Visiting the three Dividing Creeks on the Bay proved a daunting logistical challenge. But the hassles were well worth the trip.
by Paul Clancy
photographs by John Bildahl
It was, on the face of it, an intriguing idea. Cruise to all the creeks on the Bay by the name of Dividing and write about them. Compare and contrast, as the Comp 101 teachers like to say. The word has a sense of controversy--or, more literally, divisiveness--that makes you wonder what exactly is being divided and why. Abutting farms, perhaps? Counties or townships? The Hatfields and McCoys?
If I'd spent more time with my charts, I might have gotten frighteningly ambitious and gone for a far more common name--all the Mill creeks, for instance. There are no fewer than 15 by that name, three of them off the Patuxent River alone. Or how about Back Creek? I counted about 13 of those. And of course there are all the self-descriptive Broad, Fishing, Swan, Church and Hunting creeks, not to mention the unimaginatively (and often inaccurately) named Deep creeks.
But among all of the Bay's coves, prongs, guts, ponds, sloughs and other watery trails, I could find only three Dividing creeks. Which turned out to be a good thing, if you consider the fact that it took me a year, two boats, an engine failure, and what we can safely call logistical yoga to see all three of them.
It seemed easy enough at first. Last October I was cruising all the way up the Bay and back from Norfolk. No sweat, I thought, I'll just stop over at the three Dividings en route. No problemo, right?
So it seemed at first. My trip led me, eventually, to Tolchester, Md., on the Eastern Shore, where, on an October morning, my 30-foot sailboat responded serenely to a light southeasterly that wafted me slowly west. A haze off the flat water's surface added a timeless quality to the day. Then a freshening breeze carried me past Baltimore Light into the Magothy River and four miles upriver to the northernmost of the Dividing creeks.
Not only does Dividing Creek divide, it shares its entrance with another waterway, Mill (gee, what a surprise) Creek. Together, the Mill Creek and Dividing Creek waterfront communities are known as Twin Harbors. On the left, just before the entrance, you pass Ferry Point Marina, then wiggle around a serious shoal on the right and a community beach and dock on the left. And then you're there.
As I puttered past the entrance, I remembered something I'd read on a website, that a descendant of a couple of colonial Maryland governors--Samuel Ogle and his son Benjamin--had given the beach land for the use of residents. Not far from the waterfront, I read, is a manor house that once served as a hotel for the city folk who in the early 1800s came by side-wheel ferry from Baltimore. And one of the ferries that plied the Magothy from Ferry Point once docked nearby.
These days the Magothy River's Dividing Creek is decidedly laid-back. The main branch of the creek is like a small harbor, with lovely houses, private docks and boats. There's enough room for several boats to swing at anchor. I picked a spot well back from the entrance and dropped the hook. It was getting dark and stars, as well as the lights from planes, reflected in the dark water. Fish jumped, once, twice. Ah, peace and quiet, at least relatively so.
In the morning I explored both branches of the creek. They seemed much the same, both with picture-book waterfront homes you'd like to rent for a month every year. I had to watch the depthsounder as the channel snaked back and forth, but there were substantial sailboats snuggled up to docks. And if they could make it, I figured, so could I, and that turned out to be right. I waved to some people on their docks. They waved back, although none invited me to stay for a month.
The next day I headed out for the next nearest Dividing Creek, over on the Wye River. But just as I entered the Bay, still under motor power because of light wind on the nose, there was a sickening clunk, and then suddenly no power. No forward, no backward. Nothing grabs one's attention quite like losing power in the middle of a field of crab pots in the mouth of a busy river. I still remember every second: Scrambling forward, running up the mainsail, steering away from the pots, and ever-so-slowly making my way back up the Magothy. Along the way, I called several marinas on my cell phone, searching for one with a repair yard.
What a relief it was to learn that Dean Benham, owner of Peninsula Yacht Services--right at Ferry Point Marina--was out on his skiff towing another boat and that he would meet me on his way back. Sure enough, just as I got within earshot of the marina, here he came with a disabled boat lashed to the hip of his skiff. He threw me a line and towed me the rest of the way. So I ended up right where I'd started that day. Benham and his assistant, Mark Miller, determined that the coupling from the engine to the drive shaft had parted company. They'd have to send for a new coupling, and I was stuck for a couple of days.
It wasn't such a bad spot if you have to be stuck. I whiled away several hours at Magothy Seafood Restaurant, a friendly crab deck at the marina, reading a great book, Peter Nichols's Voyage for Madmen, about the first nonstop round-the-world race. My boat was parked right next to Benham's Grand Banks 42, Gypsy Boogaloo, and one evening he invited me over for a beer and good conversation. He has lived onboard for seven years and is an avid collector of sea stories. I couldn't have asked for better hospitality.
