Issue: January 2009
Boat-roller Derby : Part 1

The author puts together a winning, if occasionally unwilling, team for a trailer-boating tour of the Bay. Part One: Elk Neck, Point Lookout and Kiptopeke state parks.

by Jody Argo Schroath | photography by Michael C. Wootton

The most remarkable thing about the whole experience came at the end. This is what happened: My passenger and I had just tugged my inflatable dinghy up the launch ramp at Gravelly Point in Arlington, Va., after an afternoon's trip along the Potomac River, the section where it passes under half a dozen bridges and alongside several of the nation's most famous monuments—the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial and so forth. Lovely trip, sunny day, calm winds, placid water, few boats. Who wouldn't love it, right? Yet, as soon as we reached the grass where the boat trailer was parked, my passenger dropped to her knees and kissed the ground. Really, she actually kissed the ground. Well, I mean, aside from being thoroughly unhygienic—ptooey!—it was downright disconcerting. 
    
Cruising the ChesapeakeAnd puzzling. Where had that come from? I needed to think. So after we had retrieved her husband, who had been watching airplanes take off and land at Reagan National (which is practically the whole reason for Gravelly Point Park because the two are separated by only a small inlet), secured the boat to its trailer and headed up the George Washington Parkway, I cast my mind back to the beginning. I needed some answers.

It had all started one day last summer when I got frustrated with never being able to put together enough days at a time to go anywhere on the Bay farther away than a day or two's sail. With a boat and trailer, I thought, I could take a few weekends and see a lot of different parts of the Bay. Whoa, great idea! In a matter of hours, I could be just about anywhere.

But where to go? I needed advice. I sent off a flurry of e-mails to friends, I stopped strangers on the street. Where would you go? I asked. I put up a map of the whole Bay and purchased a packet of yellow sticky notes. As the answers rolled in, I put up the sticky notes. Too many sticky notes. I consulted books. I Googled. I poured over the Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay. It was time to get tough. As summer drew to a close, sticky notes fell to the floor like dead leaves. Finally, I was down to six sticky notes that stretched from north to south, east to west, rural to city.

Perfect, I thought, I can do six . . . and then I remembered: I don't have a boat—well, not the right kind. I have a full-keel sailboat and a nine-foot dinghy; what I needed was a nice center-console or a cuddy cruiser. In other words, what I really needed was friends.

"Hi Mike, this is Jody. Listen, I've got this great idea. Let's drive up to Elk Neck State Park on Saturday and splash your boat and spend the day tooling around. . . ."

Elk Neck State Park

I had decided to start at the top of the map with Elk Neck State Park, a nearly 2,200-acre preserve that seemed to have everything going for it—camping, hiking, forests, beaches, a lighthouse, four beautiful boat ramps and the confluence of enough rivers to make Times Square look like a Wisconsin two-track. Also it was pretty close to where Mike lives. I know, good thinking. The "neck" of Elk Neck is bounded by the Bay, the Elk River and the Northeast River. The entrance to the Elk River is also the entrance to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, so the traffic is sometimes a little like Times Square too. But then there is also the Bohemia River, the Susquehanna Flats and the Susquehanna River. Talk about your great location.

So on a warm Saturday just after Labor Day, Mike dropped his 18-foot center-console into the Elk River and then made the goodish hike back from the parking lot. We eased out into the river and turned our backs on the early morning sun, heading instead southwest toward Turkey Point, a little less than two miles away, in search of the lighthouse. When we reached it, we had to do an odd thing for the Bay: look up. The Turkey Point Light sits out on the tip of Elk Neck on a 100-foot bluff, which makes it the highest lighthouse on the Chesapeake and pretty darned scenic, especially for those of us flatlanders who live down the Bay and are used to looking at things head on. The lighthouse was dark against the sun, so we turned north up the Bay, hugging the shoreline in order to avoid the Flats. The channel narrowed as we passed the park's swimming beach and approached the mouth of the Northeast River. When we could see Charlestown, Md., on its western shore, we spun around in a froth of wake and headed back to the Elk.

