After some major changes in our summer plans, I was looking for a longer-distance paddle close to home, which led me to the Chesapeake Bay.   I also hadn't done a solo paddling trip in a LONG time, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to spend more than a week of my precious vacation time away from my wife, who was pregnant and wasn't up to paddling.  The approximately 200 mile paddle along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, starting at the mouth of the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace, Maryland, and ending at the confluence of the Bay and the ocean, looked like a good bet.  There were, however, a few issues, the largest amongst them being where to camp.  The eastern shore of the Chesapeake is much less developed than the western shore, and is also home to large wildlife refuges, where the federal government and the state governments of Maryland and Virginia are attempting to undo decades of damage to the Bay's ecosystem.  After a lot of research and some helpful input from kayakers familiar with the area I put together a plan that seemed plausible.  My main concern was that unlike my civilian counterparts, as an officer of Marines, getting a ticket or a summons for "commando" camping on private or public lands was a major issue.  Walking into my commanding officer's office post-leave and saying "I got a ticket for illegally camping" would not go over well.  If I happened to mistakenly disturb a sensitive nesting site and got a summons from Department of Natural Resources Police, that would be a career-ender.  For those unfamiliar with the military discipline system, that probably seems far-fetched, but it's the reality of the situation. That left me with very few options for camping overnight.  I identified several commercial campgrounds along my route, but these were 30-40 miles apart, which was definitely possible in a day's paddle, especially with 14 hours of daylight, but highly dependent on good conditions.  I had intended to depart on a Sunday, stay overnight in Havre de Grace and get a very early start the next morning, but I delayed departing for a day since there was a small craft advisory for the area and the first day necessitated a six mile crossing of the Bay.  I left on Monday, with the forecast showing that the wind would moderate on Tuesday, but the small craft advisory was extended for another day.  As my wife and I had a delicious seafood lunch at a restaurant at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, I decided to stick to my mantra of "don't contract get-there-itis" when you're sea kayaking.  It's always better to just take a day off and wait for better conditions since it's pretty much a guarantee that you're going to lose against the elements.  The next day was also very windy with a small craft advisory, so we decided to take a drive down the eastern shore and explore a bit.  The contrast with the western shore is marked.  The eastern shore is dominated by small towns and farms and feels much more remote that I thought it would.   We stopped at a small, but very nice beach in Betterton, MD, and had soft shell crab at Waterman's Crab House in Rock Hall.  This would also be a great area to go bike touring with it's plentiful inns and wide shoulder bike lanes.   I was glad that I had taken the day off since the wind was whipping up the Bay into whitecaps. 

Day 1: Havre de Grace to Rock Hall, 36 miles

Launching from Havre de GraceThe next morning we got up at 0400 aSplashy Crossingnd were at Tydings Park by 0440, where it was already starting to get light. The plan had evolved to paddling part of the day and then spending the rest of the time with my wife, so that we could have the best of both worlds.  Nevertheless, I packed my Explorer as if I was going to spend 10 days unsupported since you never know what's going to happen when you kayak.  I launched at 0530 on Wednesday the 27th of June into the calm waters of the bay.  I had originally planned to paddle from the launch point to Turkey Point and then from Turkey Point across to Wroth Point on Pond Neck, but with only a moderate 10-15 knot breeze blowing, I opted to cross the Bay directly from Spetsutie Island to Howell Point at the southern mouth of the Sassafras River.  As I rounded Sandy Point, the last land before I did the crossing, I saw the mass of old jeep wheels and tires and other unidentifiable twisted metal wrecks of object blown to bits at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  The area is restricted for good reason, and even a rather strong urge to make a bathroom stop before doing the six mile crossing wasn't good enough to attempt a landing.  As I rounded the point the wind, which was blowing straight up the Bay, gave me the kind of paddling conditions that I love most:  sunny skies, a brisk breeze to keep me cool and some nice two to three foot waves to crash through (Movie: Crossing Chesapeake on Day 1).   I powered through the six mile crossing in a little over an hour, oftentimes burying the bow of my Explorer completely into the waves.  It was serious fun until the wakes of three freighters and a Coast Guard cutter transiting the channel to the canal turned the relatively consistent waves into confused seas, tossing my kayak about at crazy angles as the wakes converged with each other and the waves, often leading to areas where steep, foamy waves rebounded off each other and caused me to grunt with effort as my bow of my kayak reacted to the influence of completely different waves than the stern.  I found that the best solution was to paddle as hard as possible, splashy crossingwhich helped smooth out the bumps in the road and kept the kayak on a consistent course.  Overall, however, it was a great, fast, crossing and I took a quick break on the opposite shore before turning southward.  I had launched at peak high tide, which would continue giving me a boost until noon, so I paddled at a nice clip along the shoreline taking in the egrets, herons, bald eagles and generally unspoiled shoreline.  The heat wave that had been hitting the area got into full swing on that day and temperatures passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but I focused on steady progress, drinking Gatorade every 15 minutes or so, and snacking on something every hour on the hour.  I had a good rhythm going and when I got too hot I splashed myself.  After taking a break at Tolchester Beach I pushed on to the Bay Shore Campground in Rock Hall, MD, landing at around 1500 after covering 36 miles in about 9 hours of paddling, excluding breaks.  While this is an RV-focused campground, it's actually quite nice, very well kept, clean, and has tent-only sites away from the vehicles.  The launching point is a sandy beach and if you bring a set of kayak wheels to get to the tent sites, it's a solid place to camp at, although with temperatures still past 100 degrees, we opted to find a place to stay in Rock Hall since my wife was overheating easily due to her pregnancy.   It only took us a few minutes to find a very nice and affordable room at the Black Duck Inn, which also has a dock next to it.  That got my wife out of the heat and we spent the rest of the afternoon in Rock Hall.   One additional thing of note for this first day was that there was a significant amount of riprap and sea wall along the shore the entire day.  In many cases I paddled more than a mile before there was an emergency landing point.

