Three cheers for the shallow treasures of Mattawoman Creek, off the upper Potomac.
by Chuck Royster
photography by Starke Jett
The notion of "peace and quiet" is relative, of course. Among us are
folks who consider an anchorage tranquil only if theirs is the only
boat in it. The arrival of another boat, even if it's the very model of
unobtrusiveness, ruins everything. And two boats? Well, forget it. Now
it's a bloody beehive. As much as I empathize with that frame of mind,
my definition of tranquility is a little more forgiving. Maybe it's
because I tend to measure the places I go in my boat against the noisy
weekday life I leave behind—trucks rumbling and clattering, radios
blaring, sirens wailing, people yammering into their cell phones.
Compared with all that, a dozen boats sharing a hurricane hole is
nothing short of Eden. Furthermore, I'm accustomed to boating with
young children aboard, and, as any parent can tell you, when it comes
to kids and their contentedness, there is such a thing as too quiet.
that said and definitions established, I'm here to tell you about one
such idyllic spot in my neck of the watershed, the upper
Potomac—specifically, a little cove on Mattawoman Creek, which is a
slightly depth-challenged but lovely hidey hole on the Maryland side of
the river across from Virginia's Occoquan Bay. Years ago, when our kids
were younger and not deeply embarrassed to be in our company, my wife
Cee and I had taken them there many times. It had been one of our
favorite Potomac getaways—peaceful and quiet enough for the grown-ups,
but also lively enough to hold the kids' interest. And last summer, as
Cee and I cast about for places to go onHigh Falutin' Floozie,
our 36-foot Doral, we remembered that little spot and resolved to
revisit it—to see if it was the same as ever, and perhaps to conjure a
memory or two.
After the inevitable few delays and false
starts, early on a bright, cool and breezy September morning, we found
ourselves pulling out of our home slip at James Creek Marina, tucked in
behind Washington's Fort McNair at the mouth of the Anacostia River.
Soon we hadFloozieon the
Potomac and pointed downstream, past Old Town Alexandria, under the
mammoth work-in-progress that is the new Wilson Bridge, and past
another eye-popping project on the Maryland shore—the gargantuan
business-commercial-residential-marina development known as National
Harbor, a fully formed port city hugging the once tree-lined shore of
Smoots Bay just below the bridge. The no-wake markers on the south side
of the bridge gave us just enough time for a satisfying gawk; then we
fired upFloozie's twin 454s and headed south in earnest.
15 nautical miles and three sweeping river bends later, the yellow
bluffs of Occoquan Bay came into view on the Virginia side, telling us
that we'd soon see the green "51" and, just a couple of miles below
that on the opposite shore, the wide and inviting entrance to
Mattawoman Creek. Until the late 17th century, this had been the home,
as the creek's name suggests, of the Mattawoman people (the name, I
learned means "a place to go pleasantly"). They were one of many
sub-tribes of the Piscataway-Conoy culture that had been predominant in
what is now Southern Maryland. Hunters and fishermen for the most part,
the Mattawomans and their fellow Piscataways had a similar culture to
other groups in the region—the Delawares, Nanticokes and Powhatans, for
instance—and they spoke a dialect of the widespread Algonquian
language. Like their neighbors, they also had frequent run-ins with
tribes from the north, specifically the Susquehannocks, Iroquois and
Senecas. And in the late 17th-century, it was one of these conflicts
that brought the Mattawomans' demise—helped along, no doubt, by the
insults of the European invasion, namely smallpox.
mostly U.S. Navy territory—especially on the north side of the creek's
entrance, on the peninsula that some charts identify as Cornwallis
Neck. There you'll find the sprawling naval support base that counts
among its tenants the Naval Surface Warfare Center (which explains the
long, narrow danger zone a mile or so offshore in the Potomac). The
Navy also owns a few of the islands in Mattawoman Creek, and has more
facilities on the south side of the creek, but we were headed for a
different sort of facility on the lower side, namely the state-owned
Sweden Point Marina, which is part of the surrounding 628-acre
Smallwood State Park and what would be our base for the day's visit.
though, there would be a bit of unscheduled socializing (which turned
out to be the order of the day). As we motored slowly past an anchored
32-foot Carver—the center of an idyllic summer scene, complete with
squealing, laughing children diving from its swim platform—one of the
two men standing on the aft deck called out to us. "Where are you guys
from?" he asked. We told him where we'd come from and how we used to
come here with our kids, which led to more chat, which led to them
inviting us to tie up and visit for a while. The gregarious skipper
turned out to be Bob Pickette, a retired Army colonel from
Fredericksburg, Va., who has been coming here with his children, and
now his grandchildren, since the late 1980s. The other fellow was his
son-in-law, Brian Alexander, father of the three aforementioned
squealing-laughing-diving children (Samantha, Ethan and Emily).
Pickette's wife Terry and daughter Nina soon emerged from belowdecks,
where they'd been taking a much-deserved break from lifeguard duty.