The sun rose, and we winced as the light caromed off the water and smacked us nearly blind. For relief, we slowed to pace a lone workboat that was spinning a seemingly endless line of crab pots to the accompaniment of a local news, weather and Top 40 station on the radio. We exchanged pleasantries—"How's the catch?" "Nice day isn't it?"—and resumed our course. Ahead of us, a few pleasure boats left the park ramps and sped across the river to try the fishing in Cabin John Creek or the Bohemia. Three and a half miles past the Bohemia, at Welch Point, we left the Elk to follow the C&D Canal toward Chesapeake City.

It always comes as a surprise when I find that reliably festive settlement quiet—probably because it so rarely is. But this was off-season and early in the day, so while it wasn't precisely dead, it was certainly subdued. Still, as one trawler pulled away from the public docks, another promptly unhitched its mooring line and moved in to fill the space.

We followed the first trawler as it crabbed skillfully across the current and headed toward the Chesapeake. Back on the Elk, we left the trawler to continue its slow march south and peeled off upriver to Paddy Piddles Cove, just to say we had (which isn't easy—to say, that is), and then on as far as Elk Point, where the channel of navigable water becomes elusive to the point of nonexistence. There we turned around once more and headed back down the river, this time back to the park.

As I waited with the boat while Mike retrieved the truck and trailer, I struck up a conversation with John and Tatham McSimpson of Tuckahoe, N.J., who were just about to pull away from the ramp in their small sleek jet boat. The McSimpsons were spending 11 days at Elk Neck Park, camping out in their RV and making day trips up the Bohemia and Northeast rivers and up the canal to Chesapeake City. They had been to the park several times before and loved its beauty and location.

Jim and Ellen Laws of Salisbury, Md., on the other hand, were making their first visit to the park. The couple and their wee dog were in the midst of a six-day visit to the park, spending nights in their pop-up camper at one of the park's 268 campsites, so Jim could spend his days in the kayak he had recently finished building. Ellen and the wee dog were finding other means of entertainment, like hiking some of the park's trails (most of which allow dogs, wee or otherwise) and visiting nearby towns.

Unloading a kayakAs I watched Jim retrieve his kayak from the top of the car by way of a nifty pneumatic arm that practically dropped it into his outstretched arms, Mike pointedly studied his watch and began to mutter about football games and the rapidly dwindling hours of sunlight. Hey, I'm as sensitive to the wishes of others as anyone. I nodded and we headed out of the park and back to Maryland Route 272.

Score one for the home team. It had been a great choice and a great day on the water, if I did have to say it myself. (And I did, since Mike seemed to have stopped taking my calls.) But there was no time to wallow in self-congratulation. There was work to be done, and I had five more launching ramps to try out. I needed more friends.

"Hi," I said to my friends Hal and Kathy, who own a 17-foot cuddy cruiser and a boat trailer, "I have a great idea. Let's go to Point Lookout State Park this weekend and splash your boat. It'll be fun!"

Point Lookout State Park

What a great spot, I had thought to myself, all the while Point Lookout State Park was surviving wave after wave of sticky-note reductions to make it to the final cut. The thousand-acre park at the bottom of Maryland's St. Mary's County sits at the famously turbulent location where the five-mile-wide Potomac meets the 10-mile-wide Bay. Crossing this area in a sailboat on a good day is supposed to be rather like whistling past the graveyard, though to be honest on the occasions that I've made that passage, I've felt more threatened by a lack of wind and surplus of sun than by storm-tossed seas. Still, the reputation is there. The fish are there too, as any visit to the black and white Point Lookout marker will demonstrate by the shear number of fishing boats clustered around it like a yacht club raft-up at St. Michaels, Md.

But the really important thing about Point Lookout is that it has ghosts, I explained to Kathy and Hal as we pulled The Plan south on Maryland Route 5 on a bright blue Sunday morning in early September. "Un-huh," Kathy said vaguely, flipping through a magazine and clearly not keen to learn more. Hal simply pretended not to have heard me. "Yes, ghosts!" I burbled cheerfully and went on to explain that its lighthouse had been named one of the 10 most haunted in the country. "Manifestations from the spirit world are forever showing up," I enthused. "Some of them are apparently old lightkeeper family members, but most are probably unhappy ghosts from when Point Lookout was the site of the largest prison camp of the Civil War."

