Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Wye River

Their fall cruise started with four days of pouring rain and freezing wind. 
Lucky for them, they were exploring the generous Wye River, whose 
natural beauty can shine through just about anything. [June 2006]

By Wendy Mitman Clarke
Photograph by Michael C. Wootton

It's hard for the Wye River-—the sum or its parts, Wye East, Wye Narrows, Wye proper—to look bad. A river this uncommonly lovely, deep and clear, lined with miles of untrammeled shoreline, has to really work at it to seem plain or tedious. Unfortunately at this moment, it's really working at it. We've sailedLunaup the Wye, into the Narrows—and into the teeth of an autumn northeaster that has given us nearly three days of rain, wind and bad attitude. The sky feels like one of those oppressively huge coats people wear in Russia.

We've come this far up the Wye in part to see more of the river, but mostly to anchor at the Narrows bridge and meet a friend who is delivering four items critical to our weeklong cruise: apple cider, rum, milk and a kayak. We left home with one kayak, but it quickly became obvious we would need two, so Johnny put in a call to the fellas at Spring River in Annapolis and asked if we could have a loaner. Because they understand kayak withdrawal (and we'd already bought one boat from them and had another on order), they said sure. So here we sit under the awning, listening to the rain hammer the canvas, waiting for the man—or, in this case, the woman—our friend Shaw, who lives nearby and who has agreed to meet us by land yacht. Eventually her car appears on the dark wooden bridge, windshield wipers thwapping, and Johnny dinghies into shore to take on the supplies. After much waving and yelling hellos, she's gone again, he's back, and the rain has actually stopped for the moment.

I hop in one kayak and accompany the kids in the dinghy as they paddle the short distance to the nearest snippet of beach on Wye Island. We tie off the boats, climb up the banks under looming oak trees and wade through soaking, knee-high grass across a short peninsula, dropping down on the other side to a smallish creek. A finger of sand curls out into the water and we leave our footprints in it, stopping often to examine bird tracks and poke around for shells and other mysteries.

Since it's fall, the wailing honk of Canada geese is a constant music, and now and then a string of them will fly over like a necklace beaded with birds. We look up just in time to see a group of tundra swans, their wings making that peculiar creaking noise. Across the creek, a blue heron fishes in his Zen master way. If we hung around long enough, we'd see foxes, raccoons, white-tailed deer, all manner of birds and critters. There's no one else here. And despite three days of wet hair and wet feet, the lowering sky and hurrying clouds, I find myself smiling. This is why I have always loved this place, this solitude and silence, these secret creeks and grandfather trees. The Wye is one of the most generous of the Bay's rivers that I know—sheltered, deep, secluded, meandering in the best possible way and beguiling you to slow down, way down. Its history is some of the deepest on the Chesapeake, and its shores have nurtured generations of merchants and farmers, statesmen and eccentrics. And, thanks to that sometimes rambunctious past, the river's centerpiece, Wye Island, remains one of the most beautiful stretches of public forest and field on the Bay. My husband Johnny and I had explored it by mountain bike and on foot for years, picnicking along the riverbanks and wishing we could be on the water. And now we are, with four whole days, a sailboat,  two kayaks and a dinghy, all to explore.

Though it's all one connected body of water, the Wye is really three rivers  surrounding the 2,800-acre Wye Island, with various tangents and offshoots branching into and away from the island. The Wye River is what you enter off Eastern Bay; it travels nearly straight to the northeast for about 10 miles. The Wye East quickly breaks away from the Wye—it's your first right turn after entering the river—and winds around the southern and eastern side of Wye Island. Wye Narrows connects the Wye and Wye East, running along the northern side of the island. It's all protected water, thanks to the river's winding character and short fetches.

Our fall cruise goal was to circumnavigate Wye Island—though we knew we couldn't getLunathrough the Narrows bridge, a fixed span with just 10 feet of vertical clearance. That's where the kayaks came in; we'd take Lunaup one side, kayak under the bridge, then go all the way around the other side and meet our tracks. Funny thing about this river, though. It certainly has enough creeks and coves that you could move just a little every day and see something new for an entire week at least. But on the other hand, some of those places are so perfect, they have a way of making the
anchor stay put.

Few things are cozier than a comfortable boat with a warm heater on a dark and stormy night—especially when you're anchored all alone on solid bottom surrounded by protective shorelines. We sleep well that night at the Wye Narrows bridge after getting the new kayak and the other goodies. However, sunrise—if you could call it that—brings no change in the weather, and NOAA is predicting another full day and night of cold rain. We decide this is the best time to make a quick run down to St. Michaels to top off our propane tank, do some laundry and get fresh groceries.

