Issue: September 2007
OFF THE CHARTS: Homeward Bound

By Wendy Mitman Clarke

It's nighttime on the Sassafras River, and I am on my way out of the Bay. Earlier today we left the Chester River after a July Fourth weekend of fun with friends (and a bit of work on the new boat, Osprey), and we are headed to the C&D Canal and the Delaware Bay--and from there points north, going cruising for the rest of summer. Everyone's asleep now, but I'm restless and watching the stars. It seems ironic to me, and kind of sad, that I've only come back here to my home river as I'm leaving the Chesapeake.

I grew up here. My parents were members of the Pennsylvania Navy (although we didn't call it that then), the legions of boaters from southeastern Pennsylvania who every weekend would make the pilgrimage down Interstate 95 to the Eastern Shore, and then to the Bohemia or the Sassafras or Rock Hall or Kent Narrows, where our summer hearts truly resided. I was a pig-tailed girl with a dog and a dinghy, happy to explore the beaches and woods along this river. It was a wonderland to me then, all the Discovery Channel I ever needed.

It must only be the wisest of us who know what they have when they have it. When I left the Sassafras as a teenager, I was happy to do so, disillusioned with the madding crowd of boats that roared up and down it every weekend. I also wanted bigger horizons. And as time has passed and I've explored more of the Bay, especially in its southern reaches, I haven't missed my home river once. Until tonight. We sailed in here ahead of a building breeze and thunderstorms all around. It had been stinking hot for days, and finally the atmosphere was letting off some steam. We headed upriver to a small bay opposite Ordinary Point and dropped the hook with two other cruising sailboats. The storms roiled all around but didn't touch us, just gave us the blessing of their clearing wind.

After dinner, we jumped in and swam to the beach. The water was clear and fresh, no nettles to sting us, no muddy current. I had forgotten how sweet that was. Walking on the beach--a beach I'd walked on countless times with my dog when I was young--I found pawpaw and black cherry trees loaded with fruit, the dried pods of water lilies with the seeds still in them rattling like maracas, tiny clams and meadows of underwater vegetation just offshore. A bald eagle flew straight toward the boat and then low over the water, dipping its talons.

All of this must have been here when I was growing up, I thought, but I didn't notice. Or I just didn't know what I was seeing (I wouldn't have known a pawpaw from a prickly pear then). If I had truly realized how beautiful all this was, I thought, why would I have ever wanted to leave it? I guess that's the nature of a curious, restless soul. I've been on the Bay all my life and now I'm getting ready to leave her for some time. Other waters are calling. I don't know that any of them will be as beautiful and varied as the Bay, and I doubt any of them will feel so much like home. And especially tonight, as I watch the stars over my home river, I doubt I will feel the same way about any other place. But that won't stop me from going.

It's perfectly quiet on the Sassafras tonight. Nearby I hear the voices of a father and son fishing in a small boat, over toward the channel. The boy--he sounds about as old as my son, about 10 or so--has hooked into a nice fish. He's so excited. "Dad! Dad, it's huge!" And the father is coaching him, "Slow down now, slow, take it slow. That's how you catch a fish here, rod down, then up, then reel it slow." This goes on for some time until they've finally boated the fish and I hear the boy crowing about it, and the father laughing, "Didn't I tell you there were monster catfish in this river?! Didn't I tell you?"

There's another lucky kid, I think, growing up on a river in the Bay in a world full of wonder. Just like me.