You can visit Taylors Island, Md., and the Little Choptank
for the bald eagles, sika deer and a view that just won't quit.
But leave time for soft crabs and karaoke, too. [February 2008]
By Jane Meneely
Photography by Michael C. Wootton
Here are the intrepid explorers, bundled up against the November wind and setting out in their mighty inflatable to plunge deep into the headwaters of Slaughter Creek. They seek the southeast passage behind Taylors Island or perhaps a path through the marshy wilds all the way to the Honga River. (It should be possible—just look at the chart.) I'm with Brother Henry, his wife Pat and their dog Murphy. We've just set off fromINSSA
, Brother's Gulfstar 44, a palatial vessel compared to my little sailboat and eminently more suitable for November cruising. My good buddy Paul is off on a pirate tear through North Carolina. We miss him, but the voyage must go on, so we cast off the painter, start up the outboard and go merrily sputter-sputter-putt-putt on our fearless way. This is a place where condos fear to tread, a world so remote, so desolate, so unimaginably flat, so completely sodden that no one else would be here, except a few noisy geese, diehard gunners, fishermen and kayakers.
Our little outboard began grinding coffee before we'd passed our first "posted" notice. We were entering the outer reaches of the Taylors Island Wildlife Area, where a series of orange signs cautioned us against . . . well, we couldn't tell just what, because we couldn't get close enough to read them. We thought that as long as we didn't shoot anything or disturb any nests or litter or start an open fire or engage in illicit acts with minors, we'd be fine. And with the wind whipping down our necks and the empty miles of marshland stretching around us like the flat of a hungry hand, it wasn't hard to be good. After all, we weren't drug runners or rum smugglers or poachers on the dodge.
The marsh itself was a somnolent brown. The pines beyond were green enough, of course, and an occasional splash of orange and yellow distinguished the rare stand of hardwood. But we saw no wildlife to speak of, which surprised us. We had expected ducks and geese, at least—Taylors Island famously hosts mallards, black ducks, buffleheads, scaups and canvasbacks. Or at least a few sika deer—small Asian elk that generations ago had wandered over from nearby James Island, where they had been introduced in 1916. Taylors Island attracts plenty of hunters—and we saw plenty of duck blinds tucked here and there inside the hummocky marsh. But nothing for a hunter to shoot at today. Since no hunting is allowed here on Sunday, the ducks and geese could've been hanging out in some farmer's field, chowing down on remnant corn. They'd come back to the refuge fast enough when the shooting started up again.
We puttered in and out of a few winding channels, biting silt in every one of them and yearning for a glimpse of fur, fin or feather, anything we wouldn't see back home. But we were disappointed. Our furry-finned-feathered friends didn't seem to like the biting wind much either and so had hunkered down somewhere well beyond our view. We saw two common sea gulls and a circling horde of turkey buzzards, but nothing to make us grab the bird book. We finally tired of having so much fun and decided we were hungry.
We had set off just before 1 p.m. the day before from Shipwright Harbor Marina on the Bay's Western Shore, motoring out through the spiffy new breakwaters off Deale, Md., and into an overcast day on the water. There had been a bit of a breeze and a messy stream of rollers to contend with, but we'd had a pleasant enough trip from Herring Bay south and then across the Bay to the mouth of the Little Choptank River. Our destination was Taylors Island, which marks the river's southern entrance.
The Little Choptank lies at the northernmost stretch of the lower Eastern Shore. That's probably the most noticeable thing about this river—the stark difference between it and its big sister a few ticks to the north. Here the world is flat, flat, flat. A few houses dot the shoreline near the river's mouth, but not that many (although two posh new palaces mark the north side). The shore itself is marshy with pinewoods sprouting from the patches of reasonably solid ground. There is nothing about the land to interrupt the vista between water and sky: no roll to the fields, no lift in the distance, just an undulating line of trees against the horizon like a baleful eyebrow to an eye that never winks. Where the river narrows into creeks, the trees tiptoe to the waterside and the homes become more numerous—modest places, mostly, where watermen and their ilk have lived for generations. The Little Choptank once watered vast acres of tilled farmland—farmland productive enough to fill the bellies of the British when they arrived during the War of 1812 and helped themselves to the larder. They burned a bit, but mostly they pillaged, stealing cattle, produce and family silver. By the end of the 19th century, however, most families had turned away from farming and livestock and toward the water. Oysters didn't need weeding or seeding, and the railroads were itching to carry off as many bushels as a fellow could haul to land. At low tide you could just smell the money.
