The Old 12-Footer

Vol. 8, No. 23
June 8-14, 2000
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Your boat doesn’t need to be big to carry you to hours of pleasure in Chesapeake Country.

story by Captain Michael R. Lane Sr.
watercolor illustrations by Betsy Kehne

The 12-foot aluminum boat was bought for $100. Powered by a 20-year-old, five-horsepower SeaKing outboard motor, she came with two oars and a hand shake. That was some boat.

She could be slid into the back of the old Chevy pick-up and carried about anywhere.

Sometimes, she explored the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. She stuck her bow into Curtis Creek looking for white perch, hard crabs and soft crabs. She would steal alongside an old pier to see if there were any channel cats lurking amongst the pilings. Or maybe she would troll along the Key Bridge looking for a rockfish or two.

Other times, she would be carried more than 100 miles south to Point Lookout to chase the big bluefish. Or to Solomons Island to look for sea trout, jumbo spot and hardhead. Again, she might be carried north to the Susquehanna River to ply the flats for bass. Still other times, she found herself in any one of the many Eastern Shore ponds seeking out bass, sunnies and crappies.

Yet, some of the fondest memories of the 12-footer (for that was the only name she was ever known by) were those times that few fish were caught.

Spring on the Patapsco …

There was that time she was placed into the water of the Patapsco River, just below the town of Ellicott City.

It was a warm May afternoon when three longtime fishing buddies jumped into the 12-footer armed with two oars, three life preservers and a cooler full of refreshments. As the semi-swift current caught them in its grip, a soft breeze carried the sweet scent of honeysuckle, mixed with the fragrance of flowering mountain laurel and blossoming locust. The shores were ablaze with wildflowers that were flaunting a dazzling array of colors, like rainbows shattered into a zillion broken luminescent pieces that were scattered about the shore as a mischievous child might scatter sequins.

Insects buzzed in the cool shade pierced through by flickering shafts of sunlight that fell through treetops pushed aside by the gentle breeze.

As the 12-footer drifted through the state park, she was swept around the old dam and on toward the great Chesapeake Bay. She passed people walking along the banks. Some were lovers holding hands, with yet others sitting in the shade of regal oaks or stately hickories that line the banks of the old river. Everyone seemed to be content to just watch the old river slide silently and majestically by.

Once in awhile, one would speak a soft greeting to the occupants of the boat, who spoke a soft reply in return, so as not to break the hypnotic enchantment the river had woven.

As she left the park, the 12-footer passed under the second-oldest railroad bridge in the United States. Then she drifted through the small hamlet of Relay Landing, where once barges were loaded with hogsheads of tobacco to be taken down river and loaded onto large sailing vessels and exported to seaports throughout the world. She then drifted under the U.S. Route 1 bridge that had once seen thousands of raw army troops march across the river on their way to Camp Fort George Meade for training, to fight in Europe during the war to end all wars, World War I.

When she left Relay Landing, she made a sharp left turn and entered a stretch of river that is relatively untouched. The three spell-bound occupants watched in awe as colorful butterflies fluttered amongst the wildflowers that carpeted the banks. From nests that were precariously balanced on thin limbs, birds fluttered to the ground, where they would find a fat succulent insect to feed their hungry, boisterous young.

There were bright cardinals and flashy blue jays giving the illusion of opulent flowers fluttering in the breeze. There were redheaded woodpeckers with their rat-tat-tat echoing along the river, giving another dimension to the crescendo of the river’s happy song.

As they approached Landsdown, the river banks changed once again to a flat, low-lying barren spread out on both sides. For the land here had been raped for its sand and gravel. She drifted under the Baltimore Beltway, past more abandoned quarries, under more bridges.

Rounding another bend in the river, they saw the town of Brooklyn, rising up the side of the hills on the southern bank. On their left was the vast wasteland of a landfill that was once the delta of the river. At one time, that delta was a tidal marsh of more than 1,000 acres, the nursery for countless young fishes of the Bay, but now destroyed forever by destructive human greed for a cheap way to dispose of our discard. As they drifted past this wanton waste, they knew their short trip was over.

