There has been much written about the magic of sailing the Chesapeake Bay. Wide open water, slightly salty note in the humid air that strokes your face like a silky palm, and fills the sails. Harnessing the elements of the Bay’s brackish tide, bound for Reedville, St Michaels, Annapolis, or destination unknown. But there is another, more intimate way to connect with the engorged tidal coves of the Bay’s thousands of miles of shoreline: by kayak.
Kayakers are tourists on a surgical scale. They explore the twisting oxbows of shallow Chesapeake tributaries in a precise, minute fashion alien to the racing speeds of sailors and power boaters. They amble. They prog. Their behinds are sodden with the tannin-rich water of the hardwood canopy streams, and they have pollen in their hair from dusting along ripening chaffs of wild rice. They are getting nowhere fast, but somehow, the aimlessness itself is the journey- there is so much to see.
Sounds, amplified by proximity, make up an essential element of the landscape at the kayak level. It is a noisy place, these Chesapeake marshes. Red-wings blackbirds cry out in a trilling melody as they sway back and forth like a metronome from the tops of frothy cattail. Osprey chirp, silhouetted by the sun, angling for their supper from a cloud-level vantage point. Bullfrogs belch out some bass notes that will echo as the sun sets and the mosquitoes teem. Every creature, it seems, vies for the spotlight in this backwater stage. It’s supposed to be peaceful, but people think the city can be peaceful, too. In their own way, these creeks are just as bustling, their din just as ceaseless as a metropolitan center. Traffic streams silver down the rivers, raptors substitute for airliners, and insects crowd on tuckahoe leaves like bargain hunters at a flea market.
Kayakers often liken the landcsape they enjoy to a “John Smith” view. Meaning, as untouched, pristine, and unspoiled as the 1607 Bay that Smith explored on his forays from Jamestown. And though much has changed- the bottom is siltier, the water cloudier, the plants pushed aside by non-natives, the crabs and otter confounded by the blue catfish and the nutria, there is much that feels unchanged. Little development has reached these shallow, isolated creeks and streams of the Bay’s tide line. Heron rookeries aren’t uncommon to discover, or beaver dams as wide as a two-lane dirt road. Abandoned houses, half covered in scuppernong vines with glassless windows, stand sentinel along the shorelines. Their fragrant sweetheart roses still perfume the air, unaware that the scenery has changed since the 1920’s. By kayak, the Chesapeake can feel like the world has ended and you are the only person left in the vast wilderness. It can be eerie, but is is generally a good feeling.
But even better are the paddles shared with others, where you raft together and point out all the incredible things to see with too many legs, scuttling away in the sand. You share the sunset like a heaping plate of food until you paddle back home, satisfied and kingly. To paddle around in a low vessel is a slow moving method of exploration, as John Smith well knew, but its also a way to observe and savor the Bay’s heartbreaking beauty both intimately and together.
When you need a reminder that the Bay isn’t done for, and those dead zones they keep talking about on the news aren’t the last word, put some bug spray on and find some shorts that can see a little mud. We’re going for a paddle tonight.