Nowadays, not so much. The tide was low enough, but we couldn't smell a thing. We turned into Slaughter Creek. The sky was a roiling pewter with a rift the color of apricots splitting the western edge as the sun dropped down, and we watched a noisy flock of geese cut across our bow. A black-hulled deadrise overtook us, and we waved to the captain and crew. A black hull? I thought. What's up with that? Never in my 50-plus years on the Bay have I seen a workboat painted any color but white. (White paint's cheap, they'll tell you.) The black workboat turned toward Taylors Island Marina (which actually sits on the east side of Slaughter Creek, across from the island). This was our destination as well, but by the time we were snug against the T-head, plugged in and the heat turned on, the watermen of the black hull had hosed down and were gone.
Henry and I took Murphy for a nippy walk. This marina is definitely on the funky side. (We understand it's just been sold to the fellow across the road.) The dogs run free. The cats keep out of the way. There are project boats on the hard next to a few crusty derelicts. There's an old-style cement-pond of a swimming pool, fenced in and, this time of year, neatly covered for the winter. A few weekenders were tucked in here and there, lighting up the dock at night. And a scattering of workboats. Otherwise the slips are occupied by a fleet of hardworking pleasure boats that have shouldered their way through wind and weather for many a year. The place feels as homey and comfortable as an old work boot. Sadly, the wonderful rambling house that presides over it all looks a shambles—maybe the new owner will see to its overhaul and move in. It would be a grand place to live.
We met a fellow from New Jersey whose intriguing wooden boat was on the hard. His cat had told him there were people nearby, he said when he popped out on deck to see what we were up to. We asked about the boat—a shallow-draft lapstrake hull with a long, low cabin top. It was built in the mid-1930s by the Johnson Brothers in Connecticut, he said. Solid, commodious and comfortable. The man (who never volunteered a name) told us he'd been on the Bay since the 1980s, having moved down from Point Pleasant, N.J. Too crowded up there. He has stuck to the Choptank rivers the whole time he's been here: Gateway Marina, then Dickerson's, both in Trappe, Md., and now Taylors Island. "I like to see the open water," he said. And from here he sure could. The mouth of Slaughter Creek opens to the mouth of the Little Choptank which opens to the Bay. And with nothing to block the horizon, there's nothing to block the eye.
Henry and I ambled back to the boat, which lay cozy and warm and smirking at the T-head, like a Chinese lantern. We polished off a glass or two of wine, then headed to the marina restaurant for dinner.
The Dockside Bar and Grill occupies the two-story barge that used to house the Taylors Island U.S. Coast Guard Station, which was active until the 1990s. When the Coast Guard left, the story goes, they simply dropped the deed to the barge on the dock. The marina owner pocketed said deed and converted the barge to a bar. Robin Wood runs the place now—a spunky gal who's been in charge for the last four years. She's a Jody Foster look-alike, with fine features and razor-straight blonde hair. The cozy little eatery is open year-round. The kitchen turns out simple fare: a variety of sandwiches and burgers, crispy fresh salads, appetizers and a few hearty dinner specials—chicken parmigiana or a pair of Delmonico steaks tonight. We had french fries, onion rings, coconut shrimp and a taco salad, washed down with martinis strong enough to melt barnacles off a piling. (So who was driving?) It was a quiet, clean place with a few watermen at the tables and an assortment of folks around the bar.
