." The Mannings' mud shad will be sold as far away as Louisiana as baitfish and will reappear farther up the food chain in our area restaurants, transformed into crayfish platters. Crate after orange-bushel crate full of these fish are stacked three deep in the stern ofMargaret Ann. Emptying four such nets every day must be exhausting.
As we zoom farther downriver I see that humans aren't the only customers for the Mannings' pound nets; they're just the only ones who pay. The birds that gather on the net poles and lines are like hungry teens at a Dairy Queen in July. I expect the great blue herons, their spindly toes gripping the net lines, to teeter into the water with the trapped fish they hope to munch. But the giant birds display a phenomenal sense of balance, as well as patience. By contrast, the ospreys stay aloof from the pound-net pescateria, preferring to hover, spot, dive, clasp, climb, shiver and devour in more open reaches of the Chester. On this morning I marvel at the osprey once again, observing that, even with breakfast firmly in their talons, they soar off with their fish sleekly pointed forward to minimize in-flight drag.
We take a quick turn through Southeast Creek, which enters the east side of the Chester and offers a protected and pretty—though rather shallow—anchorage to port. Then we round the sharp turn at Melton Point, which at 54 feet is easily the deepest place in the Chester, and carry on past Quaker Neck Landing. Though folks tout the beautiful 18th-century homes of Chestertown (and with good reason; only Annapolis has more of these beautiful buildings), I think one of the most interesting residences on this river is a more modern effort just above White Cove on the eastern shore, across from Quaker Neck Landing. There, set back from the cattails, rises a house made by converting and then connecting two old grain silos with porches. At the upper stories the silos are bridged with glassed-in corridors. It's the Eastern Shore's version of Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers. The deft architectural mix of the old and new makes me smile.
A little farther south on the western shore I see the old windmill (now an osprey hang-out) and buildings of Kent School, a fine waterfront elementary school in Kent County. I attended there in eighth grade so long ago that my diploma is printed on papyrus. Back then, the school song opened with the line, "Along the Chester River serene. . . ."
Soon we are in Hells Delight. Despite the warm sounding name of the place and a bright rising sun, I am buried up to my eyeballs in my foul weather jacket from sheer wind chill. The 100-hp Mariner hanging off the back of Mike's boat is purring like a kitten up top but is lashing water like a tiger below. From experience, I can offer plausible reasons why Hells Delight got its name. Northeasters have a howling great reach of open water here on which to rear back and sock you on your beam ends. And coming up the river, this broad expanse of open water and offshooting tributaries—Langford Creek, Corsica River, Reed Creek and Grays Inn Creek—can make for some tricky navigation or, at the very least, difficult decisions.
Though Mike and I don't press into the Corsica River, on other trips I've admired its anchorages, high bluffs (the highest in the upper Eastern Shore) and other great rural scenery. Gunston Day School, another waterfront prep school, and the Corsica River Yacht Club both teach flotillas of talented young sailors there.
As we head deeper into Hells Delight we see six single-handed deadrise workboats in a cluster—a rare sight, since oystermen, like crabbers, give each other wide berth as a rule. These watermen, dressed in suspendered oilies and T-shirts, with de rigueur baseball caps, are tonging every last oyster off the bottom of what's known as the Bluff, in a remarkable maritime waltz. Each man works throttle, wheel and patent tongs at the same time, sweeping his boat in fine circles, yet always avoiding collision despite the narrow water between them.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, is supervising the operation along with his dog, Captain, who barks indignantly until proper introductions are made and hands duly sniffed. The Bluff bar, Simns explains, is being cleared of all living oysters before they succumb to Dermo and MSX, the parasitic diseases that have nearly wiped out the species in the Bay. These oysters will be moved downstream where half will be allowed to grow to four inches and reproduce several times before being harvested. "The fin fish can get out of the way of the low oxygen water from all the new sewage treatment plants, the developments and the runoff," Simns tells me. "But the oysters and clams can't move. In bad times, they're the first to go." The Bluff will be seeded with spat that will find clean, unsilted cultch (empty shells) to grow on.
"The Chester won't come back on its own," Simns says. "It needs a dry spring or two, and things like the Oyster Recovery Partnership, to help." The partnership, he says, is "environmental scientists, watermen, aquaculturists and government people all sitting on the same board and talking to each other. We can't all go our separate ways anymore. We have to listen to each other and compromise, which we're doing now. It's a miracle. The Army Corps of Engineers is in on it too, bringing in oyster shells to rebuild oyster reefs. That's good for boaters who like to fish. The fish like the reefs, too."
Like every other tributary on the Bay, the Chester River's health is a tenuous proposition. "Farmers can change practices, and many are willing, but if you build on or pave just ten percent of a watershed, the result is catastrophic for habitat and hydrology, and ispermanent," Eileen McLellan, the Chester Riverkeeper, told me later when I met her at her Chestertown office. She said it might take fifty years' work before this tributary is as clean as it once was. "We're rowing hard against a current of increased growth, and just managing to stay in the same place."
As much to get out of the watermen's way as to see the sights, we head northeast up into Langford Creek. The shoreline is covered with green woods so dense that the dark beneath the canopy is relieved only by white shocks of dogwood blossoms. Erosion is having its way with Cacaway Island, laying fallen trees out along the bars. The island is privately owned, and it's tough to resist the temptation to use those trees as gangways to the mysteries of its interior. We scope out the beautiful estates farther up Langford Creek, which splits at the tip of the Broad Neck peninsula into the East and West forks.
At the top of the West Fork is the beautiful and historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church, one of 30 Anglican parishes established in Maryland in 1692, and still active. (My sister Lynn was married here.) The current building was constructed in 1711, though the church's website says that an archaeological dig in 1992 uncovered a stone foundation about 40 feet north of the present building that may be a part of the first church on the site, built in 1695–96. Of all the old churches on the Eastern Shore, Footner writes, St. Paul's is "the most satisfying . . . because it has been restored with care and taste, and because of the beauty of the churchyard. These aged oaks started growing long before there was a church . . . the thirty-four original pews were offered in perpetuity for a thousand pounds of tobacco."
As we head back out of Langford Creek I recall one summer day when my sister Janet and I were braving 15-knot winds (gusting to 30) in a sailing canoe rig designed and built by my father. The rig was holding fine—Dad builds for the ages—but I didn't see a blast of wind rushing over the water at us, and I was fatefully slow suggesting to Janet that easing the mainsheet might be a good idea. Over we went, leeboards flailing skyward like the legs of a drunken uncle toppling over the taffrail, taking on half of the creek in the bargain. With no hope of bailing in the chop, we un-stepped the mast and started a long swim for shore.
Mike and I head farther downriver. The next tributary south on the western side is Grays Inn Creek, where I've anchored before, with its commanding bluff on the south shore. Napley Green Hunt Club, in plain sight on the bluff, belongs to the Dupont family. On the north shore, there's a small beach I like for picnics. Farther up are beautiful fields and forests, as well as several grand old homes. It's also a popular autumn stopover for the raucousBranta canadensis(Canada goose) set.
Somewhere up this creek the lost town of New Yarmouth is believed to have been settled in the early 1600s. "Only a deed search and spade work will reveal the precise location of New Yarmouth," John Seidel, associate professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Chestertown's Washington College, told me when I called him to learn more about the place. The way he described it, New Yarmouth sounded like a past romance of mine—it looked great on paper, but in fact wasn't especially memorable. New Yarmouth, Seidel told me, was a "paper town" with the usual official buildings such as courthouse and jail, but few actual dwellings for people. "Settlement of the area was more of a tobacco-driven land grab in the late seventeenth century," he said. "Colonists would go to town from outlying plantations only when civic business came up." New Yarmouth was the county seat until it was moved in 1696 to burgeoning New Town on Chester, as Chestertown was known until after the Revolution.