Finally my boat was ready to leave the Magothy. Again. That was the good news; the bad news was that now I wouldn't have time to explore the Wye River's Dividing Creek; I'd have to come back later. So I headed south, stopping at Solomons Island and then in Reedville, Va. Leaving Reedville early in the morning I ran into heavy southwesterly winds, the boat bouncing and crawling all the way. At last I slipped into Virginia's lovely version of Dividing Creek, after passing--you guessed it--Mill Creek just to the north.
Off to the right I could see Hughlett Point, a gorgeous piece of forest, salt marsh meadow, low dunes and sandy beach fronting on the Bay. It was named for John Hughlett, a controversial landowner who in the 1650s just barely escaped the gallows by convincing a jury that he didn't murder his wife. Captain John Smith's map of Virginia indicates the point was in the territory of the Wiccomico Indians, and recent findings of arrowheads and stone tools bear this out. The creek is larger than the Magothy version, and less densely occupied, although there are numerous homes along both branches and the adjacent Prentice Creek.
The 213-acre Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve attracts trumpeter swans, black ducks, scoters, loons and other waterfowl and is home to the endangered northeastern beach tiger beetle. A developer's plans in 1990 to turn the point into a marina-resort complex spurred the creation of the Dividing Creek Association and the successful effort to create the preserve. It now includes hiking trails, a boardwalk and an observation deck that overlook the meadows.
Close to the entrance is the restored Shiloh School, one of the few surviving examples of an early 1900s one-room schoolhouse. The first teacher was Jessie Ball, who went on to become the third Mrs. Alfred I. DuPont--and one of America's most generous philanthropists. The school was saved and restored with the help of local residents.
Maybe it's something about me and Dividing creeks, but visiting this one turned into something of a logistical saga as well. Cruising never adheres to a schedule, of course, and it's a foolish cruiser who thinks he can make it so. The complication, in a nutshell, was that I had a wedding to attend in Washington, D.C., so I anchored the boat in a protected cove and waited for my wife Barb, who had driven up from Norfolk to meet me. Problem was, she couldn't find me. After rowing ashore to a beach near an unfinished home, I hitched a ride with a local couple who patiently drove me from cove to cove until we found Barb. We made it to the wedding in the nick of time. On the way home the next day, Barb dropped me off. It had gotten dark and a light rain was falling. The only way to read the numbers on my combination lock was by the dim light from my cell phone. The next day I headed home to Norfolk.
At this point, it seemed like the Wye River's Dividing Creek was about as far away as the real Great Divide, the Rocky Mountains. I was concerned that I'd never reach the end of my journey. It took almost a year and a lot of hemming and hawing about how to get there, but it was well worth the wait.
Late summer 2007. High on a tree branch an osprey surveyed the river. A great blue heron was keeping his own patient watch on a fallen tree nearby. Somewhere out there in the growing dark a great horned owl asked a persistent hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo that underscored the deep green solitude all around us. Cicadas joined the rhythm section. A full moon, sultry as the late August weather, crept over an indigo sky.
Barb and I had just dropped anchor in what is certainly the world's most beautiful Dividing Creek, two-thirds of a mile of deep, dark water that slices into Wye Island off the Miles River near St. Michaels, Md. We'd chartered a 28-foot boat, Short But Sweet, from Hartge's Yacht Services in Galesville, Md., and sailed across the Bay. As I had feared, it was brutally hot and still for most of the way. Lacking a Bimini, we actually raised a golf umbrella for protection from the relentless sun. But as we entered Eastern Bay a sweet northeasterly breeze greeted us and carried us all the way to the Miles.
We were a little hesitant as we made our way into the Wye East River as it became suddenly shallow. But then Rob Bierman from Grasonville, Md., arrived in his bass boat and offered a suggestion: Hug the right side near his crab pots, where there was at least 10 feet of water. That did the trick.
"It's beautiful down here," he said. "The crabs near home are very good, but down here they're just a little bit better; I go for a little bit better every time." He leaned back on his seat, hands behind his head.
I was worried that we wouldn't find the right creek. What if we spent the night in the wrong one? There are several deeply forested cuts, and certainly none that says, "Welcome to Dividing Creek." And it doesn't divide anything, at least not obviously. But the shoreline seemed a carbon copy of the chart, with every nook matching its chart book counterpart. We slid into the creek and were able to motor almost to the end, where there's a canoe landing. We were eager to go ashore and explore the place we'd heard so much about.
