A week's cruise on the Patuxent River produces
good memories to tuck into your pocket for rainy
days to come. [September 2009]
By Jody Argo Schroath
Sometimes, when the weather is particularly unpleasant, or I'm sitting in the office wishing I were sailing, I reach into my pocket and pull out my Patuxent River. Look, here it is, let me show you. It's beautiful, isn't it? Yes, yes, I know, you can't actually see it. It's my metaphorical Patuxent River, assembled one experience and one memory at a time this May during a cruise down the Bay from Annapolis. It took me nearly a week to put together all the pieces, but now I can pull it out anytime I want to and admire its lush green shoreline and revisit its amiable creeks and anchorages and just remember . . .
See, there's dirt on that part. (C'mon, just play along; pretend you see it too.) That's where I joined a group of enthusiasts at Jefferson Patterson State Park for a public dig at the site of an old plantation. And see, over here, a few crumbs left over from a jumbo Stoney's crabcake sandwich on Broomes Island. Oops, there's an empty Sam Adams bottle tucked in behind Vera's that somebody missed. Oh well, it's a fine looking river anyway, though I can't seem to get that coffee stain out of St. Leonard Creek, no matter how hard I try.
Wait, I'll tell you about that in a minute. First, I want to show you my favorite place on the river. Let me hold it up so you can see where it is. Okay, now we're looking at the mouth of the river, as if we were out in the Bay looking in. Straight ahead there is Solomons Island. See it? Now forget Solomons, because we're not going there. I've been there; you've been there. So, no, we're not going there. Instead, look across the river to the left, just where the Route 4 (Governor Thomas Johnson) bridge comes back down to earth in St. Mary's County. That is where we're going to start: Town Creek.
Who knew? When describing the Patuxent, the guidebooks talk about Solomons, of course, (remember, we're not going there) and a few places not much farther upriver, like St. Leonard Creek (we will get back to that) and Mill and Cuckold creeks, and maybe Broomes Island. But not Town Creek. Yet Town Creek is practically the perfect place for cruisers transiting the Bay and looking for a convenient and friendly layover. It's also ideal as a gateway for a visit to the Patuxent. It's near the mouth of the river, it's easy to get into, it's deep enough inside for just about anybody and it's friendly, charming and walkable. Have I made my point?
Yes, well, Town Creek looked mighty good to my cruising buddy Hal and me at 5 p.m. on a Friday in late May as we rounded flashing red "4" at the creek's entrance, gave the shoal-warning buoy beyond it a wide berth and immediately spotted our target, Town Creek Point Marina. In truth, it's hard not to spot what you're looking for there, since after a short entrance, the creek opens up into a small bay and then is immediately subdivided by the descending Route 4 bridge. To the right are Town Creek Point Marina and the adjacent Town Creek Landing Marina. To the left are several dozen fishing boats tied up at the docks that extend from nearly every small cottage that line the creek. Just beyond the bridge lies the excellently named Boatel California, followed by a strip of land just wide enough for the road in from Route 4, then an old roadhouse and finally a lovely ribbon of shoreline with great views of sunset over the Patuxent and great fishing.
On the other hand, perhaps it all looked so good because we'd spent the last eight hours charging into a short steep chop and wildly fluctuating headwinds on Snipp, my 27-foot Albin Vega. After that, Omaha would have looked good. Also it could be that we had been somewhat flummoxed by Snipp's new tiller pilot, which was displaying an unnerving tendency for malicious mischief. After an hour or so of hewing strictly to the proper course, it would quite suddenly and quietly send us off toward Bloody Point or, worse, Calvert Cliffs. So yes, Town Creek looked pretty darned good.
Yet, from the beginning it earned its good name. We had called ahead and gotten our slip number (and all-important entry code for the lounge and showers) from Town Creek Point Marina's owner, Buddy Winslow, away for the weekend manning a booth at the Patuxent Air Show for his geothermal-installations business. As we drifted by the slips looking for our number, Dale Dean drifted over from his houseboat and waved us in. While he looked more like Porter Wagoner from the Grand Ole Opry than a marina dockhand, the effect was the same . . . and a lot more interesting. As we stepped off to set our lines, we admired the houseboat. Dean allowed that he was fond of it himself but was in the market for a bigger one, now that his girlfriend had recently run out of closet space.
We also admired the boat in the slip next to us, which turned out to be a 1957 37-foot Alden-designed ketch owned by a fellow named Dean Snyder, who popped his head out to tell us he has been putting it back in shape for the last year and a half and in the meantime has amassed a world-class collection of DVDs for its library. Would we like to borrow one . . . or two? Snyder was heading out the next day with some of his family to watch the air show along with about 5,000 other boats. Good luck with that, I thought.
