Issue: October 2000
The Great Divine

It’s a mariner’s heaven! You can get anything you want along the Choptank: good food, scenery, oyster spat-even cheap fuel.

 

     Forget about the other stuff for now. It was the cheap fuel that broke Clint’s heart. We could have guzzled the stuff from the pumps at the small waterfront town of Choptank had we known about it. Instead we’d had a fuel truck rumble down to the public wharf in Newcomb, Md., and pump 600 gallons of diesel into Escort’s ample tanks before we began our summer odysseys. The oil company nailed us for $1.10 a gallon, which was still a few cents better than the fuel dock down the road. But when Ed Savage, of Choptank Marina (a Caroline County Recreation and Parks facility) offered to fill us up for a mere 80 cents a gallon, Clint experienced palpitations. Of course, Savage’s price reflected a discount based on filling up Escort’s entire tank capacity; his pump price was closer to a dollar. Still, Clint had the vapors for the rest of the day. If you want to see Thomas Jefferson cry, just watch my husband squeeze a nickel. That said, you can imagine how he felt when he heard Savage’s sales pitch.

     “I want people to come in here,” Savage told me a few months later when I called to get an update on his prices: a dollar a gallon for diesel and holding for the rest of the summer ($1.50 for gas).

     “Through October?” I asked him.

“Don’t see why not,” he said. “I try to keep my prices down. I’m off the beaten track, so to speak.”

     So to speak. The village of Choptank sits up against the river a little more than midway between Cambridge and the DoverBridge. It’s an old fishing community, full of substantial houses that stand in varying states of repair as the original families peter out and new families tiptoe in. On the waterfront, wooden bulkheads form a good-size basin that abuts the channel. There’s plenty of water if you head straight in. We made the mistake of trying to lie outside the down-river bulkhead. Wrong move. We got ourselves caught up on a hump and had to blow a new channel to get ourselves free. (This is why, Clint explains patiently, we have a trawler now, instead of a sailboat with a keel sticky as a tar baby.) Inside the Choptank basin, you’ll find slips, a fuel dock, a pump-out and a launch ramp (free) with plenty of parking. And not much else. The village itself is worth a quiet wander, but unless the general store is open, you’re not in for much by way of entertainment.

     Once upon a time my true love and I breezed through Choptank with an eye toward settling down. The houses were solid, commodious and eminently affordable (then), and breathed the sweet grace of a working man’s haven. Backyards sported clotheslines and well kept patches of corn and tomatoes. We opted for other digs, but now, sitting atop Escort’s flying bridge, I couldn’t help but cast a wistful eye at the sleepy village-in a higher price bracket undoubtedly but still soft on the edges-and wonder what it would have been like to live on this quiet bend of the river.

 

     The Choptank opens into the Bay between Cook and Blackwalnut points. The leaning hulk of the SharpsIsland light still guards the entrance, but SharpsIsland itself is long gone. Hulbert Footner, in his book Rivers of the Eastern Shore, says there were as many as 70 acres left of the island in 1944; in my lifetime (I’m 47), I don’t remember so much as a hump of cattails.

     Just inside the broad mouth of the river, HarrisCreek sweeps north past Tilghman Island and the popular anchorage at Dun Cove. Next comes Broad Creek, itself fingered with an assortment of lesser creeks, among them San Domingo, which leads boaters into the backside of St. Michaels. The Tred Avon opens up just beyond Benoni Point and leads to Oxford and, way up-river, to Easton. Any one of these waterways affords deep water and plentiful anchorages.

     The south shore at the mouth of the Choptank is less inviting, though no less interesting. Cooks Point is named for Andrew Cook, who settled here in 1661. Readers may recall that his son, Ebenezer Cook, was Maryland’s first poet laureate, although whether this was deemed by formality or self-appointment no one seems to know. To his credit is the original version of The Sot-Weed Factor, a long-winded narrative poem about the trials and tribulations of an English tobacco merchant in Colonial Maryland. In this century, Cook resurfaced as the foppish hero of John Barth’s engaging tome, also called The Sot-Weed Factor.