Mattawoman] hasn't changed since Bob and I would bring Nina and her
sisters here when they were young," Terry told us, remembering the days
when it was Nina herself, not her children, jumping from the boat—a
26-foot sailboat in those days. As is so often the case among fellow
boaters, the conversation came easy and we could have sat there and
gabbed all day. But, feeling the day slipping through our fingers, Cee
and I finally thanked the Pickettes, et al., for their hospitality and
climbed back aboardFloozieto continue our exploration.
easy hospitality awaited us at the Sweden Point Marina gas dock, in the
form of marina manager Peggy LeFleur—born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas
and as knowledgeable about the marina and park as she is full of
energy. "This place is a fisherman'sdream,"
she told us, explaining the dozens of hot-rod fishing boats that were
beginning to congregate at the docks. "DNR continuously stocks and
restocks the creek with largemouth bass, catfish, white and yellow
perch, striped bass, crappie, carp and sunfish." The marina and park
host some 80 fishing tournaments per season, she told us, and today
there were two such competitions in progress. "I love this job!" she
said. "Where else could I be with a view like that with big, strong,
handsome fishermen coming around me all day?"
Though Cee opted
to stay behind and relax a bit, I took LeFleur's advice and headed
across the footbridge and up the hill to have a look at the restored
18th-century plantation house called Smallwood's Retreat, the historic
centerpiece of the park. Originally called Mattawoman Plantation,
according to some accounts, the house was built in 1760 by William
Smallwood, a prosperous tobacco planter and colonial assemblyman who
went on to become one of George Washington's trusted generals in the
Revolutionary War, serving for eight years in campaigns all over the
colonies. After the war he resumed his political career, serving as the
new state's governor for three one-year terms and presiding over
Maryland's ratification of the U.S. Constitution (even though he
himself was an anti-Federalist).
It was a steep climb to the
plantation house, but well worth the minute or two of huffing and
puffing it took to get my breath back. Compared to other plantation
houses of the period (Virginia's Shirley and Berkley plantations come
to mind), Smallwood's Retreat is quite modest—a two-story red-brick
affair with a steep, dormered roof and stout chimneys on each end. And
modesty, from what I was able to gather, is very much in keeping with
the personality of General Smallwood, who was apparently the epitome of
the reluctant but fierce warrior during the Revolution.
lifelong bachelor and friend of George Washington (who was a neighbor,
after all, just 10 or 12 miles upriver), Smallwood joined the war
effort as commander of the nine-company infantry battalion formed in
Maryland as the war loomed. The battalion was soon absorbed by
Washington's Continental Army and took part in its defense of New York
in 1776. Smallwood's gallantry in the Battle of White Plains, where he
was seriously wounded, led to his promotion to Brigadier General. After
recovering from his wounds in 1777, he was dispatched to defend
southeastern Pennsylvania and fought in the battles of Germantown and
Brandywine. In the disastrous Battle of Camden (South Carolina) in
1780, Smallwood and his regiment were among those who held their ground
against Lord Cornwallis, earning Smallwood still more respect from
Washington and a promotion to major general. Only a year later,
Smallwood had the pleasure of being on hand in Yorktown when Cornwallis
Like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Mattawoman
Plantation was picked clean of its original belongings—because
Smallwood, like Jefferson, died more or less penniless and the
plantation was sold to settle his debts. But the house's furnishings
have long since been replaced with matching items from the same
period—courtesy of the Smallwood Foundation, which has owned and cared
for the property since 1934.
I would have lingered here longer
too, but with the afternoon wearing on I realized it was time to get
back to the boat and head upstream—to see what had become of our
favorite little cove. It being almost weigh-in time for the two fishing
tournaments under way, I encountered a veritable mob of fisherman lined
up on the dock—a number of whom, predictably, were flirting with my
pretty wife, who held court fromFloozie's
aft deck and no doubt was enjoying the attention. Sizing me up
playfully, one of the guys asked, "Ma'am, are you sure you feelsaferidin' with this old guy for such an extended trip?" Everybody laughed.
Oh, hah-hah, I get it. You're saying I'm old. That's hysterical. You're
a regular Shecky Greene. Go weigh your fish, Shecky.
Waving good-bye to Peggy LeFleur (and, what the heck, Shecky too), we easedFloozieout into the main channel and headed upstream. Slowly. The depthfinder
showed I had five feet of water under me, but back in the day I had
plowed enough mud here to know that it's no place for irrational
exuberance. Channel markers notwithstanding, you'll want to take your
time here, so that if you do lose track of the channel and bump the
bottom, it'll be just that, a bump—not the sudden, shuddering stop that
is so often followed by, "Yes, operator, I need the number for
TowBoatU.S. . . ." But I've seen as much as 15 feet off Bullitt Neck,
which juts in from the south shore above the marina, pointing to the
shallow bay on the north side that holds Marsh Island. The marked
channel extends upstream for about another mile, and from that point
you're really on your own, though it's not uncommon to find seven and
eight feet ("find" being the operative word) as far as three miles up
But for us it's always been worth the little bit of
depth anxiety, because the farther upstream you go, the wilder and more
beautiful things get, flora-wise. "There it is," Cee said as we rounded
Bullitt Neck, and our old haunt came into view—a lovely wide cove
tucked in on the south side, still a perfect anchoring-swimming spot.