Well, that was just the way the whole stay at Town Creek went. If someone came in at two in the morning from work and noticed you tied up there, they checked to make sure you had allowed enough line for the rise in tide before they tucked in for the night. Everybody was polite, helpful and curious”I think they don't get many transients. Here's an example: Winslow and his wife Jackie are adding an ice machine to the marina”but just to be nice, since they don't plan to charge for the ice. They're nice to the environment too, planting native grasses along the shoreline and putting their geothermal experience into practice in their home and the slipholders' lounge upstairs, which comes with two showers and a flat-screen TV (pssst! I know where you can borrow a few DVDs.)
Over the next few days, while we weren't out sailing or anchored for the night in one creek or another, we strolled through tiny Town Point, which, we were told, was settled largely in the 1940s and 1950s by retirees and people from the area's ubiquitous Navy installations. Tidy cottages, dressed up with extravagant numbers of hydrangea bushes, line the community's two or three roads.
Unfortunately, the shoreline of my metaphorical Patuxent is a little hazy in spots. No, it wasn't the weather. You see, my sailing buddy Hal had to leave the next day, so my husband Rick drove down to take up the slack, so to speak. That next morning we nosed Snipp out of Town Creek to start our trip on the river. As soon as we got away from the lee of the land, 15-knot winds, gusting to 20, smacked us from behind (southwest), giving us a good shove toward the center of the Patuxent's wide channel. We hastily reefed the main”just to make ourselves more comfortable, you understand”then rolled out the genoa and swung northwest to head upriver. The wind filled the sails, and before you could say Jack Robinson, we were skimming under the 300-foot-high center span of the Route 4 bridge. We tightened sail further to clear Point Patience to starboard and blinked in disbelief as the depthsounder registered 102 feet. The Patuxent is not one of your shallow Bay rivers.
After that, we eased off the sails and settled into a long and giddy beam reach, spilling a little wind during the gusts, but otherwise just keeping a light hand on the tiller to discourage the boat from rounding up into the wind. I felt a little dismayed as one landmark after another”all carefully circled in orange grease pencil on the chart for further investigation”whizzed by to port and starboard. It seemed a shame, but woe betide the sailor who messes with a perfect point of sail on a well balanced boat in a steady wind. Not I!
As a consequence, the entrance to Mill and Cuckold creeks, those popular anchoring grounds for both transients and local boating clubs”and home to the excellent though non-transient Blackstone Marina”soon went by in a blur. I don't remember if I even bothered to point it out to Rick. He was clearly in the oh-yeah-this-is-what-sailing's-all-about zone anyway, and not open to comment, especially of the marketing-department variety.
Soon afterward, I was pretty sure I spotted the dock at Sotterly Plantation, where you can tie up to visit this histori-cally significant early 19th-century mansion. But maybe not. There are a number of handsome but uncertifiably significant old homes scattered along the banks of the Patuxent, and (I know this is heresy to some) one handsome historic house can look a lot like the next.
On the other side of the river, I could see a few boats already headed into St. Leonard Creek, probably on their
way to an early lunch and a parasol-bedizened mai tai at the rejuvenated Vera's White Sands Beach Club. "We'll be back," I muttered under my breath as St. Leonard passed rapidly to stern.
The long sandy shoreline just beyond St. Leonard is punctuated with short breakwaters that T off the two-mile long beach at Jefferson Patterson State Park and Museum. These short stone jetties were built to protect the shoreline while allowing its sand and grasses to host the appropriate assortment of wildlife. "I'll be back," I promised.
Island Creek and Broomes Island”home to Bernie Fowler, the Patuxent River's guardian angel in tennis shoes”soon hove into view. Workboats were already heading home into the creek after their morning rounds. As we slid silently by the island (which on the chart looks for all the world like the head of a pterodactyl and is doubtless as old), I thought about suggesting that we tie up at Stoney's Seafood House for lunch and one of their famous cannon-ball crabcakes, but quickly thought better of it. That would have to wait too.
The next place we didn't stop was Battle Creek, about three miles beyond Broomes Island and on the same side of the river. I'd been particularly looking forward to exploring this creek, which wanders north for about three or four miles before petering out into Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. The highlight of this 100-acre park is its quarter-mile or so of plastic-wood walkway that meanders through some of the eeriest landscape you're likely to see this side of Atchafalaya, Louisiana. The phrase "Don't let the skeeters get you" was probably invented right here at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. I'd walked down that walkway before, and I can tell you that before you're halfway through you'll swear there are critters looking at you from behind every semisubmerged cypress knee. And that place has a lot of cypress knees. It's a great place to visit, but my advice is to slather on the bug repellent and keep moving!
We quickly ticked off a few more miles as the Route 231 bridge and the stacks of the Chalk Point power plant rose higher and higher above the low-slung shoreline. The Chalk Point plant, which opened in 1964 and is Maryland's largest, burns coal, gas and oil”the latter coming through a 51-mile pipeline from owner Mirant Corp.'s facility at Piney Point on the Potomac River.