Point Lookout started out innocently enough as St. Michael's Manor, the property of Maryland's first governor, Leonard Calvert. Later it became a big summer resort, with beach cottages and a wharf and throngs of happy vacationers. But then came the Civil War and tourism naturally took a nosedive. The ailing resort was leased to the federal government, which quickly established a hospital there for wounded Union soldiers. In 1863, the government began housing Confederate prisoners there as well. Camp Hoffman, a large open palisade with a catwalk for the guards, was built to hold the prisoners, whose numbers increased rapidly from a few hundred in 1863 to more than 20,000 by 1864. The crowding was terrible and the conditions appalling. Thousands—between 3,000 and 8,000—of a total of 52,000 Confederate prisoners died before the last of them were transported South at the end of the war in 1865. One hundred years later, Maryland established Point Lookout State Park.

"It's no wonder there are legions of restless deceased persons careening about the place," I concluded. "Uh-huh," Kathy said absently, reaching down to pick up another magazine. Hal said nothing.

"Look, there's the turnoff for the boat ramp," I said, somewhat relieved. We turned right off the park's main road to follow the signs for the boat slips and launch area, just past the camp store and restrooms (always an important find).

When we arrived, a couple was just backing their boat down the ramp. They were Chip and Emily Jackson, who live on St. Inigoes Creek near St. Mary's City, but explained that they can get to their favorite fishing spots faster by trailering their boat to Point Lookout. On this particular morning, they were after rockfish.

We followed them down the ramp, which sits in a well protected inlet between the Potomac and Lake Conoy. The lake is separated from the Bay on the other side of the Point Lookout peninsula by a long narrow causeway (itself a popular fishing spot). Lake Conoy and Point Lookout Creek, which runs out of it parallel to the Potomac side, are popular canoe and kayaking spots and contain two of the park's three designated water trails. The third trail traces Point Lookout's coastline from the inlet around the lighthouse at the bottom then up to the pet beach at Tanner Creek. We decided to follow that plan, with a side-trip out to the marker to check out the fishing boats.

I hate to say the doomsayers are wrong, but it was another one of those utterly still, totally sunny days, although this time, happily, the day's heat had a soft autumn edge to it. Following the daymarks out of the inlet and past the stone jetty (plenty of anglers here too), we turned south and headed for Point Lookout Lighthouse. As we passed large stands of loblolly pine, we could just make out the remnants of Fort Lincoln, one of several defensive structures built to protect Point Lookout from Confederate invasion. Beyond that, the long sandy beach was filling up with families eager for a fine fall day at the shore. After another stretch of woods, we saw the lighthouse, presiding over land's end in squat and barren isolation. As lighthouses go, Point Lookout Lighthouse seems more house than light, with its two sturdy stories and short light tower. Still, it is haunted, which makes up for a lot of aesthetic shortcomings.

After passing the lighthouse, we followed the narrow spit of land north to the fishing pier (yes, plenty of fishermen here too) and then pressed on until we reached the limits of the park near Tanner Creek and Scotland Beach. Turning back, we had a giddy trip of it, sliding in one unbroken motion, like ice skaters, over the mirror perfect surface of the Bay. We went as far as the black and white Point Lookout marker and sat in stillness with the fishing boats for a few minutes before heading back to the boat ramp. On the way in we passed Chip and Emily Jackson, who were headed in as well. "We caught two blues!" Emily shouted happily.

With the boat back on the trailer, we set off on foot to explore Fort Lincoln. . . . Ouch! Dratted mosquitoes, didn't they know it was autumn? I headed over to the camp store to buy bug repellent and ice cream (fall was losing its edge on all fronts). Inside I found assistant park manager Toshia Gunn, and before you could say "boo" we were talking about ghosts. Gunn was a nonbeliever—ghostwise—until she started working at the park about two years ago. Then late one night she was walking between the shore cottage and Fort Lincoln when she suddenly felt someone walking close behind her. "I could feel her breath on the back of my neck," Gunn said. "She whispered to me, 'Don't worry, it's okay.' " Gunn said she believes that it might have been Stephanie Buckland, one of the nurses attached to the camp hospital during the war who described the conditions of African-American "contraband"—as escaped slaves seeking freedom in the north were called by the Union. Gunn said she has experienced other ghostly visits, especially in the lighthouse. And she has taken pictures of ghosts. "Ask at the Civil War Museum," she said. I immediately dragged Kathy and Hal, swatting mosquitoes and lapping up ice cream, to the museum. Closed. Darn.