As we motor west through Wye Narrows with the dark woods of Wye Island on our left, we pass on the right De Coursey Cove and Wye Neck. On the cove's tip is an enormous red brick manse with white trim known locally as the Chef Boyardee house, since the owner of that company is the one who built it. (These days, locals say, it's owned by the head of Nextel.) Farther inside the cove are the handsome, low-lying buildings of the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center (WREC), probably best known for its one-of-a-kind herd of Angus cattle, whose black shapes you often see dotting the fields near the Narrows bridge. The herd dates from the late 1930s, when the late Arthur A. Houghton Jr. began importing Angus bulls from the British Isles. (Houghton owned Wye Plantation,  embraced on three sides by the Wye East, Narrows and Wye proper.) He kept the breeding population closed in order to conduct research on beef cattle. In 1954, Houghton invited the University of Maryland to study the herd, and in 1979, he gave the herd and some of his land to the university. Along with studying cattle breeding and genetics, WREC students and scientists also examine plant genetics; energy development, use and conservation; and watershed studies, including nutrient runoff and its effects on fish and the aquatic environment.

Houghton also was instrumental in what we see next as we continue on Wye Narrows—more miles of unbroken wooded shoreline. This land—and some tucked-away buildings just around the corner on the Wye—are part of the world-renowned Aspen Institute, an international, nonprofit think tank. Along with the portion he gifted to the University of Maryland, Houghton in 1979 donated 1,100 acres to the Institute. With land and buildings along all of Wye Narrows' northern shore and up parts of the Wye East and Wye, the institute's campus provides miles of undisturbed waterfront, woods and fields for government officials, corporate executives, academics and NGOs from all over the world to confab in secure seclusion. The Aspen Institute at Wye is best known for being the site of the 1998 peace talks between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, which, under the guidance of President Bill Clinton, resulted in the Wye Peace Accords.

I'm glad there's nothing so earthshaking going on there at the moment; Ray O'Mara, general manager of the Aspen Wye River Conference Centers, says that when the talks were going on, all boating on the river was prohibited, and Coast Guard boats were there to make sure of it. Today, we and the birds seem to have the river to ourselves as we head south down the Wye, past Bennett Point and scoot into St. Michaels.

"The Wye," Hulbert Footner wrote in his wonderful book,Rivers of the Eastern Shore, "is unique among the rivers of the Eastern Shore; its narrower, winding waters have little of the nobility of the Choptank or the Miles, but they reveal constantly changing prospects of a sweetness all their own." Footner wrote that in 1944, and amazingly it still holds true. Despite its proximity to the Western Shore sprawl of Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington (it's only some 70 driving miles from the U.S. Capitol and about 35 nautical miles from the Maryland capitol), the Wye River remains uniquely quiet and genteel—although in the summer it can be standing room only in some of the most popular creeks and coves. That secluded character is largely because of the wealth, power and sometimes the vision of landowners who have surrounded it for generations.

"We're lucky here on the Wye River—we think so, anyway. I doubt Aspen or the University of Maryland will develop any of this across here," Kenneth Schnaitman told me later. He nodded his head toward the trees, fields and beaches across the river from Wye Landing, where his family has owned Schnaitman's Boat Rentals since the 1940s [see sidebar, page 71]. "That's the only thing that has, in effect, saved Wye River, is that Houghton sold to Maryland and Aspen, and the state got the island, plus a lot of these big old estates are still here."

The biggest and oldest is Wye House, which sits on Lloyd Creek, just past Shaw Bay off the Wye East. Like most old estates, it was built well away from the water, so you can't see much of the  Palladian-style house, circa 1790, with its famous orangery (a snazzy name for a very snazzy conservatory greenhouse), the bowling green, the formal and kitchen gardens or the family graveyard, where 12 generations of Lloyds rest, presumably in peace. The progenitor, Edward Lloyd, was a Puritan who came to Maryland from Virginia at the invitation of Lord Baltimore, then became the first Puritan to rebel against him. When the dust settled, Lloyd received in 1659 his first grant of 3,000 acres between the Choptank and Tred Avon rivers. He then moved to the Wye in 1661 and built his first home there (the current house is believed to be the fourth, after a few obligatory burnings and lootings during various times of colonial strife). Footner devotes an entire chapter to the Lloyd history and it's well worth the read. Here, for instance, is a brief description of a request that Edward Lloyd IV, known as "Colonel Lloyd the  Patriot," put in to his agent in London for his yacht: "Six brass Guns with hammers, screws, &c., compleat to fix on Swivels and to act in such a manner as to give the greatest report [!]; with the letters E. Ll. thereon, fitted to fire with Locks. Powder-horns, pricking-wires & charges, showing the quantity of Powder for each gun; and 200 ball, fitted to the size of the Bore. Have the guns fully proved before purchasing."

