Dwarfed by her sibling the Great Wicomico, the Little Wicomico River can be easy to overlook. But you wouldn’t want to do that.
It’s early morning on the Little Wicomico River, and a singular symphony is about to begin its timeless exposition. First the sun, evident only in the ashen pallor of first light giving way to a glorious orange, gaudy and buoyant as Dame Edna’s lipstick, smeared all over the eastern horizon. Then the birds - keening ospreys, eagles and gulls if it’s summer, honking geese and trilling loons if it’s late fall. And slowly growing beneath it all, the steady rumbling bass of the working boats - pound netters trailing their big skiffs, crabbers yakking at each other on the VHF, charterboat captains watching over their groggy parties, weekend fishermen skimming across the glassy water in their Grady-Whites and Parkers and Makos - all heading east to meet the dawn where the Little Wicomico meets the Chesapeake Bay.
Down at the dock, our 17-foot runabout Quill bobs and waits, her outboard chugging, as my husband Johnny and brother Bill throw their fishing gear aboard. They cast off and face the glowing sky, Quill’s voice quickly joining the others as Johnny pops her up onto plane, her wake curling away. They wave back toward me in the house, which has stood on this point for a century and in which, I am certain, others have watched a variation on this burning-daylight theme for generations. I doubt that time has much bearing on this basic truth: Whoever you may be, whatever your circumstance, the Little Wicomico at sunrise commands this attention, this worship. “I guess you have to have an appreciation for that sort of thing,” says Captain Danny Crabbe, who was born and raised here and will chase the dawn down the river until his legs can’t carry him to his boat. “But I can’t imagine who wouldn’t.”
Around here they call it simply the Little River, which is enough to distinguish it from its big sister, the Great Wicomico, to the south. And the names fit; where the Great Wicomico is a well traveled cruising ground with a broad, welcoming entrance leading to the historic burg of Reedville and various marinas and boating amenities, the Little River plays much harder to get. There are few marinas here, and the villages that once supported a thriving river culture - Sunnybank and Ophelia, Gonyon and Kayan - are now little more than crossroads marked with ghostly general stores or the stubs of gas pumps, or nothing at all.
To court the Little River, you must first negotiate her shotgun-toting daddy, Smith Point - the Cape Hatteras of the Chesapeake. Just like Hatteras, it sticks out where it shouldn’t, poking into the free-for-all between two powerful currents - the flush of the mighty Potomac and the barreling river of the Bay’s main channel. Water that squirrelly is bound to make a boater on an outbound current and an inbound breeze start speaking seriously to the Lord. Yet there it is, beckoning - the tiny entrance to the Little River, whose two jetties wedge it open to face the Bay and Smith Point Lighthouse, about two-and-a-half miles east-southeast. If you can make the leap of faith to leave the deep water of the Bay and head west toward the jetties, you will be rewarded, once inside, with a beautiful, broad place of creeks and coves, home to hard-working boats, open-hearted Northern Neck locals and people who just plain live to fish.
Fishing, of course, is what brought people here to begin with - that and farming and logging. This was a busy place. “In this river are nine stores doing annually $80,000 in business; two saw mills cutting 1,400,000 feet of lumber a year,” says an 1894 U.S. Engineers Report. “Over 75,000 bushels of the Bay’s finest oysters are exported a year by small boats to Washington and Baltimore. Longboats and other vessels average about 160 a year; all when fully loaded draw over ten feet.” The U.S. Engineers noted all this because even then, getting into and out of the Little River could be tricky. According to Frederick Tilp’s This Was Potomac River, charts from 1721 show a large island at the river’s mouth, with entrances on either end. A U.S. Coast Survey from 1868 shows both entrances - one called Rock Hold a half-mile south of Smith Point, the other a mile-and-a-quarter north of the point. By 1877, the southern entrance was closed, while the northern inlet still had about seven feet of depth.
That was about the time that Ernest Krentz came to the Little Wicomico, settled on the inauspiciously named Flood Point and opened a marine railway there, Tilp writes. “With the finest of suitable timber nearby, and with the many fishing and oyster boats demanding repairs and fitting-out, his yard prospered.”
“We had a lot of oysters,” says Dandridge Cockrell, whose father opened Cockrell’s Marine Railway just upstream of Krentz’s in 1929, converting skipjacks from sail to power. Today, Dandridge’s son Andy and grandson Myles run the railway - three generations of long, lean men with the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen. Andy also runs a thriving marine construction business, building docks, boathouses and boat lifts and laying rip-rap. “We had more people come to the Bay around the turn of the century than the Gold Rush,” Dandridge Cockrell says. “They had work here. Everybody had a cow and a pig and a chicken and raised a garden. That was the way of life.”