     Next comes ToddsPoint, then Castle Haven (where the Chrysler family held sway at Pokety), then Horn Point. The flourishing estate at Horn Point was developed by the Goldsboroughs, a family with long roots hereabouts-at least this was the family that held sway at Horn Point over a century ago. More recently it was owned by one of the duPonts, who donated most of it to the University of Maryland. It is now the site of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies, and this is where the story of our Choptank cruise really begins, long before the price of gas became a sore point: This is where we meet up with Mother Oyster and learn about the sex life of her favorite mollusks.

     Clint, our son Stewart and I have four days to just bebop around, take in the sights and catch some sun along the river before we have to drop the boat off in Cambridge to be hauled. We’re barrelling down from our mooring on Broad Creek, hell-bent for leather, to get to Horn Point by 1 o’clock. The environmental center offers free (an operative word here) tours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We had to make an appointment in order to come on Friday, and we don’t want to be late.

     We meet Jeanna Bryner, our guide, who cheerfully troops us through lab after lab, from one experiment to another, updating us on all the recent theories and revelations about Chesapeake Bay ecology. But things really get heady when we enter the oyster hatchery. Here Stephanie Tobash, dubbed Mother Oyster by her colleagues, presides over the most prolific spat operation on the Bay. Amid huge vats swirling with river water, and tables filled with trays loaded with oysters in varying stages of development, Tobash manages to coax, cajole and otherwise prompt a few thousand brood oysters to release their cache of eggs and sperm into the lukewarm water of the spawning table.

     “Welcome to my domain,” Tobash says with a gracious smile, and she proceeds to give us a blow-by-blow description of an oyster’s sex life. (And you think an oyster just sits there. . . .)

     Once she has convinced her randy little bivalves to spawn (by manipulating the water temperature inside the trays), the resulting larvae drift freely in one of her larval tanks for about two weeks. Just as they get the urge to settle down, Tobash transfers them to a setting tank loaded with cozy-looking, shell-filled bags.

     “I filled those bags one day,” Stewart groans, referring to a community service project where he had shoveled old oyster shell into mesh bags roughly the size of 10-pound potato sacks. These shell bags are used to “attract” the oyster larvae when they are ready to stake their claim on a nice hard surface.

     Tobash nods appreciatively. “You and a few hundred other students. Keep those bags a’coming.”

     Within 24 hours of their immersion in the setting tanks, the spat is visible, like little pinheads, dotting the exposed shell surfaces; three weeks later, they are the size of my little fingernail. At this point, Tobash places the bags along her nursery grounds in the ChoptankRiver or distributes them to various groups of oyster gardeners around the Bay [see “Hope Floats,” September 2000]. When the oysters are about two months old, or the size of a quarter, they go to replenish the Bay’s natural oyster beds.

     “Our main goal here [at Horn Point] is restoration,” Tobash says, “so we’re trying to mass produce spat on shell. I can’t even begin to guess how many bags of spat we send per year to restoration programs.”

     In 1999 alone, Horn Point produced 27 million spat on shell that was distributed throughout the Chesapeake region. That’s a lot of oysters, Mama!

     Our tour over, we pull out of Horn Point and haul butt to Cambridge in order to find a hardware store before closing time. (We needed a thingamajig for our pressure water system.) Cambridge has a wonderful municipal marina in a protected man-made basin right on the river next to the Cambridge Yacht Club. We bypass that in favor of a “downtown” spot on Cambridge Creek: the free dockage along the cement quay in front of the new county office building. We walk to where we remembered seeing a hardware store not that long ago, but miss it by six months. “Moved out to Route 50,” reads the sign taped to the empty window.

     So much of downtown Cambridge has moved out to the highway. Even the old High Point, a popular local eatery that long served as the mainstay of the luncheon crowd, is gone. The shop windows of the business district stare hollow and empty, like starving children waiting to be fed. A few second-hand bargains here. A consignment shop there. There have to be at least three kitchen supply stores, where you can buy anything from a full dinette set to a restaurant steamer. These are the stores you’d expect to find in the cheap-rent district, not on the main street of town.