The most famous resident of Wye House was less grand but ultimately far more influential and interesting. Frederick Douglass was born on the nearby  Tuckahoe River in 1817, where he lived with his grandparents until he was seven years old. Then he was sent to the Lloyd plantation to serve out his destiny as a slave. In his autobiography,My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass talks about growing up hungry, lonely and cold amid the extraordinary wealth and opulence surrounding him, and this piece of Wye River history too, is well worth the read. Ultimately Douglass escaped slavery and became a determined and influential abolitionist. He returned to Lloyd Creek in 1881, arriving by revenue cutter, to visit the place where he had been enslaved.

The Wye's shores hold secrets and history we'll never see—like the lost town of Doncaster, formed sometime in the mid-1600s on Bruffs Island—a thumb of land opposite Bennett Point that encloses one side of Shaw Bay. No longer actually an island, the spot is now a private home. And Bennett Point itself, which is now a series of houses, was in the 1600s home to another of the first Puritan rebels, Richard Bennett. But along with Wye House, there are several other old and beautiful estates along the river, many holding on to large tracts of land that keep the shorelines open and undeveloped. Without doubt, though, it is Wye Island itself that forms the heart of this river's compelling magic.

It's a quick trip from St. Michaels past Bennett Point and back up the Wye, this time to a tiny swatch of water called Bigwood Cove. Just downstream is a popular summer raft-up bay that sits behind Drum Point, with deep water nearly up to the beach on one side and woods on the other. But we like this skinny little spot better. For one thing, there's really only room for one boat here, maybe two. Today it's also in the lee of the northeaster. But mostly, we've come back here because there are in these woods the remains of an old home and brick well, and since it's nearly Halloween, I have assured the kids I'm going to take them to a haunted house. This is one of the places Johnny and I discovered years ago in our wanderings on the island; now we have to find it by water.

Johnny demurs to go fishing for a dinner of perch, so the three of us climb into the dinghy and make for the shore, where high tide forces us to land right under an Osage orange tree leaning out from the bank. We tie off the boat and head inland. I find the house almost immediately—its remains, that is. All that's left is part of the brick chimney and foundation, some of the cedar-shingled roof and hunks of the inner beams, and the well, set off to one side. Naturally that's the part the kids like the most—the deep, spooky, incredibly dangerous well. I point out the ancient and gnarled silver maple standing next to the house, its trunk all twisted with time yet still pushing branches off in new directions,  always seeking the sun. I also show them an old black walnut and a sugar maple—typical farmhouse trees—but within minutes we're off on a trek through the woods and out to the fields, which lay quietly in their autumn repose, acre after sprawling acre of corn stubble. It's hunting season, and since there is limited hunting on Wye Island, we are dressed in our brightest foul-weather gear and hats. We make it our mission to find as many different types of leaves as we can for leaf etchings, and this shouldn't be hard, since the trees here are astonishing in their variety, age and beauty.

Since the mid-1970s, Maryland has owned most of Wye Island—2,450 of its 2,800 acres. The story of how this came to be is thoroughly detailed in Boyd Gibbons's bookWye Island, which recounts its earliest history up to the battle royal that took place in the early 1970s. That's when the Rouse Company (which built the planned community of Columbia, Md., and later developed Baltimore's Inner Harbor) proposed developing Wye Island—a plan that would have included a 200-slip marina on skinny little Bigwood Cove where we are anchored. It was that ill-fated plan that eventually prompted the state to buy the majority of the island and put it in public hands. Gibbons's account—the debate over what was and what might be, the fight between come-heres and been-heres, and even between boaters and waterfront landowners—is a cautionary story that still echoes across Chesapeake country.

For 300 years, the island had been privately owned. William Paca, Maryland's third governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, for a time owned half of the island northeast of Dividing Creek. Here he built Wye Hall, where his lesser-known descendants staggered through several generations of "murder, suicide and madness," according to Footner inRivers of the Eastern Shore.

