Issue: June 2008
FEATURE DESTINATION: A Place to Go Pleasantly

Mattawoman creek

Chesapeake bay, mattawoman creek

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. 

So, 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.

Some 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.

Nowadays it's 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.

First, 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.

"[The 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.

More 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.

A 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 surrendered.

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 the creek.

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.

After 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!

This 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."

As 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.

I've 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.

Mattawoman 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.

Continuing 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.

[06.08 issue]