Day 2: Rock Hall to Tilghman Island, 29 miles

It's Hot!We rolled out of bed at 0400 again and loaded up my kayak.  There was a nice breeze blowing and I was about to climb in the cockpit when my wife pointed out what looked like lightning in the distance.  It was hard to tell whether is was lightning a navigational light since we didn't hear any thunder, but we checked the forecast, which we had just checked a few minutes before, to find that in that 10 minute period a severe thunderstorm alert had been issued for a system that was moving towards us at 50 mph.  I pulled my loaded kayak up further on the beach and we hunkered down for an hour as a massive thunderstorm tore through the area.  At one point it was raining or hailing so hard that it actually hurt to stand outside.  Even this violent storm didn't bring the temperature down and it remained over 80 degrees at 0530 in the morning, but there was a clear forecast.  I launched into slightly choppy waters and began making my way towards the Kent Island Narrows.  I had decided to paddle through Eastern Bay vice under the Bay Bridge since I had paddled along the western shore of Kent Island before.  I had also paddled around the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge, but I was looking forward to the abundant wildlife in the area, which contrasts with the well-developed coastline on the other side of the island.  My paddle across the Chester River and run through the busy Narrows was uneventful as herons and eagles silhouetted themselves against the just-risen sun.  The occasional working boat plowed through the waters to tend to traps, but otherwise, I had the area to myself.  When I got to Eastern Bay it was thick with working boats and a DNR police motorboat was making wide arcs around the bay checking on the fisherman.  I saw many crab swimming through the water and the temperature soared above 100 degrees as I slowly clicked off the miles across the bay, stopping occasionally to douse myself.   Given the calm waters and lack of boat traffic mid-bay I opened up my cockpit to let the air circulate a bit and doused myself constantly to keep cool. (Movie: Keeping Cool in the Heat)  I took several on-waterThe Kent Island Narrows stops to mix and drink multiple bottles of powdered Gatorade and as soon as finished the crossing I beached my kayak on Rich Neck and jumped in the water to cool off after stripping off the insulating layers of my spray skirt and PFD.   I eased back into my cockpit and pushed off the small beach to continue my paddle.  During this leg of the paddle I noticed a major increase in the number of sea nettle jellyfish, which I had begun to see with frequency late in the previous day.   I also saw a smaller number of small comb jellies flitting through the water.  What surprised me were the large number of cow nose rays.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was wearing polarized sunglasses this time, which helped me see them, but these graceful creatures would glide along in singly and sometimes in relatively large schools alongside my kayak.  When I first glimpsed them all I could see was a huge brownish creature swimming alongside my kayak a few feet under the water.  At first I thought that I was seeing some type of very large fish or confused shark, but it ended up being a school of rays swimming in close formation that looked like one entity.   I paddled into the cut that defines Tilghman Island at around 1530 and we drove to nearby Easton for the night.   That night a massive line of thunderstorms packing 70+mph winds tore through the mid-Atlantic and hit our area of Virginia head-on, causing extensive damage. 

