Bald eagles and big sky

Short Hop

Virginia: Surprise! It's not Montana -- it's the lower Eastern Shore, as seen up close from sea kayaks.

May 09, 1999|By Carolyn McCulley | Carolyn McCulley,Special to the Sun

Driving to Virginia's Eastern Shore, you quickly realize that you're headed into big sky country. The flat landscape serves as a pedestal for the wide vistas of azure sky and white clouds overhead. Leaving urban congestion behind and downshifting into a slower pace feels pretty good, too, especially when you feel as if you've arrived somewhere distinctly unlike the rest of the region.

The Eastern Shore is different, but not in a pushy, overly obvious way.

Its treasured offerings are presented on a microlevel, where one has to stop and appreciate the rich environment that has been preserved there. It is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers destination -- for it's in the pause to survey what's around you that you will suddenly see the area come into focus.

As an urban dweller, I tend only to notice what may be a threat to me. The rest is just benign scenery. I do not recognize unmoving distant lumps on trees until someone makes me focus on them. But focus I did when my guide on an Eastern Shore Escapes sea kayaking trip noted with excitement that one of the lumps was an immature bald eagle. Or when he pulled marsh grass out of the water to explain the delicate ecosystem. This educational component escalated an adventure trip of sea kayaking from an exercise of the arms to an exercise of the mind. Add to that the luxuries of a catered lunch Martha Stewart-style and the comforts of an outstanding bed and breakfast, and you've got a trip that appeals to body, mind and soul. With its weekend ecotourism packages, Eastern Shore Escapes provides much more than destination excursions.

Although I could pick from several adventure packages, I chose the sea kayaking over biking or birding simply as personal preference. The weekend began with a Friday night toast on the screened gazebo of the Burton House bed and breakfast, a restored 1883 home in Wachapreague. The Burton House has seven spacious rooms, each with its own private half-bath and period antiques. The night I arrived, the annual carnival to benefit the local fire department was in full swing -- one of the few surviving remnants of small town American culture.

The next day, Burton House owners Tom and Pat Hart were up early to cook a full breakfast for those headed out kayaking. We enjoyed homemade blueberry muffins, cheese omelettes, bacon, fruit and coffee, served at a large dining-room table to guests from various points in the mid-Atlantic area and even Europe. Then we headed out to the Chesconnessex boat ramp to meet with the others in our group for the weekend escape.

Ecotourism manager Scott Schreiber had all the tandem kayaks ready to go for his 24 guests, and he provided a brief lesson on sea kayaking, which is much more like canoeing than whitewater kayaking. These boats were flat-bottomed and didn't cover our legs, but did provide support for the lower back. Though the company assures guests that no kayaking experience is needed, it is a good idea to ask how long the trip will be. Our trip was 12 miles, which is a lot of paddling for novices. Though the group included many seasoned paddlers ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s, we struggled that particular day against 25-mile-an-hour headwinds, a rare occurrence.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed the sunny weather and the ecological instruction from Jim Rapp, of the Salisbury Zoo. Rapp pointed out birds, provided tips on preserving ecosystems, stopped us to talk to a professional crabber, and gave a history of the area as a native of the Eastern Shore. We stopped mid-morning on a marsh island beach for rest and more education. Rapp and Schreiber pulled out a net and pulled in a number of tidal treasures, including fistfuls of silversides, a bait fish.

Lunch, catered by a local firm, Confetti's, in Onancock, was brought in by boat to Wise Point. When we paddled up to the shore, fresh flowers stood as a centerpiece among many hunter-green picnic blankets set up with linen napkins and real silverware. We feasted on chicken salad and a croissant plus tabbouleh, broccoli salad and pasta salad -- topped with caramel-apple spice cake and chocolate-chip cookies. While we lay about with full stomachs, we were provided with an unusual show of a waterspout descending from rain clouds in the distance.

The rest and refreshment were good, because the wind was kicking up and we would need to paddle hard for the rest of the afternoon. We were undaunted, and pressed on to explore tidal marshes so shallow that we barely floated over the bottom at times, or with grasses so tall you couldn't see around the next bend. The adventure was capped with a group seafood dinner at the Eastern Shore Steamboat Company on the Onancock wharf and a second night in the Burton House. The trip concluded with Sunday's two-hour, four-mile trip along Folly Creek on the ocean side of the peninsula, with far less wind.

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