My least favorite part of paddling the Chesapeake region is shuttling cars to get back to where you began. It requires extra vehicles and can take hours, putting you on the water late, adding hassle at the end of a voyage when everyone is tired or wanting to beat rush hour traffic.
Fortunately, the geography of the estuary lends itself nicely to what I've come to call loop trips, where paddlers can end up close to where they left without retracing their route.
There are few places on Earth where tidewater consorts more promiscuously with the land. Dozens of rivers and thousands of creeks deeply incise the Bay's edges, just as the Bay proper does the continental fringe.
This creates a remarkable peninsularity to the Chesapeake landscape, a feature that's often overshadowed by our fascination with the Bay's number of full blown "insulae" or islands.
Look at any map. From giant Delmarva to Anne Arundel's Annapolis and Broadneck peninsulas, from Back River Neck in Baltimore County to Virginia's Northern Neck between the Potomac and Rappahannock, peninsulae and their cousins, the necks, rule; and within all the big ones lie countless smaller ones.
Loop trips I've enjoyed range from lunch hour paddles on up to one that took a month to make it back to the car. Got a few hours on your way to or from Ocean City, MD? Come on, let's try a favorite little loop of mine.
We'll launch about 20 minutes south of U.S. Route 50, west of Salisbury, on secluded Peters Creek, a tributary to the Nanticoke River that intersects rural Royal Oak Road.
High tide's best for launching from road shoulders and low bridges on many of these little tidal creeks, and even then it can require enterprise. A canoe's easier than a kayak in such spots, especially with children.
For the next hour and a half, paddle down Peters, turn right where it meets Quantico Creek, another right at the next creek, Dennis, and back to Royal Oak Road. You'll see more bald eagles than humans, only a couple of homes and almost never a power boat.
Tall red oaks and loblolly pines lord over the narrow and sinuous waterways. The wind surfs through their high branches while down below it creates scarcely a ripple. In the fall, the marshes go to seed; fat, puffy cattails and ripened kernels on the tall cordgrass are highlighted by red-stalked freshwater hemp.
The browns of a cornfield — ears drying on the stalks —show through a break in the forest edge, and a monarch butterfly sips nectar from a marsh goldenrod. In places, the water is so smooth and clear it mirrors overhanging hollies and pines, and you seem to be gliding in your kayak through the treetops.
After about 5 miles of easy, meditative traveling, the wooden bridge where Dennis Creek meets Royal Oak comes into sight — again, such places often have no official takeout — but one manages, watching the poison ivy that seems to flourish around highway shoulders.
And my car? Virtually in sight, a leisurely walk of about 10 minutes down Royal Oak.
I sussed out this little loop the same way I do most all of them, with a U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle (quad) map. The scale is about 2.6 miles to the inch, and the quads show every farm lane, logging road, boat landing and creek.
It's advisable to scout before a trip, just to make sure the upper parts of waterways are navigable, that put-ins and takeouts are doable; that places to park exist. I find scouting as much fun as the trip itself, as it always encourages one to explore other possibilities.
You'd think Google Earth nowadays would be the best way to find loops; but I keep coming back to the stark simplicity of the old quads, devoid of landscape textures that obscure smaller waterways.
You can buy quads (7.5 minute quadrangle maps) from your state geological survey office or from the USGS for about $6. It may take several to cover a long journey — about 55,000 cover the lower 48 states.
It was love that first inspired me to plot a loop paddle. My friend wanted an all-day trip on remote Eastern Shore waterways with a hot shower at the end. We ended up basing at a charming bed & breakfast where Monie Creek in Somerset County barely reached under State Route 362 near Princess Anne after meandering 12 miles from its mouth near the Bay.
We chained a couple of bicycles there at our takeout, and drove the kayaks (a 10-minute pedal) to the mainstem of the Wicomico River, where a car ferry crosses to the town of Whitehaven. We caught a strong ebb tide down the Wicomico, lunched and swam at a lovely little beach on Monie Bay, then caught the flood tide up Monie Creek, arriving back at the bicycles six hours later.
The pedal back to the car ended up taking two hours, but only because there were so many inviting byroads to explore. Our Monie Creek lodging has since closed, but there's one in Whitehaven, so you could loop out of there.
Loop trips can be as intimate or as ambitious as you wish. In skiffs that could run at 20 mph, we once traveled from Denton on the upper Choptank River to Federalsburg, near the head of the Nanticoke River.
The two Caroline County towns are 16 miles apart, yet our skiff trip, with a little time out to fish, consumed 11 hours. By paddlecraft, I'm guessing it would take at least a week, assuming favorable weather as you'd have to traverse the open water of the Bay along Taylors Island and through Hooper Straits.
You begin to understand why we built roads.
Loops to lure paddlers throughout the watershed
A couple day trip loops I favor include the 12-mile circumnavigation of Wye Island, launching and returning at Schnaitmans, a longtime rental place for crabbing skiffs not far off U.S. 50 near the village of Wye Mills, MD. A more remote loop, along Dorchester County's Transquaking River from Bestpitch, which is little more than a lonely wooden bridge and a state of Maryland launch ramp and parking lot. This paddle takes you by Guinea Island, a high, forested patch rising out of thousands of acres of marsh surrounding it in every direction. The island's few hundred acres are public and walkable.
The big loop of course would be the Delmarva Peninsula, stretching from C&D Canal on the north to Virginia's Bridge-Tunnel on the south. Figure on the better part of a month for that one.
Finally, here are some loops I've yet to do, but would love to try based on my inspection of the quad maps and boating charts:
- Vienna on the Nanticoke at U.S. 50, downriver around Elliott's Island, up Fishing Bay, past Bestpitch and up the Chicamacomico River, back to U.S. 50 no more than four miles from Vienna. You'll probably have to drag the kayaks the last couple hundred yards to the highway, or hit some high flows in the headwater swamps there. A multi-day trip, never before done to my knowledge.
- Loop through Pitts Neck off the lower Pocomoke, a place so backcountry there's not even a sign where the road crosses from Maryland into Virginia. Launch in Pitts Creek and come back up Bullbeggar Creek. A day trip (I think).
- Mattawoman Creek in southern Maryland and up the Potomac.
- Baltimore, from the Inner Harbor around Fort McHenry into the Middle Branch. Take out at a tiny park just before the Hanover Street Bridge; or maybe keep going until you are hard by the parking lots at Ravens Stadium. (I am not sure about the takeout there.)
- Bear Creek to Back River in eastern Baltimore County.
- Janes Island State Park near Crisfield, a circumnavigation with lots of nice, underused beaches. A day trip.
- And when you have done all the loops there are to do, how about trying reverse loops like paddling between Elliott's Island in lower Dorchester County to Bishops Head, a distance of about 5 miles by boat — but around 50 miles by the roads that must loop around Fishing Bay?
It all comes back to experiencing the amazing communication between land and water that makes this estuary a paddling paradise.