Leaving Grays Inn Creek, Mike and I pass down by Eastern Neck Island, a National Wildlife Refuge well worth a visit. From at least as far back as the 14th century until colonial times Native Americans foraged on the island, leaving middens of shells and pottery, as well as superior examples of shell jewelry. The last group, the Nanticoke Ozinies, perished within just a hundred years of Captain John Smith's arrival, victims of introduced disease and territorial warfare with Europeans and with other tribes. We see a bald eagle on the wing, and on other trips I've made use of the many trails and the marsh boardwalk there. I've never found any Indian artifacts, but if you do, just leave them in place and report them to the visitor's center.
We turn back upriver at the southeast tip of Eastern Neck Island, a spot called Hail Point because in the late 17th century, Colonel Joseph Wickes, the Chief Justice of Kent County, enforced customs duties on all river shipping there with a hearty bellow. We, instead, are hearing the call of our stomachs, and so we buzz back to Chestertown's Old Wharf Inn for lunch before venturing upstream.
After some excellent crabcakes, we head upriver toward the Chester River Bridge—a bascule bridge with only 12 feet of vertical clearance (closed) and a charming bridge tender's house. "Planned construction of the first wooden Chester River Bridge was delayed by the War of 1812," Kevin Hemstock, editor of theKent County News, told me when I called him later to ask about it. "The ferry connecting the two shores was finally replaced after that war, and the cost of the bridge was paid for from a public lottery." There were a few subsequent wooden bridges before the current stone-and-concrete bridge with the metal lifting bascule was built in the 1930s—though it recently underwent a complete renovation. Here, 26 miles from the river's mouth at Love Point, is where many travelers anchor or begin retracing their wake. If you can, though, look to your depthfinder and tide charts, hail the bridge tender if need be, and go farther up. It's well worth it.
A mile and a half above the bridge we turn into quiet Morgan Creek, which meanders down to the northwest shore of the Chester through the spartina grass. I hear red-winged blackbirds skirling, but get only an occasional glimpse of their scarlet epaulets. The water is deep enough for outboards and centerboards, but I plan to come back for an easy paddle. A quarter-mile along the creek we come to the old iron-truss Morgan Creek bridge (built in 1934) bearing Morgnec Road. We turn around here because the day is growing short, but this twining stream is navigable well beyond that span.
Back on the Chester, we travel another five miles or so upstream to the Crumpton bridge, where the river begins to narrow and shallow appreciably. With a flood tide, I have cruised those upper reaches, trees on both shores bending low and close, forming a shaded tunnel. I've been there on a muggy summer day, with a light rain crackling off the awning, and the feeling is Amazonian. Today, though, we make an easy run back downstream, the end of a great day of boating, learning and making new friends all along the way.
I'd always taken the Chester River for granted. Now, it's clear that it will take teamwork from lawmakers, watermen, advocates, academics, farmers, developers and boaters to help the Chester River continue as one of the Bay's most beautiful tributaries. How-ever you reach this tranquil river, part of you will never leave it. It flows through my life like the pulse of any great artery within my frame.
Robert Whitehill is an Eastern Shore native, a boater, pilot, screenwriter and novelist, now living in Montclair, N.J.
Cruiser's Digest: Chester River, MD
From the south, approach the Chester through Kent Narrows, at the north end of the channel. After passing the last set of marks—red "2K" and green "1K"—bear northeast toward green "9" and continue upriver. Some boats can't negotiate the shoal waters of Kent Narrows, so deeper-draft boats need to enter the river at its proper mouth, off Love Point at the northern tip of Kent Island. Once you round Love Point Light (where you'll see the rusted remains of the screwpile lighthouse that once stood here), follow the channel from green "3" to red "6", then green "9" and red "12" (you will be traveling through the great elbow that brings you northward again with Eastern Neck Island on your left), and to red "14" below Hells Delight. At the top of Hells Delight, leave flashing green "17" off Nichols Point to port. It is your guide to the rest of the Chester and it's also your last lit mark. From here on up the channel is well marked for daytime travel, though at night you will want an accurate chartplotter to help guide you through the unlit marks. Cutting corners in the Chester will run you aground. Just because it's a wide river does not mean it's deep shore to shore.