Three Days on the Patuxent …

There was that time the 12-footer and two other boats were put into the water of the upper Patuxent River at the town of Bowie. There would be only two people per boat and there were only two motors to move the boats to Solomons Island, some 50-odd miles downstream. It had been planned that the trip would take three days and two nights to complete.

The boats were full of men, fishing tackle, sleeping bags, extra clothing, gas cans and coolers filled with food and drinks. But most of all, there was plenty of friendly kibitzing and warm camaraderie.
Once the boats and their occupants started their leisurely drift down stream, things became less confusing and life itself became more enjoyable.

They drifted under Route 301 and past fishermen and their families fishing from the bank. As they approached Wayson’s Corner a vast marsh spread out before them on both sides of the river. They were struck by the beauty that engulfed them.

The only thing that could be heard from the boats was an occasional “look” — and all eyes would look toward where the speaker’s finger-tipped arm was pointing. They might see an osprey dive from high in the azure sky to slam into the water at a mind-boggling speed. Then, with a few powerful strokes of its massive wings, it would lift from the water with a good-sized fish in its talons and fly to a nest high atop an old dead tree to feed its young that waited not so patiently.

Someone whispered, “Listen,” as the marsh came alive with the most beautiful sound that any of them had ever heard.

Another uttered, “What is it?”

Someone else said, “I think it’s wild canaries. Yeah, look over there.”

All looked to where the finger was pointing. Suddenly there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of yellow and black wren-type birds. They looked like lemons with bad spots rolling across the marsh as they fluttered from grass stalk to grass stalk, eating their fill of insects.

As the boats rounded the next bend in the river, they were greeted by the shrill call of red-wing blackbirds. Hanging from anything that would hold them, they looked like over-ripe fruit that had been left hanging on the vine in the sun too long. Then, with a flurry, they took flight in mass, diving, swooping and soaring over the marsh.

As the men drifted through the marsh, other sounds became apparent: The sound of the marsh grasses being rubbed together by the gentle breeze; the call of crows; the churr of insects around their heads; the splash of a fish that momentarily left its realm while chasing its prey or the snort of a deer and the sound of its crashing through the underbrush as it fled for safety.

When they were between Wayson’s Corner and Lower Marlboro and the sun had become low in the evening sky, the men looked for a spot to land their boats and camp for the night. They reluctantly pulled their boats to shore at a likely spot beside a tobacco field and sent their leader across the field for permission from the farmer to camp there.

I was hastily elected spokesperson for the group. While I was gone, I was also elected leader, because nobody wanted that either. So it goes in a democracy.

Permission was granted at the farm house, and camp was set up. A fire was built and the fish that had been caught that day were fried, baked beans were heated and potatoes were baked.

With a hearty meal eaten by all and the sun sinking into the marsh and the smoke of the dying fire drifting lazily up the river, the talk turned to the wonders of the day. They talked about the beauty of nature and how wondrous it is if we just take the time to look around us. The one city man amongst us was awestruck by the profusion of life and its diversity.

As night fell upon the river, the sounds of light changed to the sounds of night. Close at hand, an owl hooted, night whippoorwills called, tree frogs began chirping, bullfrogs let out with their deep-throated melody and crickets started their symphony. All of the sounds blended into a beautiful consonance that was a sleepy lullaby to the men on the river bank.

The next two days were anticlimactic for the six men. At about 3pm on the second day, they were within sight of the power plant at Eagle Harbor. The river widened and the marsh gave way to homes. About 2pm on the third day, the boats were loaded into the two trucks that had been left at Solomons Island.

Heading Home, Richer

Once the boats and the other gear were loaded, the men climbed in and headed north toward home, knowing their friendship was a little stronger. They also possessed the knowledge that the marsh along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are the cradle of all life, both in the waters and in the skies above. They had discovered there is no beauty anywhere on earth that can compare to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly