Soft crabs, antiques or old-time religion-the cruising boater can find it all on the quiet waterways near St. Michaels.
Osprey nesting atop the daymarkers leading out from Oak Creek flashed their yellow eyes at us as we lumbered by, our trawler Escort straining to follow the thin channel and kicking up a cloud of Bay bottom as we entered the Miles River. Far ahead of us, the “Friday fleet,” heading to St. Michaels, was converging at Tilghman Point. Boats arriving from Kent Narrows fell in step with boats coming from Bloody Point, until a veritable parade was bearing our way: power, sail, big, small. A timid breeze ruffled the wave tops ever so slightly, dainty as a damsel not wanting to get her feet wet, but the passage of all those boats tossed the water into a squally chop that made even Escort take notice as we motored by St. Michaels harbor.
We waved to folks as we passed them: the sailboat couple motoring with their genoa up, trying to gain some stability in the crisscrossing wakes; the spiffy little sportfishing boat with its flybridge chock full of kids grinning ear to ear; the half-drowned little sloop, pointing stoically off the wind, its sails straining to stay full after each line of waves did its duty. They were all merrily, merrily (most of them) trying to get to St. Michaels and happy, happy to be almost there. And we were happy, happy to be going the other way. Clint and I (and our anchor boy, Stewart) were heading to Tilghman Creek at the mouth of the Miles River to meet up with friends Bob and Nancy Shoemaker (and their anchor kids Patrick and Kate) on their Bertram 33 Shoe In.
St. Michaels always has so much going on, plenty to do and see, and lots of comers-by car and boat-who partake of its delights on any given weekend. It’s a wonderful place to visit, as Bay boaters well know. But we were privy to other delights, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the “Bay Hundred.” This weekend we planned to take our friends around the Bay Hundred peninsula, from the Miles River to the Tred Avon without once touching down in either St. Michaels, Tilghman or Oxford. Instead, we would visit Claiborne, Sherwood, Neavitt and Bellevue. And we would do what any red-blooded tourists would do: We’d take in a little shopping, sample some fresh seafood and visit with the locals. Clint and I were determined to prove that the channel less traveled offers pleasures of its own.
Bay Hundred historically refers to the area of Talbot County that stretches between Tilghman Point at the mouth of the Miles River to Tilghman Island at the mouth of the Choptank. At one time, English communities were divided into “Hundreds”-10 estates that could each produce 10 fighting men when called upon. This system was instituted early on in the Maryland colony, and the Bay Hundred name stuck. Now many claim the title for all the land below and immediately surrounding St. Michaels.
We began our tour of the modern-day Bay Hundred on Tilghman Creek, where we found the Shoemakers waiting for us. The creek was surprisingly empty. Only a few boats had sought the shelter of its tranquil coves-preferring, we supposed, to find good holding in Fogg Cove or a coveted slip at a St. Michaels marina. Surely there was something planned for the weekend at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, rightly bound to draw a crowd, because the boats continued to stream steadily past Tilghman Point headed upriver. No matter. We had food, fuel and friends. What more could we want?
Tilghman Creek is lovely. At its head lies Cockeys Wharf, a public landing where a collection of workboats in varying states of repair hang from stakes pounded into the silt of the creek bed. Their tenders, an assortment of boxy prams, nose into the dock like a brood of suckling puppies. Immediately next to the landing, on the right, is John Cockey’s marine railway, where some or other matron of the backwater generally rests heavily on the ways.
We were tempted to land and take an evening stroll along the country lane that winds away from the landing, but decided to forgo the pleasure and cook dinner instead. Had we headed inland, turned right and just kept going for maybe half a mile, we would have eventually come to the village of Claiborne, spiraling out from the old ferry landing on the Eastern Bay side of Tilghman Neck. About the only thing you can do in Claiborne these days is mail a letter or launch a small boat at the old ferry dock, but not all that long ago, this was the jumping off spot for the ferry from the Western Shore. Summer people, primarily from Baltimore, would leave the ferry to board the waiting train at Claiborne and head “downy ocean.” Now Claiborne sits and waits for the Second Coming (of the ferry, that is). Bejeweled with hydrangeas and crowned with trees, the town has sidled into the 21st century like a maiden aunt at a debutante ball. She’s really just there to watch.