In the late 1800s, watermen from the Eastern Shore routinely came to the Little River for boat work and business, and that connection survived well into the 20th century. Longtime Sunnybank resident George Deihle married a Smith Island girl whose father owned a seafood-buying business in Sunnybank. In 1940 he started working on the menhaden boats out of Reedville until “Uncle Sam wanted me worse than the menhaden.” He still shudders when he remembers how it felt to be gone while serving in the Navy in the Pacific. “God, I was homesick, so help me God,” he says. When he returned after the war, he and his wife Mary Ruth had four children, and he again took to the water, eventually working up to captain on a menhaden ship. When he retired from menhaden fishing he wasn’t ready to leave the water just yet; he had a 40-footer built in 1955 and started crabbing. “I had a nice piece of oyster shore right down here along the channel,” he says. These days, the oyster bottom is silted over, and Mary Ruth died last year. But Deihle still heads for the river with the sunup during soft-crab season, looking for peelers.
It seems to have that effect, this river. Danny Crabbe got his first boat when he was about five years old - his daddy Arley Crabbe and brother Johnny built it for him out of recycled church pews from the Afton United Methodist Church just down the road. “They were pine boards about fourteen inches wide and they made perfect boards to build a skiff out of,” he says. “Nice wide boards. They were pretty brittle and we had to soak ‘em so they could take the bend.” He left the river for a while after high school - took a couple of jobs in Richmond for Philip Morris and then Reynolds Aluminum, jobs he knows he could have retired fat and happy on by now. But he remembers the precise moment he knew he belonged elsewhere: “I was riding around Richmond looking at all the big buildings and everything, and the [traffic] light changed and I didn’t see it, and somebody behind me blew the horn. I said, ‘Damn! That must be somebody from home!’ But they were saying, ‘Get the hell out of the way!’ And I knew then it wasn’t the place for me. I came on back. Said, ‘I might starve, but I’ll be happy.’ ‘‘
These days you can see him nearly every morning heading for the sunrise in his 43-foot deadrise Kit II, taking out fishing parties - his lifelong fishing know-how has kept him far from starving. Beautiful as the Little River still is, and though to an outsider still open and sparsely settled, Crabbe repeats a refrain familiar to all the men and women who grew up here: Much has changed. More houses, more boats, more docks, more come-heres. Real estate prices off like a Saturn Five. “I had a dream the other night, and I looked at my oysters, and they were all alive, and I said, ‘Oh my, that’s wonderful,’ ‘‘ he says. “Sorry it was a dream.”
It’s mid-October, and I am headed out of the Little River aboard my brother Bill’s Allied Princess Jessie Welch for a cruise to the lighthouse and back. He wants to see if he can catch a rockfish for dinner on his new umbrella rig; I want to see the river from a slower, warmer perspective than Quill can offer. After years of searching the Northern Neck, Bill and his wife Cathy found the late Miss Lucy Haynie’s farmhouse perched by the river in Ophelia and promptly swooned. Having lived here part-time for a year now, they have learned first-hand about the neighbors’ overwhelming but understated generosity - fresh vegetables from the garden, rockfish for supper, tools in the garage whenever they need a spare. And they too have begun the morning worship. Barely a sunrise goes by when Cathy doesn’t slide into a little kayak and meander the shorelines, sometimes lucky enough to spot the otter family who lives nearby and raids their dockside crab trap. They are as come-here as you can get, still working in and spending most of their time near Philadelphia, though they’ve been sailing the Bay for years.
But while the residents in some places on the Bay resent or dislike come-heres, the Little River locals don’t seem to feel that way about most of the people who have discovered this place. “Very few of the come-heres want to change things,” says Jack Jett, who was born and raised in Ophelia and now lives on Slough Creek near Sunnybank, where there once stood an oyster house. (“My mother was a Haynie, so I’m kin to everybody in the whole county,” he says.) Jett now owns Jett Marine in Burgess - the closest actual town to the Little River - and sells a great many of the fishing boats that fly up and down the river. Like Crabbe, he too remembers clearly his first boat. “I kept it down to my grandfather’s,” he says. “A George Butler flat-bottom cedar skiff, and I’d give ten thousand dollars for that boat right now if I could find it. I used to go down and get in the skiff and just go.”
The days are gone, Jett says, when you could take a skiff and go poling for soft crabs along miles of unbroken shoreline; now, throughout the river and its creeks, docks are sprouting like mushrooms after a hard rain. Still, he says, the people who have come here seem to understand and love the Little Wicomico for what it is - a laid-back, secluded enclave that despite its nearly 30-square-mile geographic footprint is a close-knit community of people, many of whom still depend on the river and the Bay for their livelihoods. He’s in a good position to know, having served on the county planning commission for eight years. “They can live with their neighbors getting up at 4 a.m. to go fishing to make a living, because they might do the same thing one day to go catch bottom fish or flounder or something,” Jett says. “I’d say most of the come-heres understand this county and they come here because they like how it is. Most of them have a locals mentality.”