Wood sat with us for a bit and talked about life in the Taylors Island fast lane. She runs her business full-time, and she works devilishly hard at it (that's from my perspective, anyway). But there's a smile on her face, and she has a friendly demeanor. She took our slip money, for example, when we checked in—didn't even ask the name of the boat or which slip we were in. Of course it was November and we were the only transients there, so maybe some things were obvious. But we appreciated the subtle honesty of that. No fanfare. No stupid boat tricks. No paperwork. All was well with the world, except that the marina's shower room was very hard to unlock (I got the hang of it after a while; you just had to be quick.) Chatting with Wood after dinner, we talked about the local economy. She sounded pleased with the redevelopment of nearby Cambridge, but was more somber about local commerce. Hereabouts it was a bad year for a lot of people, she said. Bad year for crabs. No oysters. Not many hunters so far. Even so, there were always a few trucks parked in front of her place every time we looked. I imagine the place is hopping on summer weekends. Karaoke on Friday nights—whoohoo!
We woke to a lovely Sunday. Pleasant breeze coming in, just riffling the water. Western sky boiling over with big white fluffy clouds. Directly across the creek from the marina I spied a lovely white house standing nearly tiptoe to the water. I guessed there had been more land around it once upon a time and wondered if the downstairs wasn't occasionally awash in the high tide. Bit by bit the land all around here is being lopped off and swallowed in the swirls of the river currents.
Henry and Pat went off to walk Murphy. I set off to find out what I could about that black-hulled workboat I'd seen. I didn't have to go far. Just down the dock I found a waterman working on his own boat. He had the answer, and it was far more prosaic than anything I'd imagined. The black workboat, he said, is old and water-logged. Its owner painted it black so the wood would absorb more heat from the sun and dry itself out. That's what he said;
I swear to God.
After breakfast, Henry, Pat and I piled into the dinghy and zoomed under the long, low Taylors Island bridge to explore Slaughter Creek. (You already heard about that not-as-excellent-as-it-could-have-been-but-certainly-okay adventure.) Motoring back from that excursion we eased into Chapel Cove, on Taylors Island itself, and tied up at the Chapel Cove Marina. The Island Grille overlooks the marina, but it was closed (Sunday). Bummer. We motored back to the boat and settled for nachos and cheesesteak subs at the Dockside Bar and Grill, but we determined to head back to the Island Grille for tomorrow's breakfast. Now it was nap time. Which turned into suppertime. Which turned into bedtime.
The sound of raindrops overhead wakened me. The morning sky was a sheet of powdered steel. A soggy breeze swept in from the south and spanked the nearby flags. The water was still, Slaughter Creek being in the lee of the wind. After walking the dog, we duly (and hungrily) piled into the dinghy and headed to the Island Grille. The eatery occupies the island's old general store, and remnants of the store have been lovingly incorporated into the new decor—the "liar's bench" and the old store counter, for example. Local arts and crafts for sale lined a set of shelves.
We had a lovely breakfast and a bit of a chat with Holli Anderson, one of the restaurant's co-proprietors. She could remember the general store from when she was a little girl. "My granddad used to come in here and sit on that bench and play checkers," she said. "When we started renovating the place, they asked me what I wanted to do with that old thing . . ." she pointed to the rough bench. "I said leave it right there."
Time to leave. Back at Taylors Island Marina, the wind obligingly pushed us off the dock and we headed out Slaughter Creek into the surprisingly placid waters of the river proper. Entering the Bay at the mouth of the Little Choptank, off the northern tip of Taylors Island, we passed James Island—which over the course of the past century has broken into a series of small islets and does little now to protect the land behind it from winter northerlies. Holli Anderson, from the Island Grille, had told us that efforts were under way to haul local dredge spoil to James Island and build it up—as they've done with Poplar Island to the north. Erosion, she said, is the worst problem facing the neighborhood, with land disappearing at the rate of ten feet or so a year in some spots. If they can re-establish the James Island buffer, she said, perhaps they'll be able to stabilize Taylors Island.
We'll see. Meanwhile, the Little Choptank remains a largely quiet river, with plentiful anchorages but not much else to attract a boater's attention. There are no dock bars, no quaint village streets, not much in the way of marinas (for that you need to go up the big Choptank River). But there is a purposeful solitude. The people who put down roots along these flat and barren necks did so because of the wild beauty and the prosperity that once came from working the water. Most of them are still here. They may have to drive to Cambridge for a paycheck, but they still come home to a staggering view. Two things are certain: They can see you coming, and they'll greet you with a smile.