Kathy and I set out for Fort Lincoln, while Hal returned to the camp store, where he had spotted a very comfortable looking bench in the shade. We trekked up the road toward the lighthouse, then turned right at the sign and followed the path into the woods.  We emerged near the Potomac shore to find a short plank bridge that took us to the entrance of the fort. One hundred years of hurricanes and winter northeasters had nearly destroyed the walls and buildings of Fort Lincoln by the time the park service and Friends of Point Lookout in 1978 began a long process of stabilizing the remains and then, after finding the original blueprints, restoring the site. Now inside the walls, Kathy and I examined sally port, cannon ramps, officers' quarters and enlisted men's barracks. Before long, however, our enthusiasm waned in the heat of the late afternoon sun. We retrieved Hal from his bench and returned to Maryland Route 5 and the long drive up to the U.S. 301 (Harry O. Nice) bridge and then south down the Northern Neck to their cottage in Kinsale, Va.

That evening, sitting out on Hal and Kathy's dock with a round of cold beers, I awarded myself a gold star for Point Lookout. This is going great, I thought.

The next spot on my list, however, was going to take an extra helping of finesse. Kiptopeke State Park is a "fer piece," as TV Daniel Boone would say, from just about anywhere, unless maybe you live around Norfolk. Sitting at the tail end of Virginia's Eastern Shore, Kiptopeke is practically a stone's throw from the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. In fact, for a while it was the terminus of the Eastern Shore-Virginia Beach ferry.

Who did I know anywhere near there with a trailerable boat? Heck, who did I know there without a trailerable boat? Not a soul. I needed to give my friendship with Hal and Kathy a little break—I was definitely going to need them again later on—and Mike still wasn't picking up his phone—maybe he was in Europe or the Near East. There was only one thing to do. I called home.

"Hello dear," I said when my husband answered, "I have a great idea! Let's drag the dink four-and-a-half hours down the Bay next weekend and splash it at Kiptopeke!"

Kiptopeke State Park

The bad thing was that we missed the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival by a week. The good thing was that it meant we had Kiptopeke pretty much to ourselves. Well, that and the 25-knot wind and three-foot chop. The bad thing about that was the high winds pretty much kept the legions of migrating birds lying low, so we didn't see nearly as many as we could rightly have expected to at that time of the year. Still, we had fun. Even my husband Rick had to admit this as we sat over a table full of 35-cent oysters at J.H. West Seafood in Townsend, Va., that evening. Of course, under those conditions a man is likely to admit to just about anything.

We had left early that morning from Kinsale, where I had left the dink, which meant a trek down to Norfolk and then across the bridge-tunnel. Once back on land, however, it was only another three miles up U.S. Route 13 to Kiptopeke. Once in the park, eager to get out on the water, we made a beeline for the boat ramp, bypassing the beach, the trails and the bird-banding station. We marveled that we had the boat ramp and parking area all to ourselves. Then we looked at the water. It was more white than green. Whew, looks pretty rough out there! Then we looked at our dink. Whew, looks pretty small!

"It'll be fine," I said. "These inflatables are supposed to be pretty much unsinkable." "Hmmm," Rick replied. We unstrapped the boat from its little aluminum flatbed trailer and rolled it off on its stern wheels and down the ramp. Once in the water, I lowered the 1973 Montgomery Ward 9.5-hp two-stroke, pumped the hose and said confidently, "I'll start it up." Rick watched me tug ineffectively at the starter rope a few times, then jumped down and gave it a yank. It started right up. I hate that. "I'll drive," I said. We pulled away from the dock and moved through the short channel, past the 1,000-foot-long fishing pier and into the Bay. Bam, bam bam. We had hit the chop. I grinned, gunned the motor for all it was worth, and aimed for the breakwater.

Now I know that the correct thing to say is that you come to Kiptopeke, especially in the fall, to see the birds. And, since the southern tip of the Eastern Shore in the fall is the migrating bird equivalent of the Bay Bridge on a summer Friday, you could hardly come to a better place. Millions of songbirds and thousands of raptors pass through this area every year. Over the past 30 years, more than 250,000 birds have been banded at Kiptopeke. That's why the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival is the Iowa State Fair of birders with programs, walks, boat rides and lectures. And in the evening, everyone goes out for a riotous owl watch. But to tell the truth I hadn't come to Kiptopeke for the birds. No, I had come to Kiptopeke for the breakwater.