Less famous but more successful on Wye Island was Judge John Beale Bordley, who owned the western half of the island from Dividing Creek to what is still called Bordley Point, across from Shaw Bay.  Bordley moved to Wye Island in 1770 and began a grand experiment in complete self-sufficiency. A thoughtful and patient farmer, he rotated his crops, manured his fields to replenish their soil, and brought cattle and sheep to the island. To provide salt for his livestock, he drew water from the river and boiled it away to leave the salt residue. He built a gristmill, smokehouses, a kiln to fire his own bricks, a granary and a brewery, and grew peaches, grapes, figs, plums, pomegranates and almonds. Bordley supplied George Washington's army with wheat and beef, while his neighbor Paca shipped flints for muskets. (The flint, ironically, came from the riverbanks, where English ships once dumped their flint-stone ballast.)

Over time the island was sold off into about 13 farms (one of those, maybe, included the ruins we'd visited from Bigwood Cove). One private farm remains at Bordley Point, and there are a few private homes near the western side of the Narrows bridge. But Wye Island remains largely a place of fields and trees, birds and wildlife. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages it, developing wintering habitat for waterfowl and providing limited hunting and camping to the public. There are 30 miles of shoreline to explore and about six miles of trails through the woods and fields. It's the kind of place that's so naturally stunning it encourages you to care for it, to leave nothing but tracks, as the saying goes, and walk in awe.

When the kids and I return to the dinghy, we have fistfuls of leaves—from sweet gums, beeches, white oaks, red oaks, chestnuts, silver maples, red maples, hickories, river birch, sassafras, tulip poplars. The only ones we couldn't find were elms. Johnny meets us back at the boat with enough white perch for dinner, breakfast and lunch, too. It's been 230 years since Bordley created his self-sufficient farm, and Wye Island remains a place of riches.

That afternoon we cruise around Bordley Point, past Shaw Bay and up the Wye East. We have to stop a couple of times to cast for rockfish, which are feeding like crazy this time of year; as in the Bay, it's simply a matter of looking for where the birds are working. Off the mouth of Lloyd Creek we circle for half an hour while Johnny and our son Kaeo cast off the bow with spinning rods and spoons, catching and releasing the young, flashing, 10-inch fish one after another.

We meander up into Granary Creek, the site of the DNR's Conference Lodge, better known as the Duck House. This building can be traced to what have to be Wye Island's most eccentric landowners, Jacqueline and Glenn Stewart. The pair started buying up Wye Island's farms in the 1930s. Glenn Stewart's paranoia, according to Gibbons' book, drove him to build several fortresses around himself. One was Duck House, which in-cluded bullet-proof window shutters and doors and a secret basement, which he could access only through a false floor in the living room floor. It included a 12-month supply of food and ammo.  Today you can rent the Duck House from DNR for meetings and retreats—and, as it turns out, the National German Shorthaired Pointer Association is basing its annual Pheasant Championship here this week and next.

No one is around at the moment, but just knowing they will be soon feels like too much human contact for us, so we backtrack to Dividing Creek, which nestles up into Wye Island. Surrounded only by woods, and with deep water throughout, this is one of the most popular boating anchorages on the Wye. Because it's cold, rainy and late fall, no one's here—although one other sailboat does show up eventually. The clanging of its anchor chain startles a late-season osprey from a high perch and pulls me from my reverie in the kayak, where I'm sitting quietly  admiring the sinewy roots of beech trees gripping the creek bank. After a bit, things settle down again, and I return toLunaand the smell of perch on the grill, and listen to the hooting calls of great horned owls in the early twilight.

The next morning we row into a patch of beach and carefully pull the dinghy up. Much of the island's shoreline is planted in erosion-controlling grasses and tidal plants. The occasional sign reminds boaters to be careful where they put their dinghies and their feet, but one of the greatest things about cruising here is youcango ashore and walk your dog (on a leash) or just yourself. It's all quite legal, and as long as you stay clear of the remaining private properties, you aren't trespassing. Gibbons's book describes how many locals were horrified at the thought of Wye Island becoming a public place, but anyone we've ever met here has been intensely respectful and even protective of it,  taking care not to abuse the privilege. We go for a long walk through woods and stubbly fields, gather some leftover ears of corn to hang from the backstay. We also find a perfect spot for a picnic for tomorrow, a deadfall of oaks leaning out over the river.