The bridge has a vertical clearance of only 16 feet, but will swing open with a call to the bridge tender. At the foot of the bridge to the right, on the Calvert County side, lies Hollowing Point. To the left, on the short stretch of Patuxent shore that belongs to Charles County, lies the town of Benedict, once a busy center for the river's oystering industry and now an intriguing backwater of cottages on stilts over the water, workboats and a sprinkling of marinas, mostly for shallow-draft boats. For those in search of dinner or a sandwich at Ray's Pier, temporary dockage for drafts up to five feet can be found at the end-docks of DeSoto's Landing Marina next door. Ray's lies in the shade of a large and venerable sycamore, clearly a grandmaster of survival in a place that has seen more than its share of storms and high water.
Needless to say, we didn't stop there, nor did we continue beyond the bridge. Instead we brought Snipp's nose through the wind and came off on a beam reach going the opposite direction. I didn't fight it. The river above the Chalk Point plant is a wonder to behold, as I'd discovered on an earlier dinghy trip. It narrows significantly beyond the powerlines that are strung from the plant to the opposite shore and then settles in to mile after mile of nature as she was intended, occasionally broken up by small settlements that, like Benedict, seem the incidental remnants of a bustling but long ago maritime past”and I suppose they are. In a small powerboat, a dinghy, a kayak or a canoe, the upper reaches of the river is a trip worth the trouble. But all cruises have limits, and this one was piling up still-need-to-dos faster than silt after a rainstorm.
So that's why some of the shoreline of my Patuxent is pretty blurry. But on the other hand, my St. Leonard Creek is nice and sharp. That's because the wind eased off just as we reached its entrance the second time, and, finally, I could say, "Hey let's go find a place to drop the anchor and then go up to Vera's." And so we did. We rounded flashing red "14" and then green "1", taking both to port to avoid the shoal off Petersons Point, then passed Mackall inlet to port”the first of many excellent anchorages on the creek. We dropped the hook off a duck blind, behind a trawler and two sailboats, near the top of Saw Pit Cove. It was a busy place, but we wanted to be within easy dinghy-distance from Vera's, whose white turrets and the newly rebuilt docks we could see up the creek. We paid the price with plenty of boat wakes from waterskiiers, wakeboarders and visitors to Vera's until well after dark, but after the splendid isolation of our beam reach upriver and down, the company of fellow boaters reveling in a great day on the water was no punishment.
St. Leonard is justly famous among cruisers and local boaters alike for its beauty. In fact, sitting in Vera's at dusk and looking out past its plastic palm trees and the Botticelli-Venus-type fountain on the patio to the alternating points of land that marked the downriver scene, I was struck”as no doubt hundreds of cruisers have been before me”by the arresting combination of absurdity and beauty that the scene from Vera's presented. Then, like hundreds before me, I shrugged it off and called for another cold beer. So what's so weird about a Polynesian resort on a mid-Maryland river after all?
The next morning, before we left St. Leonard Creek, we motored around to explore its coves and creeks and to locate a few quieter anchorages for future reference. It was during this excursion that Rick forgot that the stove gimbals only some of the time and spilled three-fourths of a pot of hot coffee on the cabin carpet.
We left St. Leonard and dithered around out on the river for a few more hours that day, but the wind was elusive and the clouds were building in the west, so we gave Mill Creek a quick tour and then returned to Town Creek. Rick left that afternoon before the rain started so he could be back at work the next day. Practically before the dust had settled, however, my daughter Kristen arrived, ready for her turn on the Patuxent. Ah, I thought, with visions of crabcakes dancing in my head, here is a young woman who loves to eat! Therefore, it won't surprise you to learn”and not just because I've already alluded to the vestigial bread crumbs in the Broomes Island vicinity”that Stoney's was our first stop.
The middle of Island Creek, which runs along the east side of Broomes Island, is plenty deep enough for just about any boat, but along its edges the bottom comes up quickly. So Kristen and I timed our arrival at Stoney's for near high tide, just to be sure we'd have enough water . . . and time to do the job right. Happily, that put us early in the lunch cycle so we could claim an outside table with a great view of the busy creek. Soon, all the other tables were filled and Stoney's waitresses were everywhere at once with trays piled high with crab-related dishes. Call it unimaginative or call it keeping it simple, I went straight for the colossal crabcake sandwich. Kristen chose the crabcake platter and corn on the cob. I couldn't finish my portion, but luckily, Kristen was there to help. Daughters are such a comfort.
Well before the tide had started to run out of the creek, we were back on the river and heading for Jefferson-Patterson Park, my second favorite place on the Patuxent.
