By Jody Argo Schroath
This story is about three things--the lovely Sassafras River, the singular pleasure of cruising in the fall and . . . well, waiting. Fall is a terrific time for a cruise, the perfect time to just look around, to admire the glorious show of turning leaves without the bustle and sociability of summer. My friend Kathy and I had decided that we would cruise up "north" to the Sassafras, simply to see the river and admire its beauty before everything went bare and winter set in. We didn't even care if we talked to a soul. We were just going to cruise. "That's what fall cruising is all about," we told ourselves as we waited for just the right moment to set out. "That and eating," Kathy added. "It's always about eating," I replied.
Waiting for just the right moment isn't easy in the best of times, but it's even worse when the waiting stretches into weeks and weeks, which naturally is what happened last year as we monitored a variety of internet leaf-watching sites and waited for fall, with its flash-in-the-pan finery, to drift down from the north to the Atlantic seaboard. Finally, the "peak" began to creep down out of Quebec into New England and then shot an arm down the Allegheny Mountains. It was time to start calling friends and casual acquaintances who lived in Kent and Cecil counties--the two counties that border the Sassafras River. "Any color yet?" I'd ask. "Not yet," they would reply. "Now?" I'd ask the following week. "No," came the unvarying reply. Meanwhile, the days grew shorter and the nights grew colder. Finally, the last week in October, the answer came back, "Now!"
Hooray, the wait was over! I alerted Kathy and cancelled all my plans (those Kardashians would just have to wait). A few days later, the dock cart was piled high with bedding, charts, fleece vests and dog food, and the three of us--Kathy and I and my dog Skipper--were headed down the dock to the Albin 28 Journey.
Half an hour later we pulled out of J Port Annapolis and into Back Creek. The air was sweet and clear. Annapolis harbor was silent in the morning chill as Journey plowed silver furrows in the still blue water. A few minutes later, we rounded the marker off Greenbury Point, turned north toward the center span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and settled in for the ride. Skipper curled up in his bed in front of the passenger seat and Kathy fell sound asleep over a book in the V-berth. Well, I was enjoying the scenery, anyway.
Hugging the eastern shore, Journey had soon passed Love Point at the mouth of the Chester River and then Swan Point and Rock Hall. We were just opposite Worton Creek when Kathy emerged from below wearing a bright pink fleece pullover and carrying a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. She climbed over the still-napping Skipper to get into the passenger seat. "Mmm," she said by way of a conversation opener. "Almost there," I replied, knowing she was probably still too sleepy to take in a detailed geographical description. Skipper was awake now too and making a cottage industry out of picking up dropped potato chips.
"Don't eat too many chips," I said, sounding just like somebody's mother, "you'll spoil your lunch . . . and it's a humdinger, I promise."
"You have nothing to worry about, I'm always hungry," Kathy replied.
We passed Worton Creek and then Still Pond. As we drew closer to the Sassafras I imagined us climbing steadily north, like the New Yorkers who stream out of the city and up into Vermont's Northern Kingdom each fall to be dazzled by the countless sugar maples and their iridescent reds and burnt oranges. In fact, as we got farther north, we did see more and more color in the trees along the banks. At Howell Point, which marks the southern entrance to the Sassafras, we turned east to begin our trek upriver, passing a particularly vivid stand of that peak color we'd waited for so patiently.
Three miles or so later we were opposite Grove Point, the northern shore of the mouth of the Sassafras. The river's significant "underbite" has a distinct affect on the life of the river; it creates a kind of colossal funnel for the debris that comes bobbing down the Bay from the Susquehanna River. This means that whenever the flood gates of the Conowingo Dam are thrown open after particularly large rains or snow melts, the protruding lower "jaw" of the Sassafras catches a great deal of the debris--dead trees, old kitchen appliances, etc.--that comes along with the floodwater.