For more than 300 years, Wye Island was privately owned and farmed for wheat and tobacco. Among its owners were William Paca, Maryland's governor in the early 1780s and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his brother-in-law, Charles Bordley. Together they presided over vineyards, orchards, a brickyard and brewery. Somewhere on the island are the remnants of slave quarters, and a couple of old mansions still stand. Agriculture dominated the scene until 1976, when the possibility of intensive residential development prompted the state to buy the land. The 2,450 acres that make up the Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area are still dotted with farm fields, but stands of old-growth forest, ribboned by 12 miles of nature trails, make up the rest.
In the morning, fortified with cereal and peaches and coated with bug spray, we rowed over to the canoe landing. It was a short walk over a bridge to a picnic area and group campsite named after the creek. We walked up a gravel road to the 1.5-mile Schoolhouse Woods nature trail sandwiched between soybean and corn fields, wending through giant oaks and sweetgum trees the likes of which you rarely see. One of the sweetgums, Barb calculated, was at least 24 feet around. Add to these hickories and beeches. "This is old growth!" she whispered under the tall canopy.
Another trail led to a 275-year-old holly tree, a beautiful gnarled structure that stood alone at the edge of a field. On the way we were startled by fast-flying bluebirds and delighted by monarch butterflies flitting among milkweed leaves. We looked for chrysalises without any luck. Barb pointed to delicate blue chicory beside the path. "It's like a bluebird's back," she said. She also spotted fox scat--loaded, she observed, with seeds from pawpaw fruit. (The things my wife knows!)
On our way back park services associate John Fitzroy and park technician Chris Driscoll, pulled up in their truck and enthusiastically shared their knowledge of Wye Island history and lore. They mentioned the butterflies and dragonflies that love the place, and the volunteers who plant native grasses, trees and shrubs along the shoreline to reduce shoreline soil loss. The island is an important stopover along the Atlantic Flyway for migrating waterfowl, they said.
It was noon and hot again when we weighed the boat's muddy plow anchor. But a nice breeze greeted us as we left the creek and the sails did their work. It had been a long journey to the three Divides. Long division, you might say. But the variety they offered--even with the mishaps they witnessed--made the adventure worthwhile and deeply satisfying.
Mill Creek anyone?
Cruiser's Digest: The Great Divides
The northernmost Dividing Creek, on the south side of the Magothy River, about four miles from the river's mouth, shares a common entrance with Mill Creek. I was confused at first because my chart book didn't even show Mill Creek, and I assumed it was the eastern branch of the creek. A call to Ferry Point Marina, which nestles just inside Mill Creek, straightened me out. (I realized later I could have consulted my Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay, which clearly shows the two creeks.) The entrance to Dividing Creek calls for a couple of turns, first left to avoid a shoal off Crystal Beach (marked by a shoal buoy), then a hard turn to starboard and then again to port as you pass a private pier at the entrance.
Once inside, the main stem of the creek is like a wide bay, with plenty of depth for anchoring three or four boats. I explored both forks, carefully watching my depthfinder, passing both snug cottages and grand homes, many with piers and boats. There are no facilities on the creek, but Ferry Point Marina & Yacht Yard (410-544-6368) offers most services and includes Magothy Seafood Crab Deck and Tiki Bar. Just west of the creek, Magothy Marina (410-647-2356) offers gas and diesel fuel.
On the Eastern Shore, three miles north of St. Michael's, Md., off the Miles River, is the Wye River and the approach to quiet, secluded Dividing Creek. The river is marked by what appears to be a charming white lighthouse, although it is actually a stucco water tower built by a homeowner. The Wye embraces the 2,450-acre Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area and offers several deep and pleasant anchorages, most of them on the Wye East River. The most popular of these is Shaw Bay, where we saw several boats at anchor. There are a couple of channel markers, red "2" and green "3" before you enter the narrower river, staying well off the points on both sides. Suddenly the depth goes from eight feet or so to more than 40. Dividing Creek is the third creek on the left and shows a distinct thumb of a cove near the entrance. There's enough depth in the creek to go just about to the end where, on the left, there's a boat ramp you can dinghy to. There are no facilities on the Wye.
The southernmost Dividing Creek opens directly to the Bay on Virginia's Northern Neck, just above Kilmarnock. Approach with caution. There are well marked shoals that jut out from the shore and demand respect. There's a 15-foot flashing green "3", that heralds the entrance to the creek, followed by a flashing red "4", and so on. You'll pass Hughlett Point to starboard and Jarvis Point to port. Also on the left is Prentice Creek, which shares the same entrance as Dividing Creek. If you continue straight ahead, you'll be in the main branch of Dividing Creek where there are plenty of good spots for anchoring. Because there are no boating facilities, I stopped the night before in Reedville, Va., (about ten miles north of Dividing Creek's entrance) for food and fuel.