A couple more boats come into  Dividing Creek—a slow trickle we know will increase to a stream as the weekend approaches—so we decide to keep moving and check out a little unnamed cove we had spotted on the way up. It turns out to be our definition of heaven. The kids promptly name it Red Oak Cove, for the huge red oak leaning over a bank on one side of its entrance. It would seem the weather gods approve of our move—the breeze has shifted into the northwest, and we've found the ideal spot from which to watch the weather finally clear, protected on three sides with a beach a short dinghy row away. That evening we're finally graced with something we haven't seen all week—a nearly full moon and a sky full of stars. We're hooked for good, literally and figuratively. The plan to head farther up the Wye East and into the other side of the Narrows is shelved. We spend the time instead casting off the bow for rockfish and walking through the fields, laughing at the yowls of German shorthaired pointers and the answering whoops and cries of their anxious handlers. We picnic while sitting on the deadfall, our legs dangling over the river; I place a few grapes in the rainbowy centers of mussel shells that some raccoons have left there, just to thank them for letting us eat lunch in what is obviously one of their haunts.

Tomorrow, we have to head home. We're all pretty sad at the prospect, but the kids have already made it clear where they want to go for the first cruise of spring. No argument there. 

Cruiser's Digest: Wye River, Md.

It's about 3 nautical miles from Tilghman Point to the Wye River's entrance on the Eastern Bay (another 3 miles or so south would put you into St. Michaels). There are two ways in: the completely safe deep-water way, which takes you south of the submerged island off Bennett Point and then north into the river's entrance; or the shallower way, between Bennett Point and the sunken island. Via the latter, the channel is 7 to 10 feet, but if you run into trouble and end up drifting south, it can get down to just 2 feet over the island. So if you have any doubts at all about your draft, the tide or the wind, stick to the safe way. From Tilghman Point, head southeast to flashing green "11", then turn east and go a half-mile to green "1". Turn northeast for flashing red "4" nearly opposite Bennett Point, leaving green "3" to port. (A distinguishing feature of Bennett Point is the miniature lighthouse that a property owner erected there. Don't be confused; it's not an aid to navigation.)

SinceLunadraws 6.5 feet, we take the safe route when the tide is lower than usual or the wind is blowing hard from the north. When it's calm, we take the shorter route above the island. We leave red "2" well to starboard and head straight east for green "3" about a quarter-mile away. Once past green "3", we turn northeast for the flashing red "4" that marks the river's entrance.

Inside the Wye and Wye East, aids to navigation are well placed but not necessarily ample, and after a while they peter out altogether. This is okay; except for the upper few miles of the Wye East, beyond Wye Landing, the middle of the rivers and creeks here are generally deep (up to 40 feet in some places). If you use common sense and river sense you'll be fine.

The lower Wye East is home to the most popular (and crowded) anchorages, namely Shaw Bay and Dividing, Lloyd and Granary creeks. About 7 miles up the Wye East, just past the "crossroads" at Wye Narrows and Skipton Creek, you'll see Wye Landing on the eastern side of the river. Here you'll find Schnaitman's Boat Rentals [see sidebar, page 71] and a well kept public boat ramp. Schnaitman's has one long pier with plenty of depth at the end, but there's no overnight dockage, fuel or boating facilities. They do have a small store and outboard engine repair, and they'll steam your crabs for you.

Once past Schnaitman's on the Wye East, you'll see to the west the Houghton House (where William Paca is buried) and the River House, both part of the Aspen Institute. But there's not much depth past here, and groundings—usually by people who miss the turn at the Narrows—are quite common. Big boats don't get much further on the Narrows either; about a mile and a half northwest of the intersection there's a fixed bridge with just 10 feet of clearance. If you're looking for marinas, overnight dockage or restaurants, you'll have to leave the Wye and head for St. Michaels, or Kent Narrows to the north; there are none in this river.

Though the Aspen Institute's Wye River Conference Center has a reputation as an exclusive, private gathering place for heads of state, that's not really the case, and there are times it's open to boaters, says Deborah Duffy, director of sales and marketing. Essentially it's a conference center operated by Marriott, and plenty of private groups and businesses meet there as well as the high-profile visitors. Duffy says the center has started offering a few "wine getaway weekends" when people can come and spend the night over a five-course meal with paired wines. River House dock can accommodate two shallow-draft boats. Deep-draft boats can anchor in the deeper water downstream and dinghy to the dock. For information contact the Aspen Institute at 410-820-0838 or

For information about Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area, including information about camping, hunting, hiking and how to reserve the Duck House, go