“Most of us feel we need to encourage the traditional occupations,” says Mary Lou Butler, who has lived in Sunnybank since 1977 and, in the 1980s, founded Northumberland Preservation Inc. to focus on the area’s history. “My husband always said, ‘Nobody likes a come-here - you can ask any Indian.’ [The influx of people] is a shock to the people who grew up here. But most of my friends love it for the tranquility, and they can see the stars at night.”
And, in some cases, hoot at the moon. Evidently, the locals have long known that the point where Miss Lucy Haynie lived has acoustical qualities that allow you to bounce your voice from one side of the river to the other. I learned this one midnight in spring, when I was trying to sleep and instead heard what I thought was a gang of unruly teenagers tramping past the windows. Moments later, a cacophony of hooting ensued out on the dock that kept me up for an hour. “What on earth was all that last night?” I asked, bleary-eyed over my coffee the next morning. “Oh, that was just the neighbors,” said Cathy, unconcerned. It seems that when the moon is just so, or the spirit possesses them, a few of the neighbors occasionally feel the need to check the dock’s acoustics.
This morning, as Bill and I head out under a cool overcast sky on Jessie Welch, I am well rested. No hooting last night. The Little River’s main stem is about six nautical miles long, and Bill’s house is about halfway in. Some dozen creeks shoot off the main river, some offering depths up to 10 feet, others only fit for skiffs. It is a wonderful place to noodle and meander, but Bill has rockfish and umbrella rigs on the brain, so we make a beeline for the inlet, passing along the way white PVC poles marking private oyster bottoms, and being passed repeatedly by fishing boats that are faster than Jessie Welch ever will be. She’s one of the few sailboats on this river. Nearly all the recreational boats here are on the smallish side, with one primary purpose - fishing (and some water-skiing on the side). Now and then you might see a big, beautiful Tiffany sportfish blasting up a wake, but mostly this is a small-boat and workboat river, and rarely does some MondoCruiser 50 disturb the peace.
At red “14” and green “13” we see a sign for the Sunnybank Ferry, which is passing from Kayan to Sunnybank as we approach [see sidebar]. The river is a quarter- to a half-mile wide, with mostly modest homes dotting the shoreline, and some long stretches laced with beaches and overhung with pines. The main channel is well marked and we travel uneventfully as we approach the inlet. Just inside the inlet to the south we pass the snaky entrance to Slough Creek, home to Smith Point Marina and the K.O.A. Campground. Just off the creek’s entrance is a swatch of grass and marsh known locally as Bamboo Island.
To the north just inside the inlet, a long sandy beach backed by low pines marks Kohl’s Island. Locals sometimes still call it Goat Island, because for decades a herd of goats lived there and nibbled the foliage to a nub, “as clean as a penny,” in George Deihle’s words. Jack Jett had also described it that way: “You could look right over it and see boats coming up and down the Bay,” he said. At one time the inlet between the island and mainland was deep enough for boats to pass on a high tide; now it’s silted in completely. The 40-acre island is owned by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a statewide land trust organization the General Assembly created in 1966. Officially named for the woman who deeded it to the foundation, Kohl’s Island is home to some of the Bay’s few sand dunes, as well as the endangered tiger beetle, I learned later from Estie Thomas, a VOF conservation easement planner. There’s no public access, except by boat, and Thomas said people who walk on the island are technically trespassing.
Locals, on the other hand, say its Bay-side is the most popular picnic beach around, and that’s how Miss Kohl would have wanted it. Jessie pushes hard against an inbound current that’s ripping through the inlet’s narrow shoulders. A dozen small fishing boats are drifting and trolling in the gut, tantalizing stripers with live spot. In the summer, they idle here looking for flounder and trout, drifting right up to the inlet’s bulkheaded sides, where pines hang over the water. The river’s edge suddenly resembles a North Carolina lowland, and it’s not uncommon to see dolphins cruising here in the summer. Ahead of us a young fisherman reels in a nice rockfish, while overhead gulls and terns wheel and chitter, squabble and dive, splashing into the water. The current grabs Jessie’s hull and pushes her around, and suddenly, like a melon seed squirting between two
fingers, we’re through. To the southeast, rows and rows of pound-net stakes poke up on the distant horizon like the tines of a comb, while a little further north Smith Point Lighthouse is a tall red and white pillar, surrounded by the specks of fishing boats. Over our left shoulders, the vast mouth of the Potomac stretches on, and before us the Bay seems as vast as the sea. The transition from the river’s snug confines to the limitless horizon is a little shocking. Exhilarating, too.
