On and in the waters of the Patuxent
Old barns dripping with honeysuckle and trumpet vines, owlets in cobwebbed rafters, fishermen’s shacks on piers glistening with old fish scales, swallows’ nests glued beneath the splintery planks, pilings where ospreys build their messy nests like ornithological games of pick-up-sticks, duck blinds where wild ducks nest …
Abandoned chicken coops where ungainly vulture chicks are curious enough to be friendly while absent parents overfly the landscape scouting for road kill and balancing on barn roofs to dry their armpits like anhingas in Florida …
Why do they draw me? Kinship with what will also collapse, implode, but also with new fledging generations?
I am mere photographer, bird-watcher, canoeist, small-boat sailor, crabber and fisher along Patuxent riversides.
You can canoe 50 miles of the Patuxent, put in at many points between Solomon’s Island in Calvert County over 100 miles northward nearly to the Piedmont source of this all-Maryland river. Short walks from beached canoe, kayak, sailboat (or parked car) will reveal sights listed in no guidebook …
You’ll paddle or sail over ribcages of British and American ships sunk during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, over generations of fishing, crabbing, clam and oyster boats, the ghosts of canoes fashioned and paddled by centuries of Patuxent Indians and the oyster middens left by those peoples and colonials who set up camp along the shore, and more contemporary feasters.
“People have been eating oysters here for 10,000 years,” says Bob Shaw, the garrulous naturalist who once managed the Chancellor’s Point Natural History Center near St. Mary’s City. The river was healthier then, more generous.
You’ll pass fragments of farms, cellar stones, the ghosts of homes burned by the invading British. Other fires were set by Americans taking offense if the landowner were pro-Tory — or not.
Along the shore explore creeks and coves abounding with crabs and fish. Several decades ago, said old-time waterman Bob Hurry, you could walk across the Patuxent on oyster shells. Some winters, ice covered the edges and coves so thickly you could skate across a cove. But the Patuxent can get mighty roiled up in storms, dock-dismantling hurricanes.
Much of the summer, however, the river is docile and except on a few dog days, refreshing.
In May and June, I swim with terrapins whose periscopic snouts thrust through the rind of the sea not only to breathe air but as if to scout the familiar riverbanks, to scramble ashore, dig the earth, deposit a cache of turtle eggs like ping pong balls.
On a few days in May and September, I’ve bumped into cownose rays in the shallows, swum beneath cormorants skimming the surface. For especially during spring and autumn bird migrations, the Patuxent is a multi-lane flyway.
Jellyfish swim with us, graze us. Medusa season usually extends between July Fourth, when the luminous creatures reach our coves upriver, and Labor Day when time’s come to leave. In season, it is wise to swim in pajamas, hospital scrubs, jeans. Or stay afloat, explore onshore.
Find a map of the river at patuxentwatertrail.org.