Day 3: Tilghman Island to Taylors Island, 21 miles

Big Waves on the ChoptankThe next morning we heard about the swath of destruction the storms had cut through our part of Virginia, but we figured that with the widespread power outages and general chaos, we were better off staying an extra day in less affected area.  The forecast stated that seas were calm and that the wind would be moderate, however, I had an inkling that things would be pretty well stirred up after a major storm packing very high winds.  At the launch point the wind was blowing more than 20 knots, judging by the fully extended windsock and I debated whether to launch, but given the fact that the winds would moderate later in the day, I decided to go ahead.  I was pushed through the Tilghman Island cut at a steady six miles per hour without paddling at all and set a course that would take me across the mouth of the Choptank River, a four-mile crossing.  I could tell that the waters were riled up, but the protection of Tilghman Island took the bite out of the effects of the southeast breeze.  Once I cleared the island, however, conditions were much tougher.  Although I never went all the way to Surfing on the Choptankthe edge of my skills, I was certainly very highly challenged with five foot breaking waves that were mostly arrayed in a rear quarter following sea.  There were several sets of larger waves in the six foot range or larger (see picture above) which I believe were caused by wakes from passing container ships travelling well off in the distance.  My kayak dropped deep in to the trough on these following seas and my rear deck was fully swamped several times.  It had been a long time since I had experienced larger waves and although I had put in several hours of self-rescue practice before leaving on the trip I wasn't fully sure that I could successfully perform a rescue with the waves so close together and "peaky".   I knew before I started the crossing that it was within my skills to stay upright and I carefully placed my kayak between the waves, determining when to paddle in the trough and when to ride the smaller breakers (Movie: Surfing the Smaller Breakers);  the last thing I wanted to do was end up pulling out my VHF or PLB, but overall, it was a good, if tense crossing.  After I made it to the far side of the Choptank I stayed in somewhat shallower water close to shore to rest.  I was actually quite tired after the last hour of paddling at full throttle and I wanted to recover a bit.  I came upon a Fast Currentgrounded motor boat that had apparently either slipped its' mooring or had been driven ashore by the wind.  (Movie: Beached Motorboat) I beached my kayak and did a quick recce, but the occupants had unloaded everything and gotten to the farmhouse visible across a field, where there was a stack of boating equipment strewn next to the front door and an obvious set of footprints that led from the boat to the house.   I hugged the shore a bit in Trippe Bay and then crossed the Little Choptank at Ragged Island.  The wind had died down and temperatures climbed above 100 very quickly.  I took a break since I had been remiss in hydrating during my crossing and threw down some food.  Upon launching I made a mistake and hugged the shore in the vicinity of Oyster Cove where the chart clearly shows obstructions, a rock pile and a narrow passage where wind-driven water would rush through.  I got stuck in what felt like a tidal rip ,a very strong current pulling me along right into the large rock pile marked on the chart.  (Movie: Weird Current) I just managed to avoid it by posting my paddle in a high rudder stroke as I got whipped around the point at over 10 miles an hour, which felt pretty fast, but was probably not so bad as it seemed (at one point on the short video I shot before I got whipped around the point you can hear me say "oooh, that's not good").  At this point I was pretty worn out and I decided to call it an early day and pull into the Taylor's Island Family Campground.  This isn't the prettiest place Downed Oakon the map with lots of somewhat rundown RVs in semi-permanent berths around a small area, but the people were nice and it would make an passable place to pitch a tent for the night.  With the temperature at 105 my wife wasn't going to be up for camping, so she picked me up and we spent the rest of the day in Easton, MD.  A friend had gone over to our house after the big storm and sent us some pictures which showed that the house was intact, but the power was out and there was at least a week's worth of clean-up to do with several large limbs and a large oak tree down on our property.  With more thunderstorms predicted and a ton of cleanup to do, we decided to head home early the next morning once my wife had a chance to rest to begin the cleanup.   Since my kayak trip had been cut short I decided to tackle the downed trees old-school style and spent the next three days using an axe and hand saw conducting clean-up.  Although this would have been vastly faster with a chainsaw, I enjoyed the challenge of chopping down the remnants of the old oak using traditional methods and actually managed to drop the trunk After choppingexactly where I wanted it after having to chop almost all the way through the tree due to the fact that there wasn't enough top weight to make it collapse. 


Overall, the biggest issue for me on the trip was simply overnight camping given my somewhat unusual restrictions.  There were several places along the way that would have made good campsites,  but many of them had large numbers of birds on them (probably nesting), were of questionable ownership, or were posted as either private or public restricted land.  Large swaths of beach that looked like sand on imagery and charts had newly erected rip rap barriers on them, completely eliminating the ability to land.  The lack of a defined, coordinated paddle trail is unfortunate in an area that seems perfectly suited to it.  Although there are several very developed areas, with some work, it would be possible to place a paddle trail stop every 7-12 miles along the eastern shore by cobbling together commercial campgrounds, low-impact places to camp on public land coordinated with MD and VA, and maybe even some of the less utilized private land since there are many farms along the shore with small beaches that stay above the high-tide mark.   The best part of this paddle was still ahead of me and I'm hoping to get back to the Bay soon to complete my trip....


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