The same geography also leaves the town of Betterton, only two miles upriver from Howell Point, exposed to ship wakes and winter northerlies. On this lovely fall day, however, there were neither northerlies nor Frigidaires to contend with so we made our first Sassafras landing at Betterton's municipal pier. It's a fine pier, with plenty of water, and on this off-season day it was entirely empty. As was Betterton's beach. The Betterton beach is a lot like a Florida beach--long and wide--but without the requisite line of hotels and condos. Oh, there are a few condos in Betterton to be sure, but most of them are tucked away and across the street. In Betterton's heyday as a resort destination, from the end of the 19th century until about halfway into the 20th, its hotels and cottages catered to thousands of vacationers who arrived by steamboat from Baltimore and points north. But the hotels and the tourists have been gone a long time, and Betterton has lain fallow, waiting for the fun to begin again. Or maybe not. Maybe the town's 370 residents prefer it this way. I rather think I might. Despite the current lack of amenities like restaurants and hotels, the beach attracts hundreds of fun-seekers all summer long. But we had it to ourselves for the moment and we made the best of it, strolling up and down the beach, the boardwalk and the streets, and then searching fruitlessly amidst the beachside vegetation for an old freshwater well I'd read about somewhere in some book or other . . . or at least I think it was at Betterton.
Back on the boat we went off in search of autumny things like, um, pretty leaves and stuff, and . . . well we'd know autumny when we saw it. About this time, I noticed that the potato chip supply was running dangerously low, so I suggested that we head for one of my top 10 favorite spots anywhere on the Bay--Turner Creek. There we'd be able to virtually wallow in fall, I explained to Kathy, who was now tipping the remains in the bag directly into her mouth as Skipper watched intently from below. And we could stop for lunch. "You'll love it," I said. "We can start with a crab bisque I made. It's super rich and has just a little sherry." I started to continue my recitation of the luncheon menu, but then noticed that we were just about to pass Lloyd Creek. "Wait, let's see if we can get into Lloyd Creek first. It's the new uber-popular summer party place on the river," I explained. "We should be able to make it into the creek, and the entrance is fun because it's almost impossible to see."
"Crab bisque? I love crab bisque!" Kathy said, then shrugged. "Well, okay, as long as it's right on the way."
The party moved to Lloyd Creek a few years ago, after the Sassafras's longtime favorite boat beach, Ordinary Point (just upriver and on the opposite shore), was riprapped along its entire length. Lloyd Creek has a long beach, perfect for beaching boats and picnicking--though boats that draw more than a couple of feet need to use a dinghy to get to the beach. The creek entrance, located at the extreme eastern end of a long spit of land, is so well hidden that even the redoubtable John Smith would have been hard put to find it--though, of course, who's to say he didn't?
Captain Smith did sail up the Sassafras River--which he named the Tockwogh, after the tribe of Indians he found here. Smith and his men got themselves invited to dinner at a tribal village, very likely located on Turner Creek, which Smith described as having a palisades around it, presumably for protection from the more bellicose Massawomecks. I don't know this for sure, but I imagine Smith liked the Sassafras. Who wouldn't? The river is deep for most of its 20-mile length, with a wide central channel--15 to 50 feet deep as far as the large natural harbor just below where Maryland Route 213 now crosses it, and six or seven feet out of the channel, nearly up to riverbanks. On each side, lovely high bluffs, thick with maples, oaks and ashes, share space with farmland and handsome homes.
As we motored slowly toward the entrance to Lloyd Creek, those stands of hardwoods were luminous in shades of red, yellow and ochre in the mid-day sun. Soon we were so close to the shore that we were nearly in the shade of an old tulip tree. Just then, Kathy spotted the narrow passage. "That's it?" she asked. We edged through tentatively, like uninvited guests at a dinner party, but found no one at home. As Kathy marveled at the beach (as you might have already guessed, the Sassafras has some of the sweetest and most accessible beaches on the Bay), I kept an eye on the depth sounder. Six . . . five . . . four.
"I'm sure there's a channel here somewhere, I just don't know where," I said, trying several routes, all unsuccessfully shallow. Every time I'd been here before, I had been on other people's boats--boats with considerably shallower draft. "Well, you get the idea," I said finally, spinning the boat around and heading for the exit. "In the summer, this is just a conga line of boats backed up to the beach, having some fun."
