By Paul Clancy
Photographs by Steve Earley
With a blessedly cool northeasterly breeze caressing a late-August day, my friend and I left downtown Norfolk and four hours later sailed through the southernmost opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. After clearing the bridge, we made a sharp turn to the south, and my excitement began to mount. I was finally heading to the Lynnhaven River--which I'd been eager to explore for years but couldn't because of that pesky business about mast heights and low bridges. But now, with my restored Cape Dory 25 and its much lower sky draft, this new world was, I guess you could call it, my oyster. The Lynnhaven River, with its gorgeous branches, bays and shores interspersed with mega homes, yachts, marinas and marshes and the moss-draped, historic First Landing State Park, was ripe for exploring. An added bonus would be entering a renewed river system where the once-famous Lynnhaven oyster was making a healthy (and delicious)comeback.
As we headed south through Lynnhaven Roads toward the river, I was struck by the enormity of the colliers riding at anchor here, waiting their turns at the Norfolk coal piers. One of the great anchorages of the world, Lynnhaven Roads has long guarded the entrance to the Chesapeake, playing host to the likes of Compte DeGrasse, the French admiral whose fleet humbled the British at the Battle of the Capes in 1781 and saved the American Revolution; where great powers sought to enforce blockades and pirates waited to pounce on hapless victims.
The Lynnhaven is only a few miles from the Atlantic, and here, where ocean and Bay meet, there's no obvious dividing line. As if to emphasize this point, a dolphin spotted us and came to investigate, diving under our beam at the last second and disappearing. We were closing in on the Lynnhaven River's inlet now, running before the wind, with main and jib stretched out on opposite sides. "There's nothing more beautiful than a boat sailing wing-on-wing," said my friend and sailing buddy, Jonathan Gorog, as he fashioned a whisker pole from my stretched-out boat hook.
We debated whether to go for guts and glory, with sails spread-eagled as we entered the river, but currents are swift here and we opted for safety, dropping the jib and cranking the engine. We were aiming straight for the Lesner Bridge, with its fixed 35-foot-high span glowering at my 33-foot mast. I'd done the math, of course, and made sure we'd arrive at low tide, but still . . . You know the feeling. You hold your breath and say a quiet prayer, knowing full well that you're not going to clear.
But then of course we did, and suddenly were inside what seems a vast inland sea, with marshes and channels just about everywhere. But we were headed for the cut to Broad Bay so, like most other boats do, we turned sharply to port, cruising past Virginia and Maryland pilot boats and several waterfront restaurants--yes, they all have docks for boats! And, oh yes, we were going to sidle up to one or more of them.
There are actually two cut-throughs to Broad Bay--an upper one that arcs north, echoing the contour of Cape Henry, and a lower one that connects more directly with the west end of Broad Bay. The upper channel is officially Long Creek, but locals call them both Long Creek--and somehow know the difference. We took the lower one, a busy, narrow highway, with pleasure boats and fishing boats transiting in both directions. But the channel itself, taken at no-wake speed, seemed wide enough and easy to navigate.
We pulled into a transient slip at Long Bay Pointe Marina, one of the largest and most luxurious boating centers in Virginia Beach. Its 215 floating slips, two large restaurants, a health spa and lots of other amenities sprawl hundreds of yards along the narrow waterway. Jonathan's wife, Susan, came to pick him up--they live on the Lynnhaven--and my wife, Barbara, who couldn't make the first leg of the trip, arrived a short time later by car from Norfolk.
There was much to do. We wanted to explore the river, set foot on a wild beach that has recently been saved from high-density development and learn about one of the most exciting things to happen to the Lynnhaven in years--new, productive oyster reefs. And, of course, we hoped we'd have a chance to taste some of these lovely local bivalves.
They have quite a history. When the first English settlers arrived on these shores in 1607 they stopped first near Cape Henry, a place now called First Landing State Park. They explored several miles deep into the woods and discovered a still-smoldering Indian fire where oysters, "very large and delicate in taste," had been roasting. Of course they couldn't resist sampling them. Historians joke that this was the first recorded Lynnhaven oyster roast.
Over the next centuries, the Lynnhaven oyster--plump, slightly salty and sweet--became world-famous, only to decline in recent decades as disease and pollution got to them. That story is now being rapidly rewritten. Thanks to the efforts of Lynnhaven River Now, a citizen group working to improve water quality in the river, and the city of Virginia Beach, the Lynnhaven system has gone from 1 percent of river bottom suitable for shellfish harvesting to 40 percent in just seven years. And the oyster business here is exploding.