You won't find this in the guidebooks, but Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is accessible by boat. I have it on good authority”from park director Mike Smolek himself, who did just this one summer while he was anchored in Mackall on his Hunter 40. Although cruisers are not permitted to tie up at the park's only dock, which belongs to Morgan State University, they are welcome to drop anchor and then take a dinghy up to the beach. Smolek naturally recommends Mackall as a convenient place to anchor and Petersons Point, just around the corner and out on the Patuxent, as a good place to beach the dinghy. But the state-owned park's other beaches would do nicely too, since there is sure to be a trail nearby that will lead to the visitor center, or to the big-farm-engine barn, or past the reconstructed Native American settlement. The T-shaped breakwaters also provide good protection from wind and waves.
Kristen and I dinghied ashore at the canoe and kayak launching site, which is also near the Native American village, a War of 1812 site and a couple of trails. We could see pretty quickly that it would be hard to find any place in this extraordinary park that was not touched by history, whether it is evidence of prehistoric settlement, 18th-century plantations or 19th-century conflict. Even the buildings are historic in their way.
The park's namesake, Jefferson Patterson, an Ohio-born diplomat, bought the property in 1932 to use as an experimental farm. He commissioned architect Gertrude Sawyer to design 26 buildings”homes and farm buildings”for the estate, which he and his wife, war correspondent and photojournalist Mary Breckenridge Patterson, called Point Farm. Many of these buildings survive in repurposed form, such as the park's visitor center, which began life as the show barn.
But it was the couple's realization that they had acquired a unique piece of property that prompted Mary Patterson to donate it to the state of Maryland in 1983. She understood that it was immensely rich in artifacts and wanted it safely preserved for study. In fact, to date, after 20 years of excavations, museum archaeologists estimate they have explored less than one percent of what lies buried on the nearly 600 acres. That is one of the reasons that the state established its Museum of Archaeology here, a remarkable repository of artifacts from sites all over the state.
Kristen and I spent a happy afternoon, walking the trails, admiring the constant vistas of the river through the trees and trying to resist the temptations of the gift shop.
I had one more thing I wanted to do at the park, but I couldn't for the life of me talk Kristen into coming along. So the next day I left her to wander the streets of Town Point or watch a video in the lounge while I put on my best Indiana Jones fedora”okay, my least dorky sailing hat”and went back across the river to Petersons Point.
That's the day I got dirt all over one corner of my Patuxent. I had gone looking for buried treasure. Not on my own, of course, but as part of the park's public archaeology program, which allows off-the-street people like me to get down and dirty with the whole sifting for artifacts thing.
Arriving about nine o'clock in the morning, I joined a small group of other volunteers, including a family of five. First, Maryland Historic Trust administrator Ed Chaney collected us in the shade of some trees near the dig and explained that we would be working at the site of an early 18th-century slave quarters on an estate that had belonged to Richard Smith, Maryland's first attorney general. Researchers are particularly lucky with the Smith property, Chaney explained, because it was part of a long and rancorous boundary dispute in the late 18th century. One of the artifacts that came out of that dispute is a detailed map showing the exact location of all of the buildings, fields and boundaries. Archaeologists overlaid that map with a modern one and have been able to pinpoint the long-lost sites. Which is how the slave quarters site was initially found. Once the grid was laid out and the digging started, evidence of post holes were discovered nearly at once.
After Chaney had finished his talk, he delivered us into the care of three of the park's summer archaeologists, who put us to work at once screening shovelfuls of sand over a barrel in search of anything other than dirt. And, by golly, when you've seen enough shovelfuls of dirt, a thimble-size kernel of 18th-century brick looks like the mother lode. Step back, Indy!
We dug and sifted and sorted and chatted. It was terrific, and everybody was having a great time. One of the pros, Annette Cook, who has an archaeology degree from the University of West Florida, had moved to the area a year ago when her Navy husband was transferred to nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station. "I thought I'd walked into heaven," she said about coming to work at Jefferson Patterson. Off-the-street volunteer Sandra Bell, on the other hand, holds a PhD in analytical chemistry and is retired from the FDA. She has completed the park's flint-napping course and learned basket-making at the Indian village. Now she was enthusiastically grubbing through screen after screen of dirt in search of . . . well, anything. It was, as volunteer family member Wyatt Gilly pointed out, an activity that comes with its own reward system.
Sometime about mid-afternoon, I felt sufficiently rewarded and returned to the boat and then to Town Creek. Kristen was leaving that afternoon, and I had to get ready for the arrival of my friend Jean, who was driving up from Florida to sail with me down to the Potomac. We had a great time, and I even got to bring home another river.
But, hey, that's another story, and I see that the weather is clearing up and the wind is freshening. So if you'll excuse me, I think I'll just slip the Patuxent back into my pocket and go sailing. Want to come?