     But if you think for one minute that Cambridge is going to shrink to bare bones, look again. This place is still squarely on the map.

     “I moved here when I was nine years old,” says Cambridge librarian Mary Handley, “and I’ve never been bored. There’s always something happening, something going on. People really want to preserve the quality of life here, and if that means turning down big business people who just want to come in and make a buck, then so be it.”

     Handley conducts a history tour aboard the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester that area volunteers built six years ago as a way to promote the county. “The river is so important to everyone here,” she says. “I’ll bet you can see a little patch of blue [water] from just about anywhere in town. It affects our lives.”

     It’s only a matter of time before monied interests clue in to the fact that Cambridge is the only county seat on the Eastern Shore that actually sits on “broad” water. The town has literally miles of public waterfront. LongWharfPark (where you can board the Nathan of Dorchester or climb on the paddlewheeler Dorothy Megan) stretches along the river from the mouth of Cambridge Creek to well past the yacht club. Another stretch of public land reaches from the new visitors center at the base of the ChoptankRiver bridge to SailwindsPark. And don’t forget the old bridge: That bane to beach-goers was rededicated as a public fishing pier, and it sticks out over one of the best fishing holes on the Bay. This town made a commitment years ago to creating and maintaining public access to the water, and lots of it, all within easy walking distance of the town center. Plus, there’s probably more gingerbread in Cambridge than in St. Michaels and Oxford combined. If that doesn’t make Cambridge a sleeper, I don’t know what does.

     Disappointed without our little piece of hardware, we roll out of Cambridge Creek and head down-river to find an anchorage for the night. Almost immediately, we pass under the new Route 50 bridge (50-foot clearance). The old bridge-turned-fishing pier runs parallel to the new one, but its middle span has been removed.

     The river beyond the bridges is wide but shallow. We follow the channel up the north shore, past Bolingbroke Creek, past Chancellor Point (obliquely named for Phillip Calvert, brother of Lord Baltimore and chancellor of the Colonial province). This is still a largely undeveloped part of the world. A few modest homes dot the shoreline. Working farms spread their skirts across a patchwork of broad, flat fields. Here and there the brick edifice of a grand estate comes into view. One of these is Jamaica Point, a handsome old building constructed on the north shore of the river by the Hughlett family in the late 1700s. The house stands atop a gentle rise of land near a beautiful sandy spit, shaded by a lone willow tree. We drop anchor in the lee of the beach and settle in for a quiet night.

     The next morning we have to ready up the boat to meet my mom and some of her friends for lunch at Suicide Bridge Restaurant on Cabin Creek. Mom will be joining us for the rest of our fling, so it is definitely time to make the beds and vacuum. (Vacuum! Now there’s a yachty concept. I’m not sure I like this trawler idea. . . .)

     Our old charts give us five feet of water in Cabin Creek, so we keep a wary eye on the depthsounder. It is low tide, but the meter consistently reads five feet or more. Stewart goes ahead in the inflatable to sound the depths and finds a solid five feet across the entire main body of the creek. Even so, two daymarkers lead us well to starboard as we get nearer the bridge, where the restaurant sits on the north bank. Rounding the second of the daymarkers, we line ourselves up with the Dorothy Megan (she travels from SuicideBridge to Cambridge in season) and pull alongside the restaurant’s tee. My mom and her friends arrive and we meander into the restaurant for lunch: If it has fins or swims, you’ll find it on the menu at SuicideBridge. The lot of us orders soft-crab sandwiches, our first of the season. The portions are as ample as they are tasty, and judging from the size of the crowd filling the tables around us, we aren’t the only satisfied customers.

     The SuicideBridge itself is a fairly modern structure, having evolved well beyond the original wooden span that sat here over a hundred years ago. According to rather grim legend, a despondent postmaster from the nearby town of Hurlock shot himself on the first bridge and his body splashed conveniently into the waters below. Next a local farmer followed suit, also shooting himself so that his body fell into the creek. Then came a fellow who deliberately drove off the bridge and died. The list goes on. People from near and far have been drawn to the bridge to end their days. Perhaps it’s the name: Ever since the first incident, area residents have stubbornly referred to the spot as SuicideBridge. But not all the bridge’s “victims” were successful. One winter morning a woman plunged into the frigid waters and was immediately jolted into a new lease on life. Her cries soon brought help and she was pulled to safety.

