Back to the Water
These are six of 99 stops in Simarski and husband Guy Guthridge’s six-year voyage of Chesapeake discovery aboard Bright Pleiades. Other journeys appeared in Bay Weekly between 2007 and 2008 under the title Voyages of Discovery.
Pilgrimage to the Top of the Bay
Our trawler curved along the channel of the Susquehanna Flats toward the very top of the Bay. Bedazzled by ducks, I had long wanted to see the flats, a legendary waterfowl hunting ground whose depths once teemed with wild celery that drew over 500,000 wintering canvasback and redhead ducks and more than 200,000 American widgeon. The ducks, in turn, drew sportsmen from the world over.
But development destroyed the habitat, and Hurricane Agnes dealt the final blow to the underwater plants in 1972. The flats we saw were devoid of ducks. I repaired to Havre de Grace’s decoy museum for some artifacts of the past era.
One bit of history lingers: Fishing Battery Lighthouse, squatting on an island almost at water level. Built in 1853, it was the last lighthouse by the famous John Donahoo, who built some 13 lighthouses around the Chesapeake.
We were determined to push as far north in our trawler as we could. I had stared down at the Susquehanna so many times from Interstate 95; now we passed under the highway, and three other bridges. From a great cliff on our right, an eagle soared out. A talisman that we had reached the limit: Port Deposit, a terraced town of stone clinging to the granite wall. At the local marina, we learned that boat owners must remove their craft by November 15 due to flooding and ice floes.
I dipped my finger into the rocky Susquehanna, which supplies about half the Chesapeake’s water. With steep banks on both sides and fresh water in between, the heart of the Bay seemed far away. Yet, when a rainstorm overdoses agricultural nutrients into the river from upstream fields, two weeks later they reach mid-Bay, triggering a plankton bloom in places like the Rhode River. We couldn’t see it in these clear waters, but the Susquehanna River has a powerful grip on the Bay.
The Last Skipjacks
The Chesapeake’s iconic skipjacks seem a rarer sight every year, but a few working ones still call Deal Island home. On Labor Day skipjacks gather there for the annual race. A local waterman pointed out Captain Art Daniel, the oldest working skipjack captain on the Bay, focused and jaunty in his white cap.
Some weeks later, I returned and, in Wenona at the tip of Deal Island, I spotted telltale masts poking above the trees. I followed them to the City of Crisfield and met Daddy Art, as he is known to one and all. Now 91 or 92, he has rarely missed a day of dredging for oysters since he was 17. He has won the annual race nine times.
Over that autumn, I spent hours chatting with him as he repaired his boat. I sampled oysters on the half shell from the back of his pickup and ate his homemade oyster fritters at his table. But when I finally asked to go aboard for a day of dredging, he was evasive. He finally told me to come to the dock before dawn and he would decide.
He had to speak to his crew, and I spent some doubtful moments shivering out of earshot. But they did assent to me, a woman, coming aboard. When the dredge was brought up and emptied on deck, again and again, three men got down on hands and knees and pawed through the oysters almost in a frenzy, throwing rejects and flotsam over the side. Sometimes they blame a poor haul on a woman’s presence.
Whether at the wheel or sawing boards, Daddy Art always sings, a skill he learned half a century ago from his all-black crew who sang à capella. “People off other dredge boats would come around and listen to the singing on my boat,” he told me.
My favorite Chesapeake rivers meander the most. One is the Pocomoke, whose dark, mysterious waters snake though cypress swamps to reveal a new tableau at every turn.
Entering the river’s mouth in our trawler, we traced its sinuous channel through extensive marshes, with only an occasional outlier cypress tree silhouetted on the river’s edge like a sentinel for what was to come — one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress.
Then the river narrowed, becoming almost tunnel-like, but still twisting and retaining excellent navigational depth close to each bank. Cypress knees, knobby projections from tree roots, lined the banks like wizened hobbits. As evening fell, slanted sunrays spotlighted each curve ahead with an eerie peach-hued glow.
Remembering the past, I could imagine, from the corner of my eye, shadows slipping into the forest of those who had needed to disappear, whether Civil War deserters, underground railroad travellers or smugglers (or so it’s said).
Now my mind turned to the meanders that cradle this cypress swamp. Why do rivers create these curves? We do not think of a snaking route as the shortest from A to B. A river’s water, however, does not find a straight path the most efficient way to travel. Water whirls here and there against the uneven banks and bottom. The current erodes the outer bank and deposits sediment on the inner curve. Meandering begins.
Like life, meandering perpetuates itself. Once the river cuts an outside curve, that bank erodes more, causing the river to flow faster, curve more and reinforce the tendency to meander.
We followed the Pocomoke’s meanders to Pocomoke City with its Discovery Center, interpreting natural and cultural heritage; to Snow Hill with its art gallery crawl and canoe rentals; and to Nassawango Creek, a Pocomoke tributary like its circuitous parent in exquisite miniature, whose meanders shelter orchids, warblers and other delights.