In the 1800s, steamboats regularly left the Chesapeake Bay to venture up the Choptank River and wind still farther upstream on Tuckahoe Creek. Their journey ended at the hamlet of Hillsboro, MD, where the Tuckahoe narrowed and its waters grew shallow.
Tuckahoe Creek has changed since then. As with many Bay tributaries, erosion has lined the creek bottom with sediment that has decreased water depth and left steamboat travel an exercise in imagination.
But the "unnavigable" section of the creek above Hillsboro is now its most popular stretch - with secluded paddles, good fishing and abundant wildlife in what is today Tuckahoe State Park.
A member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, Tuckahoe State Park occupies a quiet rural setting with 3,800 acres that blend easily with the surrounding farms and countryside.
The park has a devoted following, in part because there are so many ways to enjoy it. Equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers can enjoy more than 15 miles of wooded trails. Hunters find plentiful game, including turkeys in the spring and deer and waterfowl in the fall.
Campers can rent a cabin, pitch a tent or bring their RV. Youth group camping is available, as is a rope challenge course for team-building events and family fun days.
But the waters that define the park are its biggest draw.
Tuckahoe Creek originates from headwater streams just across the Delaware border. Its name comes from the abundance of arrow arum, a sturdy wetland plant with arrow-shaped leaves commonly called "tuckahoe."
"American Indians used to make flour from its roots," said park manager John Ohler.
For approximately eight miles of its course toward the Bay, the creek runs through the heart of the park, embraced by wetlands on either shore. In the upper stretch, wooded wetlands create a maze of watery paths in and around mature trees, still deep enough for paddling.
Wooded wetlands have defined this land for centuries, and it has changed very little. Evidence of American Indians has been found in the park, and a gristmill once stood along the creek, giving the main access route - Crouse's Mill Road - its name.
But pervasive wetlands, interspersed with high bluffs, often made farming difficult and timber harvest impractical. While farms and forests have always been worked in this area, including on what are now park grounds, Ohler said the land closest to the creek has remained largely untouched.
Some people believe that Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery on the Eastern Shore, used the Tuckahoe stream corridor to lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
"There is no documentation to prove it," Ohler said. "But there would have always been a tree line along the stream, because it was too wet for harvest, and it's pretty logical to think that it would have provided good cover all the way into Delaware."
Frederick Douglass, also famous for escaping slavery and for his bold defense of human rights, was born in a log cabin along Tuckahoe Creek.
But water, not history, was the motivation for creating Tuckahoe State Park. The state began purchasing the land along the creek in the 1960s.
"Back then, the thinking was that state parks should be centered around lakes. And Maryland wanted to have a really big lake on the Eastern Shore," Ohler said.
Park planners hoped to dam Tuckahoe Creek and create a lake filling approximately 300 acres.
"Basically, they were going to flood the whole stream valley in the park for a long, narrow lake," Ohler said.
Geology - and a big tree - derailed their plans.
The lake would have relied largely on seepage for its water supply. The intake would not have been strong enough to consistently fill a large lake. Also, the lack of flow would have created algae problems in the shallows.
Then planners discovered an enormous overcup oak, a National Champion Tree: the largest of its kind in the continental United States. The oak had grown to such an impressive size because it stood in the marsh and humans had left it alone.
The large lake would have put the oak underwater. "That tree was the final straw," Ohler said.
Plans changed, and the overcup oak lived until the mid-1990s.
Today, visitors will still find a lake in Tuckahoe State Park, but on a much smaller scale - one fisherman calls it a big pond. The modest dam and fish ladder are located at the site of the old gristmill, where there was once an impoundment and sluice to operate the mill.
Officially, the Tuckahoe Lake covers 60 acres but only 20 acres are open water. The rest is a watery maze of trees and scrubby vegetation, dense with birds and other wildlife.
"It's a fascinating flooded wetland," Ohler said. "And the lake hasn't changed much of the waterway because it's always been a wooded wetland."
The lake is the starting point for most paddlers and boaters. Fishermen often take to the lake in boats with electric motors, sharing a launch area with paddlers. Those traveling by canoe or kayak can explore beyond the lake.
Most people wind their way upstream along the creek, traveling through two miles of wooded wetlands toward the campground. This route is known as the Mason Branch Water Trail.
"It's a beautiful paddle," Ohler said. "There are lots of flowering native plants, wood ducks constantly flying past you, some otter on occasion, some beaver and muskrat."
Others launch by a small bridge, just below the dam and paddle toward town. This 5.2-mile route, the Tuckahoe Creek Water Trail, is best in spring and fall when the water is higher.
"We encourage the downstream trail for more experienced paddlers," Ohler said. "There are no rapids or dangerous areas, but it's a narrow channel over and under logs that can make the trip challenging, especially when the water is low."
Ohler points out that Tuckahoe State Park is listed by the National Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area, especially for its showings of neotropical birds like the prothonotary warbler.
With so many options for relaxing, exercising and exploring this Eastern Shore ecosystem, new visitors may soon list Tuckahoe State Park among their favorites. They may also be grateful for encountering a secluded wooded wetland whose wildlife and wonders have remained so persistently its own.
Tuckahoe State Park
- Tuckahoe State Park is open sunrise to sunset. The 2012 camping season runs from March 30 to Dec. 3.
- The park is located about 35 miles east of the Bay Bridge, just off MD Route 404, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
- Lake and launching areas open to canoes, kayaks and electric motor boats only. Canoes, kayaks, and mountain bikes can be rented on-site. Guided trips are sometimes available; call the park for details.
- Tuckahoe Creek Water Trail: (5.2 miles, about 4.5â€“5 hours, Class I) follows a narrow waterway just below the Tuckahoe Lake to the village of Hillsboro. It is a relatively easy paddle in spring and fall, when water levels are high, with opportunities to spot bald eagles, blue heron, osprey, turtles and a variety of amphibians and songbirds.
- Tuckahoe Lake & Mason Branch Water Trail (2 miles or less, 1-3 hours, Class 1) features gentle waters winding through wooded wetlands with an opportunity to see Canada geese, wood ducks, osprey, turtles, otter, beaver, muskrat and songbirds. Launch at the lake.