Just outside the jetties near red “2” a squat little buoy marks the invisible line, whose other end is across the Bay south of Crisfield, separating Maryland and Virginia. For fishermen there are three sets of laws to consider here - Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, according to First Sergeant Dan Eskridge of the Virginia Marine Police, who has been working in this area for 22 years. “You can be inside the jetties, which is Virginia, then go outside and be in Maryland and then go a little south and be in Virginia again,” he said. “So if you catch a fish inside the jetties and it’s out of season in Virginia, you let the ebb tide take you out to Maryland waters and then boat the fish there, and you’re legal.” Anywhere else, this might be considered nothing more than jurisdictional arcanum. But this is the Little River. “People are definitely here to fish,” Eskridge said.
The afternoon is growing late and the rockfish are playing coy with Bill’s new umbrella rig. Stomachs are grumbling. We make a long loop around the lighthouse and the dozens of fishermen bobbing nearby, and then cruise for home. Heading west through the jetties, the late-day sun transforms the water into beaten copper.
A few weeks later I’m visiting the Little River again, this time via land yacht. Along the narrow roads that entwine the riverbanks, brilliant purple and pink morning glories doll up the browning soybean fields. Farmhouses perch primly at the ends of dirt lanes, their distinctive Northern Neck Gothic architecture revealed in upright, no-nonsense, square-shouldered lines, tin roofs, white clapboard sides and few frills - but always, always a little porch by the door. Here and there, clusters of headstones tucked under chestnut trees and overgrown in greenbrier tell of a time not so distant when the family stayed put, wedded to the land and the water, and when those who passed were laid out in the parlor before joining their forebears, safe in the family plot, shaded from the hot summer sun.
What isn’t immediately obvious, as you travel these skinny roads through the empty crossroads of old Little River villages like Gonyon (pronounced gun-yun) and Ophelia, is the strong sense of community that continues to thrive here. It would be easy to assume that once the village centers died, so did the neighborhoods. But come to Cockrell’s Marine Railway on July 4th, for instance, if you want irrefutable proof that such an assumption would be dead wrong. “It’s hard to believe how many people show up,” says Andy Cockrell. “I want to say two hundred, three hundred people.”
The occasion is the annual July Fourth Community Parade, from Cockrell’s on Wicomico Point Road over to the Afton United Methodist Church at the end of Flood Point Road - a modest walk of about a mile, during which you may chance to see local dignitaries riding on ponies and in fire trucks, pick-ups and golf carts or even in boats on trailers. You may catch the church’s minister, Marion Paul White, dressed as George Washington. And Ralph Walker, an otherwise self-respecting man, who on this day dresses in a woman’s pink and turquoise one-piece bathing suit (“Oh, he hasn’t got but one that’ll fit ‘im,” says Mary Priscilla Cockrell, Dandridge’s wife), a long black wig with a silver tiara and a white banner proclaiming his title for this day, “Miss Ophelia.”
The towns may have withered as the economy and times changed, but theriver which united them in the first place remains, flowing through the generations. Over on Ellyson Creek near Kayan, on the river’s northern side, Paul Gaskins tidies up the 45-foot round-stern Bobbie after a day at his pound nets. “I’ve got pictures of Paul, the youngest one, culling fish,” says his father Eddie Gaskins, who owns Gaskins Seafood, a busy wholesale seafood business that he built from the ground up. “He was so small he couldn’t reach the culling table. We had to flip three baskets upside down and he’d stand on that.”
Eddie Gaskins grew up on the Little River in a family that had little money and many mouths to feed. There wasn’t much time for playing; when he was about seven he started fishing and crabbing with his dad. “I couldn’t hardly see over the washboard,” he says. At 21 he bought his own boat, and by his early 30s, he decided to open his own business to market his fish. He started with a trailer and an icehouse on 10 acres on Ellyson Creek. Today his immaculate operation has a small fleet of trucks that his older son Ed oversees, a 45-by-120-foot icehouse to freeze and store fish (with a machine that makes up to 10,000 pounds of ice daily), another big building for mending and making nets, and customers as far south as the Carolinas. “In the summer, we probably handle forty to fifty thousand pounds a day,” he says.
Gaskins is quick to point out that his wife Diane should get as much credit for his success as his own hard work. “I didn’t do it myself. She has been my Rock of Gibraltar, through good times and bad.” Nor does he ever forget growing up hard by the river and understanding what pulled him forward. “Whatever you accomplish in your life, you never want to lose sight of what’s important to you - your family and your religion. The rest is just material things.”
Come spring, Gaskins will be helping his son Paul with the backbreaking work of setting his two pound nets in 20-some feet of water off Smith Point. “He’s still got some things to learn, and I hope he learns them quick,” he laughs, “because I get into bed after pounding poles all day and my arms fall to the floor.” After that, Gaskins says he will leave most of the day-to-day pound-netting business to Paul, while Ed handles the trucking and he runs the business on land. As it has been for so long here, it will be the next generation slipping the lines, white hulls mirrored in the still morning water as they head east toward the dawn, where the Little River meets the Chesapeake Bay.