The Chester River Bridge can be opened by the usual signals or by calling 410-778-1451. The tender is on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week from April through September. The rest of the year, make an appointment at least six hours in advance by calling the State Highway Administration at 410-778-0818.
Trailer-boaters can go straight to scenic spots via public landings, most of these with ramps. Since the Chester divides Kent and Queen Anne's counties, each shore has its own permit requirements and fees. On the Queen Anne's side there are public landings at Queens-town, Southeast Landing, Deep Landing and Market Street near Crumpton, and at Centreville on the Corsica River. A season permit, with or without trailer, will cost Maryland residents $25 and nonresidents $50. A one-day permit is $5 for residents and $10 for nonresidents. Call 410-758-0835 for more information.
On the Kent County side, put in at Bogles on Eastern Neck Island, at Grays Inn Creek, Long Cove, Cliffs City, Quaker Neck, City Dock in Chestertown, and Buckingham Wharf. A season permit for trailer only is $20 for Maryland residents. Nonresidents pay $35, but only 50 of these are sold per year. A three-day permit is $10 for residents and nonresidents alike. If you're kayaking or canoeing without a trailer, you don't need a permit. Call 410-778-7439.
Up Shippen Creek without a paddle, or even a kayak? Chester River Kayak Adventures, based in Rock Hall, offers guided morning, afternoon and sunset trips, costing from $35 to $55, seven days a week. For experienced paddlers, a full day trip around Eastern Neck Island costs $90, including lunch. Kayaks are also available for rent, with a four-hour, $38 minimum. Call 410-639-2001 or visitwww.crkayakadventures.com.
To learn more about protecting the Chester River, call the Chester River Association at 410-810-7556. To learn more about Eastern Neck Island National Wildlife Refuge call 410-639-7056 or go towww.easternneck.fws.gov.
Castle Harbor Marina (410-643-5599); on Kent Island—just west of Kent Narrows—has diesel, electric, pump-out, shower, laundry and a restaurant steps away from the marina gate.
Chestertown Marina (410-778-3616); south of the Chester River Bridge on the western shore, has a ship's store, bathrooms, laundry, pump-out, gas and diesel, a 25-ton lift, and under separate ownership, the Old Wharf Inn (410-778-3566), newly reconstructed after being flooded by Hurricane Isabel.
Kennersley Point Marina (410-758-2394); in Island Creek off of Southeast Creek, has electric, pump-out, showers, a swimming pool and laundry. Follow the bushed-out channel of PVC pipes into Island Creek to the Kennersley piers.
Lankford Bay Marina (410-778-1414,www.chesapeakebay.com/lankfordbay/index.htm); to port in Davis Creek off Langford Creek, offers gas, diesel, pump-out, laundry, ice, soda, ship's store, picnic area, restrooms, showers, swimming pool, playground, bike rentals, waste oil disposal and the Rock Hall Trolley for trips to town.
Long Cove Marina (410-778-6777,www.rockhallmd.com/longcove); just inside Langford Creek to port as you approach, offers basic amenities, plus 24-hour towing and emergency haul-out services. There is no restaurant or laundry, but with a 70-ton lift, they are ready to repair boats of all sizes.
Riverview Liquors (410-778-2240); downstream from the east end of the Chester River Bridge offers transient dockage and a full liquor line.
Rolph's Wharf (410-778-6389,www.rolphswharf.com); on the eastern shore of the Chester a few miles south of Chestertown, offers full services plus a B&B ($105 a night), and a beach bar housed in a boat buried in the sand. There is also a swimming pool, pontoon boat and skiff rentals from $75 to $225, free breakfast included with transient dock fees, as well as complimentary rides into Chestertown.