Indeed, there were already several other boats here doing just that. "I
remember the boys paddling that little boat over to that island," Cee
said, pointing to tiny Thoroughfare Island beyond the channel on the
north side. "Remember? We told them to come back and that they could
not go on the
island and leave the boat."
I did remember.
It was our last trip here, I think. Little Charles was 10 or 11 (he'll
turn 18 this summer) and we had brought along his cousin Reggie, who's
about the same age. They had spent the entire day in the warm, shallow
water, having a ball with a small blow-up boat I had brought along. Cee
and I had passed the time in our usual fashion—listening to music,
sipping wine, reading magazines, making sure the boys stayed in the
shallow water on the shore side and occasionally telling them to stop
whatever life-threatening stunt they were about to pull. It was a great
day—and just seeing the place brought the memories flooding back.
drifting there for a while—enjoying the afternoon's cooling breeze,
watching the lily pads bob softly along the island, and listening to
the splendid sounds of nature and happy children—we puttered over to
say hello to the occupants of the three boats rafted up nearby, who had
waved hospitably to us as we came in. Aboard their 25-foot Doral,Rehab(a name that made us laugh), were Mark and Julie Wicker from
Woodbridge, Va. Tied up alongside was their friend Ronnie Nunn in his
30-foot Chaparral,Latest Fling, and beyond that friend John O'Donnell, with his fiancee Kelly Matlak, aboardWhere U At?,
a beautifully maintained 45-foot Sonic SS with massive triple
outboards—500 horses each. He could go to the moon in that thing!
was half of the Mattawoman Weekend Rafters, Mark Wicker told us,
explaining that they and several other boating friends are essentially
a permanent weekend fixture here on Mattawoman Cove (Ah! I thought. It
has a name!) "We started out as a bunch of young guys in our twenties
many years ago," he said, "and we have continued our friendship
together for over ten years, through new boats, new relationships, new
jobs, new marriages and new friends. Now we are about six boats that
have a standing rafting date here every weekend during the summer. We
are all still together, still friends, and we still meet every weekend."
with the Pickettes earlier in the day, we had a lovely visit with the
Mattawoman Weekend Rafters, swapping stories and talking dream boats.
But the sun was getting alarmingly low in the sky, especially given the
fact that we still had a solid hour's cruise back to James Creek Marina
—probably more than that, since we'd first have to ease our way back
down the Mattawoman. So we hurriedly said our good-byes and good-lucks
and pointedFlooziedownstream—back around Bullitt Neck, past Sweden Point Marina (now
comparatively quiet, fishermen gone) and out into the wide Potomac, lit
gold by the low sun.
Before long, with the daylight fading fast,
we were gliding under the Wilson Bridge again, then past Alexandria,
and then past Fort McNair and into our home marina. Mission
accomplished, Mattawoman Cove revisited, memories conjured.
never seen the words "Mattawoman Cove" on any charts, but that's okay.
If the name is good enough for the Mattawoman Weekend Rafters, then I
suppose it's good enough for me.
Then again, I could just stick with what I've always called it: the definition of peace and quiet.
Cruiser's Digest: Mattawoman Creek, Md.
Creek welcomes cruisers with open arms and a wide entrance, but boaters
beware, it's shallow and shoaling inside! If your boat draws more than
6 feet, or if the very thought of running aground causes perspiration
to pop out all along your brow, then you'll want to keep on truckin'.
Mattawoman's channel is regularly dredged to 6 feet, but shoaling—the
Bay boater's big bogeyman—is a natural-born fact. This spring, for
example, shoaling to 2 feet was reported between the creek's markers
"1" and "2". But all that said, if you're looking for a whole lot of
fun in the mud (or if you have a shallow draft boat), then pull up your
socks and give it a go.
Coming downriver from Washington, you
can cut over to the creek pretty much anywhere beyond flashing green
"49", but stay clear of the shoal water off Cornwallis Neck to your
left. Your eyes are not deceiving you; that is indeed a green "1" way
over on the right side. Keep it close to port and then head straight
for the flashing greens "3" and "5". Then swing right to pass the red
"6". Beyond that you'll see the markers that take you into Sweden Point
Marina at Smallwood State Park (6 feet all the way, in theory), or, if
you're feeling plucky, you can feel your way up the creek from there.
up the creek, the channel curls around Bullitt Neck and Thoroughfare
Island, until just beyond Thoroughfare it finally peters out—and
challenges you to explore farther by kayak.
You can park your
boat overnight at Sweden Point Marina for $1/foot plus $5 for electric.
You'll find hikes, history and amenities such as fuel (no diesel),
showers, electric and pumpout. There is also a concession stand and
small camping store. For reservations, call 301-743-7336.