Barb and I took our dinghy over to the city-owned Lynnhaven Boat Ramp and Beach Facility where we had arranged to meet Karen Forget (for-zhay), a former biology teacher who is a founder and executive director of Lynnhaven River Now, and set out to see some of the river's success stories.
As we departed from the launch, we passed tall spartina grasses along the canal, planted there by students in the city's Wetlands in the Classroom program. Then we crossed choppy Lynnhaven Bay to a large oyster reef, built on top of concrete debris from an older version of the Lesner Bridge. The reef was built from shells contributed by shucking houses, restaurants and oyster roasts, and is now teeming with life. "We're getting absolutely astounding spat sets [baby oysters] here," she said over the putt-putt of my 2 hp outboard.
The amazing thing to me was that the critters were growing and multiplying on their own, without the help of seeding, a build-it-and-they-will-come phenomenon. Elsewhere, like at the rip-rap under Long Bay Pointe Marina, the process continues explosively.
A short way along the creek, just before West Great Neck Bridge, we stopped and viewed an area known as "the castle," a series of interlocking, Lego-like blocks made partly with shells. "We expect in a few years it will be completely covered with oysters," Forget said.
Then came the part I'd been yearning for: We headed back toward the waterfront eateries and tied up at the pier beside Dockside Restaurant. Taking a table outside, we hopefully inquired of the waiter, "Do you have Lynnhaven oysters tonight?"
"Sure do," he replied. Our day, our whole trip here, in fact, was made right there. When the oysters arrived, with their thick, tiger-striped shells, served with drawn butter, sauce, crackers and all the rest, I couldn't get over how wonderful they were--plump, sweet and slightly salty, as advertised. I felt instantly connected to those 400-plus years of history.
"Here's to you and the work you're doing," Barb said, toasting Karen with a glass of lovely pinot grigio.
As with wine, oysters from each region of the Bay are slightly different. Some raw bars have dozens of offerings, and waiters will advise discriminating diners on the subtle qualities of each, from salty to earthy. I hoped to sample enough on this trip to be able to tell them at a slurp.
On the water, new oyster grounds were everywhere to be seen, some used for wild harvesting and some for farm-raised oysters. Forget had told me the industry was booming, with some watermen raising as many as two million of the critters. I wanted to take a closer look, so I contacted Chris Ludford, one of most enthusiastic of the oystermen.
Ludford, who works fulltime as a fireboat captain for the city, spends much of his free time growing and harvesting oysters on the river. It's crazy, he admits, spending all this time on the water, but he clearly loves it--the waders, the oyster cages, the outdoors. One morning I went out with Ludford and two friends, Jerry Boothe and Ray Hunter, to a channel through the marsh and watched him cull through his latest crop. A puppy drum jumped as he dropped anchor from his 18-foot Parker Sou'wester.
The baby oysters he had bought in May were about two millimeters, he said. "When you see it, it's going to blow your mind."
And of course it did. The babies in fine mesh baskets were the size of quarters. And the ones that had been around for nine months were about three inches and just about ready for market. Chris picked up a couple of the larger cages and culled through the oysters, returning smaller ones for more growth, eliminating the ones that had opened, and selecting several dozen of the larger ones. He placed them in plastic baskets and polished them by gently shaking them and then plunging them in the water.
"It's almost like panning for gold," he said, the wonder of it all in his voice.
We made several car trips to the Lynnhaven before our sail here, usually with my inflatable stashed in the trunk. On one of those trips, we set off by dinghy along the Western Branch of the river in the early morning. Off in a narrow cove, we spotted a cast net flashing against the morning sky, and pulled over to watch. The caster of the net, standing in wading boots, introduced himself as Arturo and told us that while traveling south from New York many years ago, he stumbled upon this lovely, abundant river and decided to put his roots down nearby. "This is my last stop," the 77-year-old fisherman said with deep laughter, then turned to cast again.
The Western Branch, like the Eastern, is a jigsaw puzzle of marshes, inlets and coves. It was recently dredged and is well marked, but outside the generous channel, even a modest dinghy can find the bottom--as we discovered. We chose this branch because here the early history of Virginia Beach ebbs and flows like the waterway itself. The cast of characters includes powerful, rich, ambitious, proud, quirky, righteous and intolerant people--and one, a certain Grace Sherwood, who was so independent-minded that townsfolk thought she consorted with the Evil One.
