An autumnal migration down the bay

November 03, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- As another October faded, there was a new look to the afternoon light. On a couple of mornings there had been a touch of frost, and the nights were filled with the sound of migratory geese. On an autumnal migration of my own, I set out in my old wooden boat for the Eastern Shore.

It's a migration which raises eyebrows in Havre de Grace. ''Denton? You're taking your boat to Denton for the winter? That's a hundred miles away!'' Well, it's about 103, actually, and at the rate the Sea Horse chugs, it's a 10-hour trip. I could save that time by wintering closer to home.

On to Denton

What's hard to explain is that the trip's part of the point. In Denton, the boat will be in the capable care of Bob Stine, whose Black Dog Boatworks got her through her initial Coast Guard inspection a year ago. While she's due a reinspection this winter, the main reason for the trip was that I wanted to take her there, on a two-day trip over some of the prettiest water in the Chesapeake.

''The most polluted estuary in America,'' one of our local writers recently called the bay, conjuring up an image of oil slicks and dead fish, the latter probably bearing Pfiesteria scars. Maybe it is. I'm not qualified to argue the point, not being an expert on American estuaries. But it's still a remarkable place, as my recent trip reassuringly confirmed.

I left by myself late on a breezy Friday morning, in time to catch the last two hours of the ebbing tide. Going down the channel through the Susquehanna Flats, I passed two adult bald eagles on a little sand spit, pecking at what appeared to be a fish.

''Carrion,'' the sour local writer would probably have declared. ''More evidence of pollution.'' Maybe. But, not so many years ago, when raw municipal sewage ran everywhere into tidewater and fish were full of DDT, there were no eagles to be seen.

Beyond Spesutie Island, where J.P. Morgan used to maintain a hunting lodge before the Army took it over, the channel doglegs into the open bay. Here the south wind blowing over the shallow water was kicking up a messy Chesapeake chop. Spray flew and I turned on the windshield wiper, but the old boat plowed ahead like a John Deere tractor, the diesel thumping away.

After about four hours of that, we slipped under the Bay Bridge, and half an hour later were tied up in safe little Kentmorr Harbor on the western shore of Kent Island. The local charter-boat fleet was just coming in, and there were big fall rockfish on display everywhere.

A friend came down from home that night to finish the trip with me. We had dinner ashore and spent the night on board. It was raining by nightfall, but the cabin was as snug as a room at the Red Roof Inn, though it smelled of wet boots. A propane lantern gave us light and warmth. A little bourbon did the same. The slight motion of the boat was soothing, and I fell asleep listening to the rain pattering overhead.

Through Knapps Narrows

In the morning it was foggy, but after coffee and oatmeal, we got under way, making our way cautiously through the Tilghman Island fishing fleet anchored just west of Poplar Island. We took the shortcut through Knapps Narrows into the Choptank River and headed for Cambridge, where we passed the Pride of Baltimore, under power and outbound for the bay. Her passengers waved at the Sea Horse. I hoped they admired her; in her own modest way she's as authentic a Chesapeake vessel as the Pride.

Above Cambridge, the legendary Choptank winds through a spectacular, lonely landscape of farms, marshes and hardwood forests, imperceptibly narrowing as it goes, for another 30 miles to Denton. Denton, where the steamboats stopped, is generally considered to be the head of navigation. But you can go another eight miles or so by small boat to Greensboro, which I've done, and several miles more to the river's swampy headwaters by canoe or kayak, which I hope to do some day.

Each bend in this river is full of history, not all of it happy and only a fraction of it recorded. The tribe whose name it carries once hunted here; what happened to them is a sad, familiar story. There's a high bank where Pleistocene-era marine fossils, from a time when there was no Chesapeake Bay, can still be found by those who scratch around for them. There are places where there are only ghosts.

Just upriver from where the town of Dover, briefly the seat of Talbot County, once stood, the Dover drawbridge opened for us, and we passed through. I thanked the bridge operator on the radio, and he said ''Any time,'' which isn't quite true. The old bridge has its mechanical problems, and has been known to get stuck. But the helpful sentiments were sincere.

By midafternoon the Sea Horse was tied up in Denton, and we were on our way home by land, still a little awed by all we'd seen. Rural Maryland has its problems, all right, but despair is probably premature.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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