Issue: July 2008
CRUISE OF THE MONTH: Then Came the Fireworks

Hawk Cove near Hart-Miller Island was a pleasant anchorage, but why were all those boats swarming around?

by Pat Meneely, art by Richard C. Goertemiller

The light didn't come on in my brain until after the first of the fireworks had exploded into the air above Hawk Cove. Ah . . . no wonder half the boaters on the Bay were hanging around between Back River and Middle River after dark! But really, how were we to know? It was June, after all, albeit the last day of that month and the weekend nearest the Fourth. Okay, it was a no-brainer!

Husband Henry, dog Murphy and I had left our home slip in Deale, Md., that morning aboard INSSA, our Gulf Star trawler on our way north for an extended cruise. The weather was absolutely perfect for a boating adventure: sunny, cool, gorgeous. We had decided to forgo our usual first-night anchorage in Swan Creek just north of Rock Hall, Md., in favor a new spot behind Hart-Miller Island. The chart showed what looked like a lovely anchorage just above Rocky Point Park at the mouth of Back River. It was sheltered by Hart-Miller on the east and had plenty of water for our four-foot draft.

Hart-Miller Island was one of the first reclamation projects here on the Bay; the Army Corps of Engineers had used dredge spoil from the Baltimore harbor to stabilize the island and create a wildlife refuge and public park that was accessible only by boat. We thought it would be an interesting stopover, especially since we've been keeping an eye on a similar project on Poplar Island, just across the Bay from Deale.

So we nosed INSSA under the Bay Bridge and headed for the Craighill Channel. At Sevenfoot Knoll we turned north, crossing the Brewerton Channel (which leads to Baltimore) and continued past the Lower Range Front Light. We lined ourselves up with the corresponding range tower on shore--at 105 feet high and painted red on top and white on the bottom, it was hard to miss. The range made it easy for us to slide through the narrow cut between Pleasure Island and Cuckold Point into Back River. (Otherwise, we would have had to travel much farther north, around the tip of Hart-Miller). We noted North Point State Park as we passed; this is where British soldiers landed to march on Baltimore in 1814. Happily, they didn't get very far.

Pleasure Island, to starboard, looked inviting in the late afternoon sunshine. Two small boats had backed up to the shore and small tents had sprouted from the beach sand. Beyond the tents, green trees and bushes gave the place a frothy look. As we moved farther along the channel, we saw five more boats anchored and backed onto the beach. The visitors had set up grills, and we could see threads of smoke wafting through the quiet air. Hmm, we thought, everyone seems to have come out to enjoy this perfect weather.

We passed a line of two- and three-story houses strung along the shore of Cuckold Point on the mainland and, tucked in amongst them, a small marina we had heard about: Bill's Boats. Just the place to pull in and stretch our legs, we thought. But try as we might, we just couldn't find enough water, so we abandoned that plan. Instead we continued into Hawk Cove, keeping to the left and across the river from Hart-Miller--where hundreds of boats (at least it seemed like hundreds) were already anchored. This spot also gave us easy access by dinghy to Rocky Point Park, where we could take Murphy ashore.

Rocky Point Park turned out to be a wonderful playground, with a large swimming area and bathhouse, several covered and uncovered picnic areas with grills, wooded areas along Back River and a launch ramp. Next door, the Baltimore County Sailing Center had dozens of small sailboats neatly lined up along the shore in groups of six. Rafted up on our side of Hawk Cove were five full-size sailboats from which a passel of children laughed, splashed and swam while their parents looked on diligently. Looking east, we watched the hundreds of boaters at Hart-Miller enjoying the island's extensive beachfront.

Boat traffic seemed unusually heavy, but, still clueless, we chalked it up to good weather and what we thought must be a huge local boating population. (Swan Creek, always a popular anchorage, would have seemed empty by comparison.) While we watched, a steady stream of boaters sped back and forth across Hawk Cove, which connects Back and Middle rivers. Fortunately, our anchorage was well away from the main thoroughfare, but even so, there was a lot of wave action to contend with. Things finally quieted down after dinner, but none of the boats had left, they had simply drifted north toward Middle River and dropped anchor. Very mysterious. By 9 p.m., boat traffic had ceased entirely and our anchorage was calm and serene. But not for long.

Henry and Murphy had just returned to the boat from their evening walk ashore when the first fireworks erupted above the treetops of Hawk Cove. Murphy, scared out of her wits, dove under a chair. But Henry and I sat back and enjoyed the show. A variety of colors and shapes spiraled up, out, around and downward. Finally, it clicked: This was the Saturday night before the Fourth of July! And these were the Middle River fireworks, set off from Eastern Yacht Club at the mouth of the river. That would explain all those boats. No wonder everyone was out on the water. And they had probably come from all over to watch the show.

The exodus from Middle River that followed the fireworks lasted until well after midnight. The wake rolled into the cove like a siege army with battering rams, each one with INSSA's name on it. Henry managed to sleep through the ruckus. Lucky him. At least Murphy didn't get seasick.

By morning, only one boat remained at anchor nearby--a sailboat from the rafting party. Such a spacious anchorage and only two boats. Just imagine.

There are three public parks within a stone's throw of each other near the mouth of Back River: North Point State Park, Rocky Point Beach and Park (operated by Baltimore County) and Hart-Miller Island State Park. All three boast splendid beaches and a panoramic view of the Bay. 

Rocky Point offers two free boat ramps (open daily at 6 a.m.; no permit required), but charges $5 a day to park a trailer. For more information call 410-887-3873.

North Point marks the spot where British troops landed and retreated during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. During the first half of the 20th century, the beachfront was the site of a summer amusement park: Bay Shore Park. City dwellers rode the trolley from Baltimore to relax on the sandy beaches. When Bay Shore closed in 1947, Bethlehem Steel bought the property to prevent a rival company from gaining a toehold near the bustling port city of Baltimore. It became the exclusive retreat of Bethlehem Steel executives, who used it for recreational hunting and fishing. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources acquired the land in 1987. Today, the park encompasses more than a thousand acres of woodland, marsh and beachfront, threaded with nature and history trails.

Hart-Miller Island, accessible only by boat, is the product of a major land-reclamation effort that began more than 25 years ago as an effort to simultaneously deepen Baltimore harbor, preserve a rapidly diminishing barrier island and create a major wildlife sanctuary at the mouth of Back River. Today the island encompasses more than 1,000 acres and provides habitat for hundreds of birds. The park area includes hiking trails, a visitor's center, picnic facilities and first-come-first-served family campsites. As many as a hundred boats will gather along the Hart-Miller beaches on any given summer weekend, making it one of the busiest landings on the Bay. For information about North Point and Hart-Miller Island, call 410-592-2897.