Cruiser's Digest: Taylors Island, Md.
Taylors Island lies at the southern mouth of the Little Choptank River, buffered by what little remains of James Island to its north. Entering the Little Choptank at flashing green "1" between Hills Point and James Island, you bear southeast to flashing green "3". From there you can curl north slightly after passing flashing green "5" to enter the river proper at Susquehanna Point or you can head nearly due south into Slaughter Creek, which is what we did on this trip.
Slaughter Creek separates Taylors Island from the mainland. The creek is navigable to the Maryland Route 16 bridge (fixed, 10 feet), which carries car traffic on and off the island. The creek is long and narrow, with 7 to 8 feet in mid-channel. The Taylors Island Marina lies on the mainland, before the bridge. Expect the new owner to make some upgrades to the property—though now the docks are sound, the facilities clean, and the slipholders pleasant. The Dockside Bar & Grill, housed in the old Coast Guard station, offers standard fare with a smile.
In Chapel Cove, to the right just before the bridge, you'll find the Chapel Cove Marina, as well as a bait-and-fishing supply store, the Island Grille (housed in the old general store), a post office, and a soft-crab operation. Everything except the restaurant was closed for the season when we arrived in November. The marina's bulkheads were new, courtesy of Hurricane Isabel; but the chart promises only 51/2 feet of water coming in.
There's not much for boaters to do on Taylors Island except take in the breathtaking scenery, shoot a few ducks or swat mosquitoes (though not in November, of course). Old-timers may regale you with stories handed down from the War of 1812, when British troops swarmed the area. (The Becky Phipps cannon, on display at the roadside, was captured off a British ship during a skirmish between feisty islanders and the invaders.) If you're interested in a hike or bike ride, head up the main drag to the Taylors Island Museum, occupying an old school house and open by appointment only (410-221-1207). Only about a thousand people still live on the island, and most of these are self-employed. You won't see a lot of development, commercial or otherwise. More than anything else, a long walk along the Taylors Island road will leave you with the distinct impression that there are more churches than houses—probably because, as a waterman once told me, God is just so easy to reach down here.
Beyond Taylors Island, the Little Choptank River boasts interesting scenery and a few sheltered gunkholes. Good holding awaits boaters in Hudson Creek, whose narrow channel snakes north from the daymarker off Casson Point. This is a popular layover for boaters moving up or down the Bay. More adventurous cruisers might want to look in on Madison Bay, where the new improved Madison Bay Marina and Campground offers a launch ramp and transient dockage. The Madison Bay Restaurant (free dockage for diners) serves the basics and advertises karaoke on weekend nights. The famed Spocott Windmill (on Gary Creek) is hard to see and inaccessible from the water, but the Old Trinity Church, in active use since 1692, stands at the headwaters of Church Creek and offers a dinghy dock to boaters interested in attending Sunday service (11 a.m.) or visiting the church and surrounding grounds. Church Creek is shallow; keep one eye on the depth sounder and another on the shoreline until you can see the church. Then drop the hook. Quick.
RESTAURANTS AND MARINAS
Island Grille(410-228-9094) serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; closed on Sunday. Dockage is available at the
Chapel Cove Marina(410-228-1320); new electric and water this spring, pump-outs, fishing and marine supplies, and public boat ramp (4 feet MLW); credit cards accepted. The restaurant is open all year; the marina is closed November 30–April 1.
Dockside Bar & Grill(410-221-1645) serves lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Dockage is available at the
Taylors Island Marina(410-397-3454); fuel, electric, showers, Laundromat, pool, pump out, haul out and marine supplies; credit cards accepted. Restaurant open year-round; marina closed January and February.
Madison Bay Restaurant(410-228-1108) serves lunch and dinner daily. Dockage available at the
Madison Bay Marina and Campground(410-463-0325); electric, showers, Laundromat, boat repairs and public boat ramp. Credit cards accepted at restaurant but not marina. Restaurant and marina open year-round.