     We finish lunch and pay our bill-and are appropriately startled when Big Billy Bass begins wailing the blues at the cashier’s station. “Throw me back in the water . . .” he sings when we least expect it. This is our collective first encounter with the endearing little critter, which by now must grace every gas dock on the Bay. (For those of you who have missed this little treat: He’s a mounted, life-like rendition of a largemouth bass-make that “loudmouth” bass. When someone moves by, a sensor kicks in and he snaps to life, slaps his tail to the beat and begins to sing.) We make our way back to the boat, load my mom and her gear onboard, wave goodbye to her friends and push off to continue our trek up the river.

     It is a thrilling day. The sky gleams, the water sparkles, we aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. My mom looks happy as a kid in a candy shop and fairly scampers up the ladder to the flybridge. She and my dad spent the better part of 50 years cruising aboard a long string of sea-going vessels, but at a spry 80-something, she doesn’t get out on the water as much as she used to.

     We talk a little about what the Bay was like when she and my dad moved here from Connecticut, just after the first BayBridge span was built. My dad was a yacht broker, and he saw the Chesapeake as an area central to recreational yachtsmen (not boaters, he would tell you; boaters are something a gentleman wears on his head) who liked to trek between New England and points warm. While commercial boating activity was at its peak, the idea of taking a boat out for a fun weekend was still somewhat novel in these parts.

     “Not many people had sailboats back then,” Mom tells me. (My parents ended up on powerboats, but they were really dyed-in-the-wool raghaulers.) “You never met up with anyone when you went cruising-unless you planned it. And there weren’t any marinas. Just public wharves and working yards.”

     This time we’re heading (via our brief interlude at Choptank-of-the-cheap-fuel) for the lost town of Dover, Md., not far from where the DoverBridge (Route 331) crosses the river near Easton. There are even fewer houses along this stretch of the river, and these tend to be clustered. Especially along the south shore, the river is lined with wide, flat marshland, uninhabited by anything but muskrats. On the north shore, the marsh gives way at one point to high clay banks riddled with layers of oyster shell that give us a quick visual into the river’s geologic past. Here and there a blossoming dogwood tree or spray of mountain laurel clung precariously to the sheer embankment. The water runs deep all the way to the north shore hereabouts. At one point we bump the “beach”-with 10 feet of water still showing on our depthsounder amidship.

     When we finally fetch the DoverBridge, I am struck by the distance we’ve traveled from Cambridge-easily 15 miles. The bridge lies not far from the site of the original Colonial ferry across the Choptank. Until fairly recently, it was the southernmost Choptank bridge crossing (the Route 50 span wasn’t built at Cambridge until 1933). For 300 years, the lower part of DorchesterCounty was virtually cut off from the rest of the world-except by boat. Anyone wanting to travel south to Cambridge would have had to go quite the long way around. And for three centuries this arrangement seemed to suit everyone just fine. As far as the “north shore” people were concerned, Tories and pirates ran amuck in those Dorchester swamps. Quakers and Methodists, free thinkers all, had settled there in droves, and some didn’t cotton much to the ways of the new republic. For the most part, they sided with the British during the Revolution and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Some even say they sided with the bootleggers during Prohibition, but it’s hard to pin that one down. At any rate, as far as the rest of the state of Maryland was concerned, the less contact the better. Such prejudice continued well into the 20th century; H. L. Mencken once quipped that civilization ended on the north bank of the ChoptankRiver. Today, vestiges of his snobbery are reflected in the lower property values registered on the south side of the river and in those empty shop windows in Cambridge.

     Dover, the town for which the DoverBridge is named, sat on the TalbotCounty side of the Choptank. A ferry run by John Barker operated on the site in the early 1700s. When ships coming into Oxford found themselves beset by teredo worms (saltwater pests that like to bore holes through wooden hulls), they moved up-river to where the water was fresh enough to kill the buggers-right about where the DoverBridge stands today. With so many ships in the vicinity, naturally Barker’s Landing became a place of commerce, and by the 1750s, the site had been renamed Dover. Warehouses and residences once stood there on the riverbank, forming a sizable enough community to warrant its consideration as the county seat. When Easton was chosen instead, Dover declined and eventually disappeared completely.

