3-day journey through the `heart of Delmarva'


Nanticoke: It's not picture-perfect but, for interest and personality, this tidal river stands out.

November 19, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"HEART OF Delmarva" sounds like an advertising slogan, and probably will be one, albeit in an eco-friendly way.

It perfectly describes the route of a recent three-day kayak voyage with a few friends -- fewer each day, but even friendlier as the water got wider and the wind blew harder.

Our route, which overlapped warm autumn's last ebb and winter's first flood tide, meandered through the drainage basin of the Nanticoke River.

The watershed cuts northeast to southwest, through the center of the Delmarva Peninsula, encompassing Georgetown, Del., on the east, Hurlock on the west, extending a bit north of Federalsburg and Seaford, Del., debouching finally into Tangier Sound between Elliott's Island and the lower Wicomico County village of Nanticoke.

In more than a thousand square miles, the watershed holds fewer than 80,000 people. It lies roughly 60 percent in Maryland, and 40 percent in Delaware and is split mostly between agriculture and forests (80 percent of the basin).

If you were to seek a picture-perfect river, you might go elsewhere -- to the Allagash in Maine, or one of those cypress-girt, moss-hung beauties that wind through the southern coastal plain.

But that is snapshot beauty. For depth of interest and multidimensional personality, you can't beat the tidal rivers of the Chesapeake, of which the Nanticoke is among the best examples.

We paddled, from Saturday to Monday, from stream to open Chesapeake, from freshwater spawning grounds of shad and herring through brackish water nurseries visited by 90-pound striped bass each spring, to salty environs where oystermen tong and horseshoe crabs emerge onto beaches to bury their eggs by the light of the June moon.

We paddled from a quiet stream, overarched by oaks and maples and gums, through wild-rice marshes and forested swampland, to milewide reaches, bounded by salt marsh stretching like prairie to the horizon.

And all in just 40 miles. All within the embrace of bay tides, whose ebb and flood dictated our schedule.

Day 1 was Federalsburg to the mouth of Marshyhope Creek, the Nanticoke's main tributary. We began with 31 paddlers and one renegade in a canoe rigged for sailing, complete with coontail flying from the mast.

It was a day of quiet water, smoky golden light, reflections of autumn leaves in smooth bends, and a heron on a loblolly pine in afternoon light that made it an extraordinary blue.

It was also a day to marvel at what is making this the most exciting and momentous time in the almost 50 years I've been messing about this old river.

Mile after mile of forested bank is part of Maryland's recent 56,000-acre purchase of private lands around the Shore, much of it in the Nanticoke basin.

It was in sustainable commercial forestry use, and it was well-managed by Chesapeake Forest Products, but many of its choicest parts were ripe for development.

Similarly, our first campsite, Walnut Landing, a 190-acre farm at the confluence of the Nanticoke and Marshyhope, has recently been preserved by the Nature Conservancy, which has made the river one of its priorities in Maryland.

Day 2 meandered through a spectacular forested wetland, passable only to paddlecraft. The Nature Conservancy is preserving this, too.

Here the banks were ablaze with the orange and red berries of viburnums, hollies and other species. Every month of the year, something different is in blossom or fruit here, a different color or fragrance.

As the river widens around Vienna, and the wind gusts warm and hard from the southwest, we struggle to make camp before the tide turns.

Toward sunset, tents snugly braced on a local farmer's riverfront field against a forecast northwest blow, the south wind falls out for perfect calm and pastel reflections. After paddling for six hours, the best thing a few of us can think of to do is go out and paddle until near dark.

Our perfect campsite, like Walnut Landing the night before, is what makes this trip possible -- also not possible for most readers of this column, because public access to the Nanticoke -- and to the Chesapeake Bay -- is woefully lacking.

But that is changing. It's part of the purpose of the trip, which includes state officials who want to develop a system of water trails on the river, and someday around the entire Chesapeake, using public and private lands.

That 56,000-acre purchase has been making everyone think bigger, made them think that this "heart of Delmarva" thing could be expanded to make something truly extraordinary for the outdoor public, akin to New York's Adirondack Park, or Minnesota's Boundary Waters wilderness canoe area.

That night the front comes down, and in an hour we go from swatting mosquitoes to watching flocks of wild swans riding the wind's edge from Canada.

Day 3, Monday, is another world, of big water and whitecaps, eagles soaring in a crystal blue sky, and hugging the shore for any lee we can get. Federalsburg and Saturday seem a lot more than 40 miles behind.

By trip's end, down to nine paddlers now, some of us have mixed feelings about opening the river. It is too good not to share, and it will build a constituency, one hopes, to restore the bay. But it won't be the same, coming around a bend and meeting other parties, or finding we have missed the quota for a campsite that weekend.

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