The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy like a stage light, drawing our attention to another bend in the river. We were making our way slowly upstream from Porters Crossing in a shallow channel at times not much wider than our canoes. Except for a woodpecker off in the distance, the only sound to be heard was the whoosh of paddles breaking the water.
Were we experiencing the river much differently than the Pocomoke Indians who lived here three centuries ago? Probably not, although they were likely on the river searching for food. We were looking for the great blue heron we had spotted earlier in the woods. There was no worry about provisions. Our made-to-order lunches had been packed by the inn where we had spent the night.
And on a hot summer afternoon, your refresher course can easily become one of total immersion: flop out of the canoe and go for a swim.
Best of all, enjoy the satisfaction of being under your own power. Canoes are wonderfully simple vehicles -- you paddle, they go. There are no motors, batteries or gears, nothing to program, gas-up or recharge. And while the paddling is only mildly strenuous, it's deeply relaxing.
The beautiful Pocomoke
The Pocomoke originates in a cypress swamp on the Maryland-Delaware border and flows more than 50 miles through Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties and a small portion of Virginia before emptying into Pocomoke Sound at the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, it turns from freshwater to brackish, a distinguishing feature between the upper and lower sections of the river, and a fact that has caused the lower Pocomoke trouble in the recent past.
In 1997, the toxic microorganism Pfiesteria killed fish and sickened people on the lower Pocomoke, prompting the state to close part of the river for nearly a week.
The upper Pocomoke, it seemed, was guilty by association. Even though the Pfiesteria outbreak was not a threat to the river's freshwater upper reaches -- the organism requires a saline environment in which to grow (see box) -- tourists stayed away and businesses suffered.
Fish kills this summer on the lower Pocomoke were not caused by Pfiesteria, officials have determined, but a lack of oxygen in the water attributed to the area's prolonged drought. The lower Pocomoke, however, continues to be closely monitored for Pfiesteria.
Barry Laws, owner of the Pocomoke River Canoe Co. in Snow Hill, says some tourists still call to inquire about Pfiesteria, but since last summer, "people from out of the area are starting to come back."
Even so, the upper Pocomoke feels like an undiscovered treasure. During our trip, there were a few other canoes on the water, and some fishermen angling for bass, but mostly we had the river to ourselves.
Even when you encounter other people, chances are you won't see them for long. With so many cuts and turns in the river, solitude is never far away.
The Pocomoke meanders through one of the northernmost cypress swamps in America. Bald cypress, more commonly found in the South, grow along the river's edge and directly in the water. Their unusual roots protrude up and out of the water, forming crooks, or "knees." These strange, exotic knee formations are thought to deliver oxygen to the root system, and they are loads of fun to look at.
Your back-to-nature course continues around every bend, as you float past clusters of water lilies, small islands and stands of evergreen, sweet gum and cypress, or as your eyes follow a turkey vulture circling lazily overhead.
Still, it is difficult to escape civilization entirely. Our first day out, about a half-mile north of Snow Hill, an unmistakable -- and unwelcome -- smell wafted over the trees from Route 113: Did somebody say McDonald's?
Encroachment on the natural world may be relentless, but then again, let's not go overboard knocking civilization. When your day on the river is done, you want a hot shower and a cold drink. You want a soft pillow for a nap and, later, a great meal. And you want all that in pleasing and comfortable surroundings. And why not? After an adventurous day of intrepid exploration, you deserve it.
So let the pampering begin.
The River House Inn is a handsome, 1860 Gothic Revival house with inviting porches and equally inviting gardens. A rolling lawn sweeps down to the river, and after dinner by candlelight, as night falls, you can stroll down to the water, sit by the willow tree and count your lucky stars.
If you're staying at the Garden and the Sea Inn, it's a 25-minute car ride from Snow Hill, which stretches the concept of canoeing inn to inn, but never mind, the Garden and the Sea is a great place.