Issue: February 2009
Boat-roller Derby : Part 2

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The author concludes her six-stop boat-trailering circuit of the Bay. Will it mean the end of a few friendships, as well?

By Jody Argo Schroath

Hello, Mike? Mike! Hey, welcome back! Listen, I've got a great idea. Let's take your boat over to Wye Landing tomorrow and take a little spin on the river. . . . Oh, come on, the weather is going to be great. . . . You will? Good deal! See you at 8. . . . Okay, 10 is good." 

Wye River boat launch rampWhew, I'd been getting a little worried. After our trip to Elk Neck State Park just after Labor Day, I thought Mike must have lost his cell phone or gone off to Kuala Lumpur, because my calls kept going straight to his voice mail. And that was bad, because I needed Mike—and his 18-foot center-console—to help me finish up my six trailering destinations. 

This is what I'm talking about: Last year, I had come to the conclusion that the only way I was ever going to see more of the Bay than short trips in a sailboat would allow was with a trailerable boat. So I picked out six trailering destinations that I thought covered the Bay quite nicely. The only drawback to this otherwise excellent plan was that I didn't actually own a trailerable boat—unless you counted my dinghy, a nine-foot inflatable with an outboard that dates to just after the Civil War. But happily I did happen to have a few friends who owned perfectly good trailerable boats, and so all I had to do was cajole, threaten or wheedle them into going along with my plans.

I set to work. Mike and the trip to Elk Neck State Park were first. After that, I jollied my friends Kathy and Hal into a trip (with their boat, of course) to Point Lookout State Park. Finally, I lured my husband Rick into making the long trek with the dink to Kiptopeke State Park on the promise of platters piled high with fresh oysters. Three down and three to go. I was in the home stretch. But so was the boating season, and I knew that my friends didn't see balaclavas as a boating-dress option. I was going to have to work fast.

Wye Landing, Wye River

Now that Mike was back, I was off and running again. And so were the seas, as it happened. A tropical storm was lurking out in the Atlantic as Mike and I turned south off U.S. Route 50 onto Old Wye Mills Road and then Wye Landing Road. We could feel the storm's outlying winds push against the truck and trailer. Despite the threat of gale-force winds later that evening, however, Wye Landing's parking lot was full to overflowing. It wasn't surprising. Wye Landing has been a favorite launching spot for watermen, crabbers and recreational anglers far longer than living memory.

"Wye River crabs have always been the biggest and best-tasting," Mike, an Eastern Shore resident, reminded me as he backed the trailer down the ramp. "And the most plentiful," he added wistfully, since plentiful crabs anywhere on the Bay are now a thing of the past. But fishing on the Wye remains good, and crabs are still to be found and enjoyed, so Wye Landing is still a busy place.

The Wye River is a favorite haunt for other kinds of boaters, as well. Cruisers are attracted by its deep water and leafy shores lined with quiet old homes and friendly forests. And it's an ace-in-the-hole for boaters aiming to escape a bad blow. The river splits just beyond its mouth on Eastern Bay into the Wye and Wye East—though they're also known as the Back Wye and Front Wye. In the center of the two lies lovely Wye Island, deeply wooded and now under the protection of the Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area. Connecting the two branches at the top of Wye Island is Wye Narrows, which in turn is crossed by a low (10 feet vertical clearance) fixed bridge.

While Mike went back up the road to find a parking place for the truck and trailer, I sauntered over to Schnaitman's Boat Rental, which occupies several semidetached low wooden buildings across the road from the landing. Inside, owner Charles Schnaitman sells sodas, ice, crab bait and other useful sundries. He also rents rowboats and skiffs with outboards to visiting anglers. On my way into the store, I exchanged a few words with a man sitting on a bench just outside the door, studying his lottery ticket. He was the driver of an "Amish taxi," he said, and was waiting for his fares to return from their fishing excursion. "I bring them down in my van from Pennsylvania quite often," he explained. "They like to come here for the fishing and crabbing." I wondered whether Mike and I would see them out on the river, but we never did—they must have been fishing farther upriver or near the Wye Narrows bridge.