As we turned back upriver, I continued to extol the virtues of the Sassafras. "In addition to great beaches and deep water, it has anchorages galore," I said, "and enough creeks to keep a gunkholer occupied for years."
"Can we gunkhole for some lunch now?"
"Sure. I made chicken salad with tarragon and roasted hazelnuts too. And I've got some lovely local Bibb lettuce to put it on! Turner Creek is just a little . . ." I interrupted myself, "Wait, before we do that, let me show you Ordinary Point, that former favorite beach I was telling you about. There, you can see the tip of it now coming in from the left." And before Kathy could object, I aimed for the opposite shore in the direction of a long finger of land that reached nearly to midstream. This was Ordinary Point, and it was indeed as neatly encased in white riprap as a finger in a Band-Aid--and presumably with the same end in view: protection from the elements. Kathy dutifully studied the shoreline and then looked wistfully back over her shoulder toward the entrance to Turner Creek. "So near and yet so far," she said under her breath.
But now I'd had another thought. "As long as we're on this side of the river," I said, "we might as well take a look behind Knight Island. It's a great anchoring spot, and I'll bet it's beautiful this time of year. After all, that's why we're here, right?" I didn't wait for her answer. "That's also near the dinghy landing for Mount Harmon, which is this splendid 1730 manor house with wonderful gardens and lots of trails. We could walk around for just a little bit anyway. Mmm, no, it's closed today. . . . Too bad, but we can come back another time."
"Not unless you feed me first."
A little over a mile upriver from Ordinary Point we turned up Back Creek and followed it around the tip of Knight Island, which is actually a peninsula. There we stopped in the dead-calm water of Back Creek and looked up into its tributaries, Carr and Foreman creeks, and the photo-still reflection of the fall colors mirrored in them. Yes, it was absolutely beautiful. Exactly what we'd come to find on our fall cruise. Kathy had no problem breaking the spell. "What else did you bring for lunch?" she asked as we returned to the main channel of the Sassafras. "At least I can imagine I'm eating it."
"Asparagus," I replied, heading upriver again. "Poached . . . white. Lightly poached and then chilled. I thought we'd just do a little lemon and olive oil and throw on some capers. It should be quite nice."
She groaned quite audibly. Skipper looked up, worried.
"Just a little bit longer," I said. "I want to take you up to the bridge first. We're almost there and that's where all the marinas are." (I decided not to mention that's where all the restaurants are too.) One of the many great things about the Sassafras is that all of its marinas and restaurants are clustered together (with one exception) around the harbor just below the Route 213 bascule bridge. The result, from a practical standpoint, is that no matter which of the marinas you choose--and they are all great and all have transient slips--you'll find everything else, including all the restaurants (which are terrific), fuel docks, ship's stores and repair facilities, within easy reach. In addition, other essential businesses like a grocery store, pharmacy and package store can be found about a mile south on Route 213 in pretty little Galena (population 428). And because this is fresh water, it attracts a lot of classic wooden boats, which are always worth seeing, no matter what the season. The exception to the marina rule is Gregg Neck Marina, a fine old-fashioned boatyard, which lies on the other side of the bridge.
