For would-be explorers of Chesapeake Bay country, the good news is that the 200-mile-long estuary has literally thousands of miles of tidal shoreline -- more than 3,000 in Maryland alone, so intimately and extensively do land and water intermingle.
The bad news is that all but a small percentage of it is off-limits to the public, in private and military ownership.
The solution? In a word (a palindrome at that) -- kayak. We're talking sea kayaks here, slender, 14- to 18-foot craft, decked their entire length except for a cockpit, often with watertight storage at either end that can hold a change of clothes, lunch or gear enough for a weeklong camping trip.
They glide along with significantly less effort than a canoe, and are able enough that an experienced paddler can negotiate open bay waters that would daunt many a small power boat.
A kayaker moves quietly at about hiking speed, 3 to 4 mph, perfect for observing nature. The two-handed technique used to work the double-bladed paddle involves all the muscles of the upper body. It is highly efficient, easy on the joints and, once you settle into a rhythm, superbly meditative.
Kayaks can poke into water as shallow as six inches, the critical factor for appreciating the bay's shallow margins. The Chesapeake, which measures from Havre de Grace to Norfolk about a million feet long, and up to 100,000 feet wide in places, averages just 21-22 feet in depth. The bay only looks as if there is a lot of water in it.
It is often said that the right kayak ought to fit like a good pair of jeans. Indeed, I'd never recommend someone buy a sea kayak without paddling it awhile -- and rentals are reasonably available. (By contrast, whitewater kayaks are short and stubby, meant for negotiating rapids, and so-called sit-on-top kayaks are clumsy to paddle for long distances and give no protection from the elements.)
It's that "fit" that is a large part of the joy of kayaks. You feel the water's motion, share a sense of oneness with current and waves in a way that is unlike any other watercraft.
Great day paddles
The rising popularity of sea kayaking is attested by the growing number of books on the subject.
And now we have a fine one specific to here -- Sea Kayaking Maryland's Chesapeake Bay ($18.95, Countryman Press). Authors Michael Savario and Andrea Nolan are former outdoor educators for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who formed their own kayak guiding company, Amphibious Horizons, out of Annapolis.
They both embrace the wisdom of Rat in The Wind in the Willows: "There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half as much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
The book, in readable, narrative style, consists of the authors' 30 favorite day paddles. Their nicely chosen list visits virtually all of Maryland's tidewater counties, with 13 paddles on the western shore and 17 on the Eastern Shore. Distances range from five to 26 miles, with lots of optional routes.
My wife, Jenny, and I, along with Sun photographer Kim Hairston, took the book for a test drive on either end of Maryland's Chesapeake, which found us recently in Crisfield, securing our kayaks atop Capt. Larry Laird's Capt. Jason II, the small passenger ferry that runs twice daily to the tiny, offshore village of Tylerton, population 58.
Tylerton is one of three communities on Smith Island in the center of the bay. This is the only trip in the book that would be hard to do in a day -- but who wouldn't want to linger on Smith Island?
So much of what makes the Chesapeake special lies in its long edges. The habitats of marsh, underwater grasses and shallow bottoms that overlap richly wherever land and tidewater merge, stoke fecundity and diversity, from bald eagles and ospreys to soft crabs and striped bass; from dozens of species of wading birds and waterfowl to oysters and otters, pelicans and periwinkles, horseshoe crabs and diamondback terrapins.
And marshy Smith Island, perfused with the bay like some great, amorphous jellyfish, riven by countless creeks and sloughs and channels, is virtually one endless edge.
It will tell you something of its paddling potential that I lived there -- with a kayak -- for nearly three years, and never once took the specific route outlined by Savario and Nolan (or dozens of other possibilities, for that matter).
Savoring the brogue
The 45-minute ferry ride across Tangier Sound ends at the county dock, where you are met by LeRoy Friesen, who with his wife, Sharryl Lindberg, own and run the Inn of Silent Music, Tylerton's only bed and breakfast. They are former seminary and college professors who moved to the island from Washington several years ago. Guests praise the quality of conversation at the inn almost as much as the gourmet food.