Cruising Maryland's Historic Waterways

September 16, 1990|By Pat Emory

Wispy strands of wild rice, planted by colonists -- the first to try to harness the Pocomoke River's wild banks -- flutter in the breeze as Tillie the Tug, a pint-sized tugboat, chugs its way down this river.

As the narrow but deep Pocomoke weaves east, then west in a seemingly never-ending series of bends, the river's wild beauty unfolds little by little for the dozen or so passengers on board.

Freshwater lilies, their pretty yellow blossoms turned under out of sight, choke the shallows near the shore. From a day marker in the channel, an osprey lifts its great wings in flight as a bright red canoe, the only other boat in sight, rounds a bend.

But it's the thick groves of bald cypress trees, whose knotty knees rise out of the murky brown waters to nurture a canopy of feathery leaves, that dominate this panoramic view down the Pocomoke and silences the passengers who stare in awe.

Less than a decade ago, the Pocomoke, like all the beautiful rivers of the Eastern Shore, belonged solely to the people who lived along its shores or to those able to afford a cruising boat with which to explore the river. But today many of these scenic waterways can be viewed from the sunny deck of a tour boat -- or, when the weather doesn't cooperate, from the comfort of temperature-controlled enclosures.

Several cruise boats, including Tillie the Tug,operate around the Shore. They carry visitors down waterways lined in saltwater marshes or freshwater lily pads, past acres of corn and wheat, exposing waterfront Colonial mansions and expensive estates seldom seen by the general public.

Some cruise lines carry the visitor to remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay, and the most recent addition to the growing tour boat business -- the Chesapeake Flyer -- goes all the way across the Chesapeake Bay from Rock Hall to Baltimore and Annapolis, the way ferries used to do.

It's the old-time charm of the Shore -- with its rural landscapes, rustic fishing boats and towns filled with historic buildings -- that attracts visitors from all over to board the boats.

"People can't believe the beauty that's down here," said Dave Etzel, owner and captain of the Patriot, a tour boat that cruises the Miles River, an area known for its historic mansions.

Visitors aboard the Patriot get more than just rural countryside, sea birds and an occasional pretty sunset to view. Mr. Etzel and his wife, Norma, who bought the Patriot in 1981, educate their passengers on everything from the ecology of the bay and what they can do to help save it to the history of the Shore, including how the residents of St. Michaels mounted lanterns in the trees during the War of 1812 to fool the British into over-shooting the town.

Passengers also learn a little Eastern Shore folklore, such as where Blackbeard buried his pirate's treasure, which manor houses still are haunted by ghosts and why one man built himself a pink castle with hidden passageways.

If passengers aboard the Patriot are lucky, they may view a race between century-old log canoes, spot a meticulously restored vintage Elco (built to run rum off the coast around 1919) or enjoy the sight of watermen tonging for oysters, crabbing or clamming along the rivers.

But sightseeing is not the only lure of the river cruise. There'ssomething about the constantly changing vista from a boat as it motors down a quiet river that seems to attract people who could just as well be conducting their activities on land.

Tillie the Tug, a reproduction tug built in 1981 and licensed to hold 22 passengers, already has been the platform for two weddings.

The Patriot occasionally strikes up the band as it heads out St. Michaels Harbor. Then by moonlight, as many as 150 passengers dance to the evening's theme -- whether it be the ever-popular "Jimmy Buffett Night" or the brass sounds of a 1930s jazz and blues band. Occasionally a dinner theater production is offered.

The Maryland Lady, a reproduction paddle-wheeler in Salisbury, serves as a floating restaurant. Several days a week, owners Dick and Dot Smith cater lunch and dinner aboard the boat, which has an air-conditioned/heated lower deck. Even sightseeing tours include hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. The couple used to operate a restaurant in Ocean City before having the boat built in 1987.

The Chesapeake Flyer, a high-speed catamaran, was temporarily grounded after striking one submerged object in the Patapsco River in July and another in Baltimore Harbor late last month. It offers sunset dinner cruises on the Chesapeake out of Rock Hall on the upper Eastern Shore, as well as several round-trips a day out of Rock Hall.

Perhaps the most enticing cruises are the daylong adventures to Tangier Island, Va., and Maryland's Smith Island, remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay, inhabited mainly by watermen and their families.

Located eight to 10 miles off the Eastern Shore, the islands can only be reached by boat or plane. Cruises leave Crisfield and Onancock, Va., and take about 90 minutes.

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