You can glimpse some of this history from the water. A few nautical miles from the bridge is a cove named for Adam Thoroughgood, one of the most successful indentured servants ever. Originally from King's Lynn in Norfolk, England, he named the river and amassed several thousand acres along its shores. He was granted the land through the "head right" system in which the Crown awarded 50 acres per settler transported to the New World, contract servants included.
I couldn't actually pick out the Thoroughgood House from the water, although the people who give tours there say the 1680 dwelling--built by one of Thoroughgood's descendants--has a view of the water.
We also passed by Witch Duck Bay, where one of the strangest events in Virginia history occurred. I always have to, well, duck, when I hear this story. Grace Sherwood, a widow who worked her own land and practiced healing arts was accused of witchcraft. After all, why had the herb rosemary, known for its medicinal properties, suddenly appeared in abundance throughout the region? Obvious, of course: She had sailed off to the Mediterranean in an eggshell and brought it back.
Then, in true witch-hunt fashion, Sherwood was ordered to undergo a trial by being "ducked" in the waters of the Lynnhaven. She was rowed out into the cove, tied thumbs-to-toes, and then shoved into the water with a heavy Bible around her neck. The reasoning was that if she survived, she was bewitched, if she drowned she was innocent. Amazingly, Sherwood survived . . . and served several years in prison. Eventually released, she was not exonerated until 400 years later, when Governor Tim Kaine officially cleared her name. There's now a bronze statue to the "Witch of Pungo" overlooking the church on N. Witchduck Road.
On a side trip, we visited the area of one of Sherwood's haunts--and met her present-day representation at Ferry Plantation, which sits on land where the courthouse and jail once stood. There, dressed as Sherwood might have, Belinda Nash met us, took us through the circa 1830 house and gave a spirited interpretation of the accused woman. When Sherwood had been rowed out to the river, said Nash, she cried out, "Before this day is through, ye will all get a worse ducking than I!" And sure enough, when the obviously guilty witch had surfaced and was pulled from the water, thunder cracked, lightning lit up the sky and a downburst of rain drenched them all.
One truly game-changing development--so to speak--for the Lynnhaven has been the recent public acquisition of Pleasure House Point, a 122-acre spit of sand dunes, marsh, forest and wildlife habitat that was originally targeted for intense development. The plans for that project, known as Indigo Dunes, included more than a thousand condos, a high-rise apartment building and luxury homes. It would have had a huge impact on the Lynnhaven. But city officials, the Trust for Public Land and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) joined forces to quash the project, and the land was ultimately purchased from the developers and set aside as a permanent natural area open to the public. At the same time CBF announced plans to build an environmental education center on the land and move its local headquarters there. (You'll find a history, slideshow and plans for the education center at www.cbf.org.)
Our Lynnhaven sojourn wouldn't be complete without a stop there, so we contacted one of the best people on the planet to give us a tour. She's Lillie Gilbert, historian, waterfront owner and citizen-activist who recently co-wrote a history of the Lynnhaven for kayakers and canoeists. Founder of Wild River Outfitters, Gilbert is also known for exploring and helping restore an old canal that connects the Eastern Branch of the Lynnhaven to waterways leading all the way to North Carolina and beyond. We rendezvoused with her in the parking area for Pleasure House Point and walked through a scrubby field down to the beach. It was high tide and the water looked like a vast sea.
"This where it all started," Gilbert said, referring to the Lynnhaven's storied past. "It is so easy to imagine what the area looked like four hundred years ago, because the grasses are still here, the tall pines are still here--and if you just in your mind's eye eliminate all the houses and the docks, there you have a beautiful estuary."
Barb and I returned to the marina and its highly regarded waterside restaurant, One Fish Two Fish, where we dined on the deck under a full August moon. The food--mine was "wreckfish," served over mashed sweet potatoes--was indeed memorable. "One of the best ever," is how my spouse put it.
The next morning, we were ready for one last exploration before heading home. This time we took the dinghy east, out through lower Long Creek, under the Great Neck Road bridges and into Broad Bay, a vast waterway lined with homes, marshes and the sprawling First Landing State Park. But a light rain began to fall and the western sky was giving us unfriendly hints. It was time to end this memorable getaway, so with visions of plump oysters dancing in our heads, set out for home, full of plans for our next visit.