Onboard Escort, we got ourselves settled in for the evening, snugged up against Shoe In. Stewart and Patrick took off in the inflatable-their answer to a country walk-and came back just in time to bite into fresh corn-on-the-cob and sliced tomatoes with the rest of us. Little by little the sun inched down over the trees, and one by one the stars came out, flicking on like anchor lights in the giant harbor of the sky. Watching them I thought for a moment that it would be easy enough to trace the shapes of boats instead of mythical heroes up there on the Milky Way: the yacht America over where Hercules brandishes his club; the Titanic with Polaris on her bow; the Argo, long and slim, her oars dipping into a cosmic sea. . . . It was clearly time for bed.
The next morning we left the creek and headed for Knapps Narrows off Eastern Bay. The construction at Poplar Island lay ahead of us to starboard as we ran down Rich Neck, past Claiborne’s old ferry dock. About a third of the way down the wooded shore we saw Webley, a grand old manor house built in 1805 that served as an army hospital during the Civil War.
Webley stands out, massive and white between two regiments of trees, lined up and at attention on the water’s edge. Beyond it, almost directly across from Poplar Island is the channel into Lowes Wharf. The water here tops five feet on a bet, and we’ve always made sure we had the tide before we’ve taken the trawler in. The Lowes Wharf Marina Inn (with gas and diesel fuel) serves up live music and plenty of seafood, and has rooms to rent besides a few transient slips. People come to use the launch ramp or just to crab or fish around the shore. You can buy a fishing license, bait and all the fixings at the little marina store.
We passed Poplar Island, cut through Knapps Narrows and turned left into Harris Creek, motoring past Dun Cove, a popular anchorage for raft ups. Not much farther up, we saw two fairly long docks reaching into a wide cove, marking Sherwood. This little village sits on Waterhole Cove. By land, it’s not far from Tilghman, and it lies just across the highway from Lowes Wharf. Looking from the creek, the dock on the left is private; the dock on the right is the Sherwood community pier. The latter is fairly narrow, with a hand railing that runs its length, and it ends in a modest T-end presided over by a weathered bench.
A few white crab skiffs were tied along one side of the pier when we visited. Our trawler seemed massive compared to the dock, so we anchored and let Shoe In ferry us to shore. Following the road from the Sherwood landing and bearing left, then right, we walked about a quarter mile to Sherwood Antiques, housed in the same building as the Sherwood Post Office. We entered by way of a small front parlor where classical music poured lightly from hidden speakers, adding to the polish on the heavy wooden pieces grouped around the room. A narrow hallway led to a larger room, and an even larger room beyond that. The floors, beautifully carpeted in Orientals of various sizes (for sale of course), were warped and uneven from settling and wear. The store was full of high-end, carefully selected pieces, many from the early 19th century: large chests of drawers, drop-leaf tables, rush-seated chairs, a wide assortment of porcelain dishware, crystal and glittering chandeliers (watch your head). The walls were hung with old oil paintings and prints, many of them with a maritime theme.
Dickie Freeman, the proprietor, sat at a massive desk in the largest room. She always keeps the shop open on weekends, she told us, adding that since she and her husband Charlie live next door, people can stop by anytime-all they have to do is knock. She is active in the “P.A.L. Club,” the group that put the bench out at the end of the Sherwood dock. P.A.L. stands for Patience And Loyalty, the motto of the original ladies Sunday school class at the Sherwood Methodist Church (circa 1912). When the church stopped weekly services a couple of decades ago, the ladies formed a club, inviting anyone in Sherwood to join. They meet once a month and organize such civic conveniences as a local lending library. Everyone in town has a key to the library, and the borrowing and bringing back are all on the honor system. P.A.L. holds a rummage sale once a year to raise money for local improvements, like the dock bench.
Not wanting to lug a mahogany bureau back to the boat, we left Sherwood Antiques empty-handed. Our bellies were empty too, so we cranked the engines and headed back out Harris Creek and turned into Balls Creek, at the mouth of Broad Creek, the next one over on the Choptank River. We were going to pick up some soft crabs at the Richard Higgins Soft Shell Crabs company in Neavitt. About midway down the creek on the left side, we saw the long low tin roof of the Higgins crab shed. A few slender workboats hung off the dock. We dinghied ashore in the Shoemaker’s inflatable and found Norma Higgins, with her daughter Jean Harrison and 13-year-old grandson Reese, checking the trays and scooping out the fresh sheds.