Once inside the store, I bought a couple of bottles of water for the trip and chatted with Schnaitman for a few minutes. "I've been here all my life, and I'm seventy-seven years old," he said. "And my father before me since he was twenty." The business itself is not quite that old, but dates from the 1940s, soon after the end of World War II. "After the Bay Bridge was built [1952], business picked up pretty well," Schnaitman said.

Mike was waiting at the boat when I emerged, and we pushed off quickly to make room for a mother and son, who told us they were pulling their boat out ahead of the storm. The wind was making their work difficult, shoving the boat hard against the dock as they struggled to center it over the submerged trailer. We didn't wait for the outcome. After making a slow lazy circle past the small congregation of workboats straining at their mooring lines, we headed down the river.

Bay boatingAnd what an enchanting river it is. "Like Alph, the sacred river in Xanadu, which runs five miles to a sunless sea," I said to Mike as we eased past Wye Narrows and the tip of Wye Island. "Xanadu as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not Olivia Newton John, of course," I added, rather pleased with myself. Mike's eyes widened briefly as he turned to look at me. "Eastern Bay is a sunless sea?" Mike asked dubiously. "Well, it's mostly cloudy sometimes," I rejoined. But, I knew I was pushing it. "Okay, it's a very charming river," I said, giving up. That's the kind of thing you have to do when you're using someone else's boat. But the Wye—the Wye East especially—really did call to mind that remote and enchanted River "meandering with a mazy motion through wood and dale," as Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan has it. (This is what happens when your ninth-grade English teacher is obsessed with memorization.) Also the Wye is dotted with pleasant homes, which sort of rhymes with "pleasure dome." I know, I'm pushing it again.

Meanwhile, we were passing Pickering Creek, and Mike was being careful to give the points on both the island and mainland side a wide berth because that's where the shoal water is inevitably found. Pickering meanders for about a mile, with depths of 8 to 10 feet nearly to its end. It looks like a great place to anchor, but it's only one of many on the river, and not the favorite. That honor seems to be reserved for Dividing Creek, which pushes into the interior of Wye Island and offers the beauty and protection of thick woods, as well as the convenience of deep water up to its shores. As we passed its entrance we took a look. Sure enough, reliably cozy Dividing Creek had tempted a couple of sailboats to drop anchor. Two sloops were tucked close against the creek's eastern bank, lying in perfectly still water. A little farther downriver, Shaw Bay, which is separated from the river's mouth by Bruffs Island, was hosting a handsome ketch.

Mike stayed well clear of both Bruffs Island to port and Bordley Point to starboard to avoid the shoals as we continued to work our way around Wye Island, now turning north to follow the Wye River. We had intended to follow it as far as Wye Narrows, but the wind was stronger here and we soon tired of bucking the chop. We couldn't have completed the circle anyway because of the low bridge across the Narrows to the island, and since the more populated Wye lacks the lovely coves and creeks of Wye East, Mike turned his bucking bronco around and we headed back the way we had come. Things smoothed out nicely once we were back on the Wye East, and we had a peaceful run back to Wye Landing.

Driving back across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that evening, I congratulated myself on another job well done. Even in the teeth of a storm, the Wye River is a special place. You may no longer be able to stand on the bow of your boat and dip out big beautiful crabs at will, but you can still catch your dinner if you're quick, and you can still enjoy it in the kind of tranquility that, if unchecked, may lead to the recitation of poetry.

But this was no time to rest on my poet laureates. It was time to put my friendship with Kathy and Hal to the acid test. Would they agree to a two-and-a-half-hour trip from their cottage in Kinsale, Va., to Deep Bottom Landing on the James River? Or would the ghost of Point Lookout come back to haunt me? On that trip, while I was enthusiastically tracking down local ghost stories, Kathy and Hal were being haunted by very real mosquitoes and a late-season heatwave.