About two miles above Back Creek, with the bridge in sight, I slowed Journey to six knots. We passed Island Creek on the right, which has little Daffodil Island at its center--a further diversion, but one which I just managed to resist. Instead I pressed on toward the marinas and the bridge. Enough was enough, I thought. I was teetering on the brink of mutiny as it was. So a little while later I pointed out the entrance to Skipjack Cove Marina, the newest of the half-dozen marinas that have sprung up here over the past century. I had made my first trip on the Sassafras out of Skipjack Cove Marina, I explained, aboard a classic Chris Craft Roamer that lives there. Next, I pointed out Duffy Creek Marina, tucked into its private cove, and then the Granary Marina. "It's built on the site of an old granary--duh--which burned and was rebuilt as a terrific restaurant." Restaurant! Oops! I raced on: "The Granary is owned by the same family as Georgetown Yacht Basin, which is over there on the southern side and is one of the river's oldest. And there's Sassafras Harbor Marina, nearest the bridge on the north side." Sassafras Harbor started out as the Sassafras Boat Company and is the other oldest marina here, I explained. (What I didn't say was that they also have a nice little restaurant, called Harbor Cafe.) In between Sassafras Harbor and the Granary is Sailing Associates, whose great old trees and park-like setting make it look more like a yacht club than the marina it is. (And there, I thought to myself as I looked up at the fine old house perched on the south side of the bridge, is the Kitty Knight House, the queen of Sassafras restaurants. And I also didn't mention Skipjack Cove's restaurant, Signals. Or Twinny's Place, which is a crazy popular little place with great crabcake, chicken and rockfish sandwiches, just down the road on the way to Galena.)
"Yipes, look at the time!" I exclaimed. "It's nearly four o'clock already. We'll just go through the bridge and up as far as Gregg Neck before we turn around. It's really pretty up there, and it will only take a couple of minutes."
Both Kathy and Skipper gave me a pretty bitter look as we waited for the bridge, but, really, it only added a few more minutes to idle past Mill Creek and then Gregg Neck Boatyard. "Look, there are some great boats there!" I said pointing toward the marina. As we reached Wilson Point, I could see by the chart that we were running out of room, and I was definitely running out of time. We glided to a stop, took in the narrowing river ahead of us, the marsh plants turning brown and curling in preparation for winter, and then turned around and headed back downriver, back to Turner Creek and the lunch that had now become dinner.
Turner Creek has a wide entrance that funnels down into a very narrow channel that nearly grazes the western bank along the way. It's a somewhat notorious channel, with stiff grounding penalties for those who stray. But it's also well marked and, if carefully followed, presents no problem. Inside, the creek widens into a small bay, with Turner's Creek Park approximately at its center. To the right the bay is shallow and wisely avoided, though it's deep enough for most boats from the last marker to the park, with its three-sided bulkhead, its pre-Civil War granary and pier. To the left of the park is a small anchorage, with several permanently anchored boats, but usually room for a few more. The park's picnic grounds lie on a bluff above the pier and offer a storybook view down to the little bay, to the circuitous entrance into the creek, to the Sassafras beyond and finally to the bluffs of the river's opposite shore. Looking down on all that through the trees on that bluff is, to me, one of the Chesapeake's loveliest sights.
During crabbing season, the bulkhead and pier are often busy with workboats and watermen unloading the day's catch. But as we sidled up to the pier in the deep yellow light of this fall afternoon, there wasn't a deadrise in sight. Like the rest of the river, we had the pier and the park to ourselves. Skipper was the first ashore. He and I had made this stop many times before, so he knew all the right bushes and all the best smells. Kathy and I transferred the containers with "lunch" into a picnic basket and walked down the pier and then climbed up to the picnic area above. In the waning afternoon light I poured out the crab bisque, while Kathy set out the lettuce on two plates and spooned mounds of chicken salad on top. I dressed the asparagus and pulled the cork on a bottle of Ingleside Winery's Chesapeake Chardonnay I had recently brought back from the Northern Neck. Then I set out a dish of Newman's dog kibbles and a big bowl of water for Skipper. We three ate avidly and silently, two of us looking out at the scene below us, admiring the colors of those perfectly peak autumn leaves. When we had eaten our fill, and then some, we packed up the remains and toted it all back to the boat. Then we pushed off from the dock and idled out into the little bay, dropped the anchor, and settled ourselves in the cockpit, watching the stars come out as the evening chill settled down around us.
"Good?" I asked.
"It pains me to say it," Kathy replied, "but you're right. That was worth waiting for . . . all of it." Then, after a pause: "What's for dessert?"
"Pear and cranberry crisp with a little vanilla ice cream," I said.
"Good, that will make a fine breakfast."