The crab shed was open on all sides. Shaded by the tin roof, the long, eight-inch deep wooden trays are kept constantly awash with fresh water piped up from the creek. Each tray can hold dozens of peeler crabs waiting to “bust” (shed their shells, which might not happen for a day or two after they’ve been pulled from the Bay). As the crabs “busted” open and backed out of their shells, a process that takes about 45 minutes total, Higgins would quickly slip them into a waiting styrofoam box. “We check them every four hours or so, twenty-four hours a day,” she told us. “You’ve got to get them out of the water before they start to harden up. We put them in the cooler; as long as they stay out of the water their shells stay soft.” She picked out a dozen medium-size softies for us and back we went to the boat, ready for a late lunch.
Gasp! I’d forgotten to bring some flour. How in the world could I saut' soft crabs without flour? I emptied out a box of pancake mix and added a touch more salt. Then I cleaned the crabs and dredged them in the pancake mix before dropping them into a hot pan sizzling with butter. About six crabs into the process, I ran out of pancake mix. Dag! So I ground up a left-over sleeve of Waverly crackers and kept at it. Dredge and sizzle. The first of the crabs were done and being passed around the galley to people who were probably hungry enough to have eaten them raw. And the pancake mix worked out really well; so did the crackers. The ground-up Cheerios, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired, but hey: No one has ever called me a gourmet cook. And I was so hungry I didn’t care. It’s what’s inside the soft crab that really counts, and these were sweeter than honeysuckle.
After our crab feast, the Shoemakers bid us adieu to hustle back to the Western Shore. (It wasn’t because of the Cheerios.) Escort pushed on to the Tred Avon River: destination, Bellevue.
The Choptank River is one of the best cruising rivers on the Bay. A broad channel leads from the Bay to Cambridge and Oxford, leaving plenty of room for everyone and lots of open water to absorb the wash. The south side of the river is fairly exposed and shallow, with no inviting gateways or gunkholes. But the north shore opens up into three different creeks between Tilghman Island and the Tred Avon-Harris, Broad and Irish, each worth exploring. We came around Benoni Point along with a few boats heading for Oxford, but instead of anchoring as they did off the Oxford strand, we turned left and headed across the river to the Bellevue dock.
Bellevue has a county launch ramp, a grassy park and a small sandy beach-not to mention a man-made basin roomy enough to fit several fishing headboats on occasion, any number of local workboats, a few pleasure craft and our trawler. We’ve seen sailboats in there, but not many and not often.
Bellevue used to bustle with activity when the Turner and Valliant families operated a number of seafood and tomato packing plants in town. The place had its own post office, three corner stores and four taverns (“beer gardens,” Bellevue native Anne Moore called them). After the Depression and a devastating fire, W. H. Valliant and Brother finally closed its myriad enterprises. Then, as the automobile gave people access to jobs further up the road and educational opportunities for the area’s largely black population expanded, the town’s smaller enterprises gradually shut down. A year or so ago, the Turners locked up the last of their seafood business-for good or the time being, depending on who you talk to. Now the Bellevue folks collect their mail at the post office down the road in Royal Oak and do their shopping elsewhere. But the spiritual heart of the community, the St. Luke United Methodist Church, is still going strong, and we planned to join them for their Sunday morning service.
Our glorious weather abandoned us sometime in the night, and we awoke to torrential rain. Fortunately, the church was only a few blocks away, and there was a lull in the weather just when we had to leave. The church lies almost dead center in Bellevue. We turned right into town, went one block, turned left and walked one block more. The service began at 9 a.m., and we filed into a brightly lit sanctuary and found a seat on one of the long wooden pews. Just in time too. The choir entered, making a joyful noise to be sure, and danced their way to the choir loft.
This is a family church, presided over by the Reverend Jerome Tilghman. He made us laugh and cry by turns, but he never let us forget for one moment that we were profoundly in the Presence. By the time he was through, we knew we’d slipped up somewhere in the last week or so and we were mighty sorry. But we knew just as emphatically that we were forgiven. Resoundingly, unflinchingly, unquestioningly, forgiven. We learned later, as we munched on cookies and drank cups of steaming hot coffee in the hospitality room, that many parishioners come “home” on Sundays to be here. They drive from Virginia and Baltimore and Washington to check up on their elderly parents and revive their spirit in this special place before another daunting week in the world. They come back to stand fast with their community, to sing the gospel songs, to watch the children grow and, most important, to get right with God. When people walk out of that church, they are good to go.
We headed back to the boat to pack up, put away and say good-bye. We could have spent the weekend in St. Michaels or Oxford, and we would have found plenty to do and see-along with everyone else. As it happened, we probably did everything the tourists did anyway: antiques, crabs and old-time religion. We just did those things without having to rub elbows with anyone or wait in line. Isn’t that supposed to be one of the advantages to having a boat?