"Hi guys!" I said when I got home that evening. "Put me on the speakerphone, because you're going to love this. . . . "

Deep Bottom Landing, James River

Yes! The ghost of trailering trip past was banished, and Kathy, Hal and I were off to the James River. I was especially excited about this one because it was going to be all about history. "Today we're going to take a nice cruise down the James to look at some old houses," I said as we climbed into the car and I handed Kathy a stack of old magazines to look at so she wouldn't notice how much time this was going to take. "The reason we're putting in at Deep Bottom Landing is that it's just a few miles upriver from about half a dozen of the James River plantations. And we get the Appomattox River thrown in for good measure." I chattered on enthusiastically and apparently to myself as we crossed first the Rappahannock and then the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey rivers on U.S. Route 360 before turning south on Interstate 295 to bypass Richmond.

"These are the places where Virginia began," I burbled, trying again. Many of these stately homes of America were built not long after the land was patented in the 1600s by the same handful of families who owned and ran everything in Virginia, like the Carters, Harrisons and Byrds. A few of the plantations, like Shirley, are now owned by the 10th and 11th generations of the same families—the Carters and Hills in the case of Shirley Plantation. Another, Berkeley, claims to be the real site of the first Thanksgiving—since the 38 settlers whoarrived there on September 16, 1619, from Bristol, England, were directed by the trip's sponsor to hold a service of thanks for their safe trip. (The Pilgrims, the argument goes, couldn't have celebrated Thanksgiving earlier than that, even if they had done it in 1620, right off the ship, which they didn't.) "And then there's Westover, which was built by the Byrds and had the largest library in the colonies. . . ." I broke off my lecture. Perhaps I should be quiet for a bit, I thought; Kathy and Hal looked as if I were going to ask them to diagram sentences next.

Finally, we turned off the interstate and onto Virginia Route 5. I opened my mouth to enthuse about the beauty of Virginia Route 5, but thought better of it. Here and there the bright October leaves formed canopies of gold and red over our heads as we followed the winding two-lane road, light years—or at least a couple of centuries—away from the rush and congestion of I-295. A few miles later, we turned south toward the river and began the descent to the landing.

Deep Bottom Landing is a Henrico County park with plenty of parking, a playground, picnic area and very nice restrooms. During the Civil War, it was the site of a pontoon bridge that connected Union troops camped on both sides of the James. We were mildly disconcerted to see that more of the boats here seemed to be leaving rather than coming, but we shrugged it off and launched in turn. The current was running fast, though it raised no more than a ripple—no problem for Kathy and Hal's cuddy cruiser, of course. But we did have a little . . . uh, problem. I had left all of the charts and a map pinpointing the location of all the James River Plantations in my car . . . in Kinsale. Oddly, I had brought my brand new GPS. I hadn't actually read the manual yet, but how hard could it be? (Answer: pretty hard. Note to self: Next time, when learning to use a new GPS, choose a body of water less confusing, less congested and less filled with little shipweck symbols than this part of the James. P.S.: Also, do not do it on a day of dazzling sunshine, wicked chop, strong current and wind as sharp as a Ginsu knife.)

It started out pleasantly enough. We left Deep Bottom Landing—which sits at the top of a quiet four-mile loop in the James, now bypassed by a one-mile cut across the bottom—and joined the main channel at the bottom of Jones Neck. We followed the cut in the next loop, which encircles Presquile National Wildlife Refuge—and then all heck broke loose as we emerged into a confusion of channels, industry and a good 20 knots of wind. "Where in the heck are we supposed to go now?" "Where in the heck are we?" "What the heck?" That was Hal. Kathy immediately took a dive into the shelter of the cuddy and stayed there for the balance of the voyage. I stood huddled over the GPS, trying to shield its screen from the sun so I could figure out where we were supposed to go, while looking up to help Hal spot a likely marker. Meanwhile, the GPS resolutely displayed Annapolis harbor, where I had been the only time I turned it on. Finally, Hal made a beeline for the nearest marker and we worked our way around the bend at the junction of the James and the Appomattox rivers at Hopewell. That's when we were joined by the wicked chop, swift-running current and Ginsu wind (see Note to self). But now Hal had found a line of markers to follow, and we charged through the chop from one to the next like a demented hobbyhorse.

At about this time, I remembered why we were here. Between struggling with the GPS and spotting markers for Hal I began scanning the shoreline for very big houses that could possibly be famous plantations. "Look, look," I'd cry, pointing off here and there. "That could be one!"
     Hal, granite-jawed, drove on.
     "Ooof!" said Kathy, inside the cuddy.

As we approached the Benjamin Harrison lift bridge (vertical clearance 50 feet), I finally raised our location on the GPS. This promptly showed a crowd of little shipwreck symbols on the north edge of the channel. I decided to keep the news to myself. On the other side of the bridge we resumed our dialogue. "Look, look, there's a big house!" Silence. "Ooof!"

Back when I was planning this fun trip, I had thought we'd go as far as Weyanoke Point, about 10 miles beyond the bridge. Here the James passes Flowerdew Hundred—a very early and now nonexistent settlement named for its founder's wife, Temperance Flowerdew—and on the opposite bank the plantations Kittewan, North Bend and Upper Weyanoke. But now, I could see we weren't going any 10 miles upriver. I finally cried uncle and we turned for home.

With the boat securely back on its trailer, we returned to Route 5 to visit a couple of the plantations we had passed on the river. The first we came to was Shirley Plantation, which I had spotted in the chaos of our emergence from the cut below the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge. The house and outbuildings at Shirley Plantation were built in 1738, 15 years after Elizabeth Hill, the descendant of the original 1660 patentee Edward Hill, married John Carter, son of Robert "King" Carter, colonial Virginia's wealthiest and most influential resident. In the 1830s, Shirley became the largest agricultural operation in Virginia, and it still has 800 acres of working farm and is owned by Hill-Carter descendants.

Next along the road was Berkeley Plantation, site of the alleged real first Thanksgiving and definitely the home of both Benjamin Harrison V (who signed the Declaration of Independence) and his son William Henry Harrison (our shortest-lived president, who died of pneumonia only a month after taking office in 1841). Benedict Arnold pillaged the house during the Revolutionary War, and General George McClellan occupied it during the Civil War. In 1907, it was purchased by John Jamieson, who had been at Berkeley with McClellan as a young drummer boy. It remains in the Jamieson family.

By the time we were ready to leave Berkeley, the sun had dropped nearly to the horizon, and we still had a long drive before we could call this trip a wrap. It was a pretty quiet drive back to Kinsale. Despite the trip's minor challenges, I thought it had gone rather well. We had cruised on a new river, visited a couple of historic plantations and I had learned a lot about my new GPS. Best of all, perhaps, I had only one more trailering destination to go—Gravelly Point on the Potomac. The trouble was, I was quickly running out of friends . . . and husbands. After Rick and I had returned from our trip to Kiptopeke, he had suddenly decided to take that China trip he'd been trying to avoid for months. Maybe it was going to be just me and my dinghy. Maybe I'd take the dog.

October faded into November and I still hadn't finished the job. I did mention it to the dog one day, but when he rolled over and put his paws up in the air, I got the hint. Then I had an inspiration. The weather forecast for that coming Sunday was stupendous: bright sun, unseasonably warm temperatures, no wind and seas less than a foot. Perfect! I would take my friend Kathy out on the Potomac at Gravelly Point in my dinghy and prove to her that she could go out on the water with me and not return a physical and emotional wreck. Imagine my surprise when she agreed.

Gravelly Point Park, Arlington, Va.

This time, I drove. Kathy, Hal and I piled into the car that Sunday and headed south on the George Washington Parkway with the nine-foot inflatable strapped to its aluminum trailer. Just beyond the Pentagon and I-395, we took the exit for Reagan National Airport and followed the signs past the terminal and back onto the parkway going the other way—north. (Honest, there's only one way into the park, and that's the northbound parkway. The first exit north of the airport is Gravelly Point Park, which sits only a stone's throw and a narrow channel from the end of the runway. This, not surprisingly, makes airplane-watching the park's number-one activity. Boating, however, is a close second.

Old row-boatIt may have been November, but the place looked as busy as a July weekend when we pulled off the parkway and drove into the park. I pulled into a parking place on the grass and unstrapped the dink, then we rolled it down the ramp on its convenient rear wheels and into the water. I'll skip lightly over the 10-minute ordeal of my pulling ineffectually but with bulldog determination on the starter rope. Suffice it to say that we were all surprised—and I was nearly incapacitated—when it finally started. Poor Kathy. Now there was nothing to it but to climb down the dock ladder and find a safe and steady spot in the dinghy.

We were off. I reversed away from the dock and eventually had us pointing in the right direction. I slipped it into forward and we headed out into the Potomac. About two feet over our head, a commercial jet screamed to a landing. Yikes! We headed upriver, watching runners beat along the park's footpath and families playing Frisbee and picnicking. We passed under a succession of bridges (tworail crossings and the three spans that carry I-395) and then headed across the river to a world-class view of Washington, D.C.: the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Capitol, Tidal Basin, FDR Memorial Park. It was all there. And beyond, farther upriver, we could see the Kennedy Center, Georgetown University and the spires of the Washington Cathedral. The sun shone, the banks were lined with fishermen and tourists, we didn't have to find a parking space. It was the kind of sight that never fails to thrill. It was wonderful. What a great way to end my trailering tour of the Bay.

"Log! Log!" Kathy shouted, pointing into the water right in front of us. I jammed the tiller over and the log rolled away on our starboard bow wave. Whew! That was close! I wouldn't want to catch that with the propeller. "Log! Log!" Kathy shouted again just as I had turned to look at the view again. This time I spun us to port and away from the log and the shoreline.
     I was first to spot the next log. And the next. This was worse than dodging crab pots. "It's been really windy lately," I reasoned. "I'm sure it's not like this all the time." I turned sharply to avoid hitting what looked like an entire maple tree.
     "Boat! Boat!" Kathy shouted, and I looked up from scanning the water to see a large powerboat bearing down on us as if we weren't there. I rolled the throttle to full open and pushed the tiller hard over. The powerboat veered away at the last second. Ha, ha.

Now ignoring the famous scenery to our left, we continued to pick our way past East Potomac Park, zigzagging through logs, boat parts and the occasional Big Mac box until I looked up and found we were nearly to Hains Point, where the Anacostia River and the Washington Channel part from the Potomac. I also realized that except for pointing and shouting, Kathy hadn't shifted in her seat since we'd left the dock. I decided it was time for us to head back. Peering carefully upriver and down, I ventured across and back up to the Gravelly Point cut. Hal, who had been happily watching airplanes while we were gone, spotted us coming in and was on the dock to take our painter when we finally found space to squeeze in. Kathy went up the ladder and the two of them pulled me up to the ramp. Together we rolled the dink up the ramp and onto the grass where the boat trailer was parked.
     "Hooray, I've done it," I shouted happily, clapping my hands. "Elk Neck, Point Lookout, Kiptopeke, Wye Landing, Deep Bottom and Gravelly Point. That's the last of the six boat trips! Hasn't this been great?"

It was then that Kathy dropped to her knees and kissed the ground. I'd never seen anyone actually do that before—except maybe the Pope on TV. Why did she do that? I wondered. Well, I've given it a lot of thought since then, and the only thing I can think of is that it was her way of helping me celebrate the end of my project. Yeah, that was really nice of her. I can't wait to tell her what I've got planned for this year. Hey, maybe I should give Mike a call, too. . . .