     We turn around at the bridge rather than pass through, not wanting to stop the traffic or risk the span’s getting stuck-a common occurrence, we hear. Our old chart gives the bridge 12-foot vertical clearance, but bridge tender John Chesnutt sets us straight: “Highway construction people just measured,” he says from his air-conditioned station, “and said it was nine feet four inches at high tide and more like eleven feet at low.”

We trundle back to a spot we had picked out earlier as we passed: A deeply wooded shoreline that ends in a narrow strip of gravelly beach at the mouth of MilesCreek. We drop anchor, and Clint and I head the inflatable into the creek to see where it will lead.

     MilesCreek is long and windy, almost completely undeveloped. Only a few hunting cabins and modest homes cling to the water’s edge, inhabited by people who clearly appreciate their natural surroundings. Wildlife is on parade as we putter past: deer, snapping turtles, muskrat, kingfishers, osprey. True to its name, the creek wanders for miles. By the time we’ve made our way back to the boat, thunder and lightning are ripping through the eastern sky. And we’re on the bottom! Clint and Stewart fire up the diesel and we shove off (another plus for trawlers); the storm might not have hit, but we prefer deep water on principle.

     The next morning we decide to get on down the river toward La Trappe Creek, where we will meet my brother and his wife on their sailboat. The current pulls us along right pert. Mom and I sit on the flybridge and keep Escort in the channel. Clint and Stewart are off in the inflatable to do their own exploring. Some people (myself not among them, yet) have found fossils on the beaches hereabouts. On a stretch of riverbank, Clint picks up a petrified scallop and Stewart discovers a smattering of sharks’ teeth to begin Escort’s collection. We pick them up at the Route 50 bridge.

     The anchorage inside La Trappe Creek already holds a number of boats as we motor in to join the ranks. The attraction here is a lovely sandy beach that sits like a spit curl to port as you enter. It offers a well protected, pretty gunkhole, and it’s a stellar place to swim.

     “Heavens!” says my mom. “This isn’t at all how I remember it. It’s so built up!” (There are two houses within sight.) This is where she and my dad had spent their first overnight on the Bay. “There certainly weren’t any other boats here then,” she says emphatically. “There were never any boats in here. And going up the creek, I remember thinking that wild Indians were peeking out at us from behind the trees.”

     The creek is still lovely, though, and deep, and it runs all the way to Trappe Landing and the old Dickerson Boatyard, where some of the Bay’s first indigenous cruising yachts were crafted.

     Meanwhile, the yacht Integrity has come alongside, with my brother Henry, his wife Pat and my other sister-in-law Veronica aboard. My mom really beams at this arrangement. This is like a Thanksgiving slumber party. We drink like fish, eat like kings, and when the moon comes out and all is still, we slide into the water for a swim, phosphorescence making our skin gleam silver.

     Then Veronica has to show us her new toy, and we meet Big Billy Bass for the second time. “Throw Me Back in the Water” gets old, very old, when you’re at anchor and no one can find the off button. This Big Billy Bass almost gets himself fileted. Still, we enjoyed ourselves immensely, and after a hearty waffle breakfast (well appointed galleys are another point for trawlers), we break off the party and head back toward the real world.

     After our four-day sojourn, the Choptank has given us much to ponder: Here we found history in the making at Horn Point and history vanished at Dover. We enjoyed shoreside dining and secluded meals afloat in quiet anchorages. We lost ourselves in the boundless interior of the Eastern Shore and in the empty windows of a lovely old town.

     Some people call the Choptank the Great Divide, because it marks the traditional boundary between the upper and lower Eastern Shore. I think the Great Divine is a more apt description. H. L. Mencken was right when he said civilization ends on the Choptank’s north shore. As any DorchesterCounty resident will tell you, it’s where paradise begins.