And I wasn't disappointed. Slowing down at my husband's suggestion so as not to actually crash into it, I pulled along up alongside the southernmost edge of the breakwater and took a good look. Stretching 1,500 feet north, paralleling the beach, was a fleet of nine scuttled World War II ships—experimental vessels made of concrete. Glorious! Bashed and battered by years of abuse from the elements, these barely identifiable hulks had great gaping holes and ragged rebar everywhere. As we rose on successive waves of chop, we peered inside the hulls, trying to see these wrecks as the working vessels they once were.

Twenty-four of these ships had been built in Philadelphia for the U.S. Maritime Commission to serve in the South Pacific. Two were sunk as blockships during the invasion of Normandy. After the war, nine were sunk off Kiptopeke to serve as a breakwater. They also became home to legions of osprey, who have built nests all over them, and to millions of fish—so many fish that the breakwater is now considered one of the best fishing spots on the Bay.

When we had passed the last ship in the fleet, we turned south again and looked across the three miles of white caps and foam that separated us from Fisherman's Inlet and the northernmost bridge of the bridge-tunnel. That was where we meant to go, so we could then run up Magothy Bay on the Atlantic side. We looked at each other and laughed. No way! Instead we headed back to the boat ramp at Kiptopeke, rolled the dink back onto its trailer and drove a mile or so down the road to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, a 1,500 acre preserve of wildlife, marshes, trails and water access. Fifteen minutes later we rolled the dink back into the water at the preserve's Wise Point ramp on the Virginia Inside Passage—just where we wanted to be anyway. Is trailer boating great or what?

We spent the rest of the day meandering happily through the marsh waterways, protected from the wind by the grasses that towered over our heads. Here we saw plenty of birds flying among the reeds. Here too we tried to frighten each other with stories about getting lost in the snaking channels and having to live forever more on a nine-foot dinghy.

But we did find our way out, of course, and just in time for an oyster dinner.

Yes, I'd made another great choice! My self-awarded gold stars were adding up. Pretty soon I'd be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Only three trips and already I had been from the top to the bottom of the Bay. But I had three more to go, and these would be three very different places. No more long vistas and wide open spaces. These would be intimate, sometimes urban, always beautiful. I couldn't wait to get going.

"Hello, Mike? Mike! Hey, welcome back! Listen, I've got a great idea. . . ."

Next month, we'll be back on the road (and the water) with our final three great trailering destinations—Wye Landing, Deep Bottom Landing and Gravelly Point Park—and the answer to that nagging question: What's with this ground-kissing thing, anyway?

Read Part 2 »

Cruiser's Digest: Where to launch

All of this month's three great trailering destinations offer a variety of walking trails, camp sites, cottages and swimming opportunities in addition to excellent water access.

Elk Neck State Park, North East, Md., off Maryland Route 272 (410-287-5333; www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/elkneck.html). Day use: $3/car weekdays; $3/person weekends and holidays; non-Maryland residents add $1. Boat ramp: $10; non-Maryland residents $11. Note that plans are in the works to rebuild the boat ramp area, but no start-date has been set, so a call to the park before you go would be advisable.

Point Lookout State Park, Scotland, Md., at the southern end of Maryland Route 5 (301-872-5688; www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/pointlookout.html). Day use: $3/car weekdays; $5/person weekends and holidays; non-Maryland residents add $1. Boat ramp: $10; non-Maryland residents $11.

Kiptopeke State Park, Cape Charles, Va., off U.S. Route 13, three miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (757-331-2267; www.dcr.Virginia.gov/state_parks/kip.shtml). Day use: $3 weekdays; $4 weekends. Fishing pier: $3. Boat ramp: $4 with Virginia saltwater fishing permit; $8 without. Boat ramp parking: $3. Just south of Kiptopeke is the Eastern Shore of Virginia & Fisherman Island Wildlife Refuge (757-331-3425; www.fws.gov/northeast/easternshore/index.html), with boat ramp ($10).