Bay Journal

Deep, dark secret paradise

Pitts Creek’s paddle provides peace of mind

  • By Tom Horton on September 22, 2014
Midway up Pitts Creek, hardwood forests give way to pine and marshes.  (Les Park Tidewater Paddler http://atidewaterpaddler.blogspot.com/) Pitts creek is nearly impassible at its upper reaches.  (Tom Horton) A small island marks where Pitts Creek enters the
Pocomoke.  (Les Park Tidewater Paddler 
http://atidewaterpaddler.blogspot.com/) Marsh mallows line the banks of Pitts Creek for almost two-thirds of its length. (Tom Horton)

I’ve always favored sinuousity, the curve in the path, the bend in the river, the course less straightjacketed.

With Chesapeake creeks like the one we’re paddling today, it’s the meanders that give us marshes and beauty, infuse our travels with what philosopher George Santayana referenced in his 1896 classic, “The Sense of Beauty”: “at every turn reawakening with a variation, the sense of the previous position…such rhythms and harmonies are delightful.”

It is the nature of waterways unmolested by ditchers and drainers to seldom run straight more than 10 times their width; but Pitts Creek rewrites the book on twistiness as it wanders alluringly to the Pocomoke River along the border of Maryland’s and Virginia’s Eastern Shores.

To reach the Pocomoke, a mere 4 miles or so from where Pitts begins as a trickle under U.S. Route 13, a paddler will travel close to 10 miles, negotiating around 40 significant shifts in course. Even the tide, which in the open Chesapeake would travel 10 miles in about 40 minutes, requires about four hours to toil the length of Pitts. A happy consequence is that paddlers can have it in their favor most of the trip.

Part of Pitts’ charm is its inaccessibility. There are no roads and few cleared fields or homes bordering either bank. Entry choices are a public landing and ramp near the mouth, at the end of Pitts Creek Road in Accomack county; and a steepish, one-boat-at-a-time put-in where Dunns Swamp Road crosses the state line a mile or so west of Route 13.

To accompany the ebbing tide downstream to the Pocomoke, we began at Dunns Swamp. I decided to save for the next day the creek upstream of there, which looked on Google Earth maps like a bushwhack to Route 13.

Paddling trips are obviously more fun if one is physically up to it; but there’s a cerebral aspect to enjoying such excursions. Before hitting Delmarva waters, I often revisit books like Hulbert Footners’ convivial old “Rivers of the Eastern Shore”, and field guides to the plants and birds and marine life.

There’s little in all of the world’s literature about Pitts Creek. Curtis Badger in his new book, “Exploring Delmarva,” may be the first to give it a published page; “one of the most beautiful and intriguing waterways on the Virginia portion of the Eastern Shore…a jewel that is rarely noticed.” Badger astutely observes that the short watershed of Pitts Creek affords a rapid and marvelous transition through several ecosystems, from wooded freshwater swamp at its top to sweeping, saltmarsh vistas where it debouches near Pocomoke Sound.

Indeed, at the upstream launch we were immediately immersed in all of the flora of a blackwater swamp in its August fullness: bald cypress, knees shiny with new growth; sweet pepperbush or summersweet in spiky, scented blossom; the creams and pinks of the marsh mallows (hibiscus) in lush banks between upland hardwood forests; and along the water, the lush green leaves and lavender spears of pickerelweed. Interspersed was wild rice, swaying with the comings and goings of red-winged blackbirds; freshwater hemp; and ripening wild cherries.

It recalled a passage celebrating such a “tangled bank,” written by a guy who would’ve had a ball on Pitts Creek. In the final passage of his “On The Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin concluded:

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants…with birds singing on the bushes, to reflect that…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

We’re not long on the creek before it widens from a canopied stream to a shining avenue about 200 feet wide. And a curious thing, which holds all the way downstream—Pitts Creek seems deep for its width, and deep almost to its banks. This is true, unique among Eastern Shore rivers, for the Pocomoke to which it drains. More typical of Bay tributaries is a center channel bordered by broad shallows. Both Pitts and Pocomoke resemble a half-pipe.

Curiouser still is the scarcity of “keep out” or “no hunting” signs along the unpeopled banks. This was the norm when I was growing up on the Shore in the 1950s, but nowadays it’s rare to see unposted lands. For that matter, we encountered only a handful of duck blinds, and I saw no deer stands.

As bends fell behind us and the creek broadened more, hardwoods gave way to loblolly pine, which in turn receded to marshes. Wild rice became interspersed with, then was superceded by big saltmarsh cordgrass. Phragmites was present, but not as much as on many other Chesapeake creeks. Contrary to popular belief, all phragmites is not invasive or non-native—only a European subspecies that has spread in recent decades.

In some of the creeks’ broadening meanders, deep water kisses high, well-drained pine forests, which are virtually islanded by the surrounding marshes. I’m sure they are privately owned, but they look like they’d be fine spots to stop for lunch and exploration (and we do).

We don’t even see many of the little, back-of-farm boat ramps and small duck hunter’s docks I’m accustomed to on most paddles. One industrial strength dock, unused, on the lower part of Pitts goes with an ill-advised, upscale horse farmette development that appears dormant since the recession of 2007. Only a massive brick-and-wrought iron gate was built.

We had been going four hours, boosted increasingly by the tide. The creek was so broad that we almost didn’t notice it merging with the main Pocomoke. A small island there is often home to golden eagles in winter. It’s quite a contrast with where we began, less than 4 miles back by road. The big carp rolling upstream were replaced by breaking rockfish. The marsh and water vistas here, so reflective of light and textured by wind, are less reminiscent of Darwin’s tangled bank than Sidney Lanier’s “Marshes of Glynn”: “candid and simple and nothing withholding and free. Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea.”

The next morning, I was back at the Dunns Swamp launch, paddling through a low culvert that carries me upstream under the road. I was armed with loppers and a saw, ready for a long day of bushwhacking the mile or so of Pitts to where it goes under Route 13.

It turned out to be a short day—even more gorgeous than the day before for several hundred yards as the creek narrowed to single-file for kayaks — wood ducks erupted at every turn—then abruptly devolved into such a jumble of deadfalls, willows, poison ivy, briars and shallow water that I was utterly defeated. There was a time I might have hacked my way onward, hauled the kayak over and around logs, up to my butt in muck. Now I’m content to leave that last part of Pitts in peace, to the wild things that abide there — call it wisdom, or maybe just declining testosterone.

And sitting there — wedged so deeply into the uttermost crevices of the swamp I’m not sure how to turn around —I looked at all the fecundity: the berries and cherries and seedpods and catkins all ripening to fuel bees and butterflies and waterfowl and snapping turtles. It reminded me of one more companion I had “invited” along, Henry David Thoreau, who had this to say about where I sit:

“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable…most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place. Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature.”

Amen, Henry.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is a freelance writer, splitting his time between Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

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