The ospreys were the first to welcome us to the Nanticoke River.
As we piloted our kayaks out of the still water of the Seaford, DE, marina, their tea-kettle whistles filled the air, bouncing off the fiberglass and gleaming aluminum of the sailboats stationed nearby. Above, four brown and white birds rode thermals in ascending circles, their wings stretched taut as clothesline. Before that morning’s adventure, I had read that the Nanticoke watershed is home to the largest population of bald eagles in the northeastern United States but, that morning, the ospreys seemed to be in charge.
I had read lots of enticing things about the Nanticoke. That it was the most pristine tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, a title it owes to a lack of development along its shores. In fact, 93% of the 530,000-acre watershed has been spared from the region’s relentless chug of growth. Accordingly, the watershed also has some of the largest contiguous tracts of forest left standing on the Delmarva Peninsula, much of them owned and protected by local governments, nonprofits and other conservation outlets. According to the Chesapeake Conservancy, these forests and the adjacent wetlands harbor the highest rate of biodiversity in the Bay watershed. And because tourists — on their way to the peninsula’s popular beach towns and wildlife refuges — have largely overlooked the Nanticoke as a place for recreation, it remains one of the least explored treasures in the area.
Jonathan Offen, owner of the Laurel-based Delmarva Adventure Sports, can attest to this. As he helped my boyfriend, Jeff, and I get our gear situated in the teal and camouflage kayaks he’d delivered for us, Offen said customers looking for a shuttle along the Nanticoke proper are rare; most of those he serves prefer narrower creeks with less boat traffic. But on a Friday morning paddle in late June, we passed only two jon boats and enjoyed the generous push of an outgoing tide.
Instead of boats, we were surrounded by birds before we even left Seaford. In addition to the osprey (Jeff, a Coast Guardsman who’s logged years of his life on the water, said it was the most ospreys he’d ever seen in one place.) We marveled at great blue herons gliding from one bank to the other, laughing gulls cruising downstream, Eastern kingbirds hopscotching on pickerelweed, and yes, an impressive convocation of bald eagles soaring overhead. I watched their reflection in the water, which that morning was the color of coffee with the faintest hint of cream.
At the city limits, we paused to admire the juxtaposition of industry and wilderness, where a pair of cormorants was drying their wings on pilings in front of a noisy grain elevator. On the other side of the river, in a busy stone yard, a barge named Chesapeake was being loaded with sand. The panorama offers a microcosmic glimpse into the legacy of Seaford, a town that has long enjoyed a production-based economy amidst a rural backdrop. Seaford was once known as the “Nylon Capital of the World,” thanks to the DuPont plant that opened there in 1939 and manufactured the world’s first synthetic fiber. Visitors curious to learn more about the town’s history should stop by the Seaford Museum, a former post office that has been restored, curated and is operated entirely by local volunteers.
Past Seaford, the Nanticoke meanders through dense forest and the yawning backyards of a few fortunate residents. As I paddled by their homes, I jealously imagined mornings with tea or evenings with wine on their back decks, admiring this secluded section of river.
But soon, anyone will be able to enjoy the same views, as the 41-acre Nanticoke Crossing Park inches closer to completion. The result of a partnership between the Sussex County Land Trust and the Chesapeake Conservancy, the park will include 1,900 feet of shoreline and direct access to the river through an old lagoon that will be transformed into a public boat launch. Plans are also in the works for hiking trails and campsites.
Randall Larrimore, chair of the conservancy’s board of directors, claims that with Nanticoke Crossing’s new acreage on the tally sheet, 33% of the Nanticoke’s watershed is now protected from development. (Upstream, the conservancy is also working on the Oyster House Park in Seaford, which will feature community amenities like an amphitheater and outdoor classroom, as well as practical upgrades such as erosion repair and sewage improvements.)
Nanticoke Crossing will also protect land surrounding the nation’s oldest operating ferry service. When the Woodland Ferry opened in the 1740s, it carried horse-drawn carts and was known as Cannon’s Ferry after the family that would own it for more than a century. Because of their shady business dealings and price gouging, the Cannons were despised in the area. According to the 1973 nomination to put the ferry on the National Register of Historic Places, one of those family members, “Jacob Cannon, Jr., was a bitter, lonely man whose fabled miserliness and sensational murder earned him a place in fiction as one of the villains of George Alfred Townsend’s novel, The Entailed Hat.” In 1843, Cannon was killed in broad daylight at the ferry landing he owned.
Today, the once-scandalous spot is sleepy and quaint, and the Delaware Department of Transportation operates the ferry, which was renamed to avoid invoking the memory of infamous slave runner and serial killer, Patty Cannon (who you can learn about in the Seaford Museum). There is no fee to use the six-vehicle cable ferry, which operates year-round from 7 a.m.–6:30 p.m. According to DelDOT, 225 vehicles cross the Nanticoke via the Woodland Ferry on an average summer day. Every second Saturday in September, the Woodland Ferry Festival celebrates this piece of state history with music, games, and, of course, ferry rides.
For us, the ferry marks the halfway point of our paddle, and, thanks to the tide, we are way ahead of schedule. We stopped along the bank so that Jeff could get a few casts in on his flyrod and I could watch the boxy vessel zip back and forth across the river with enviable zest for a 300-year-old ferry (the boat was replaced in 2008).
After a rest (and no fish), we paddled on, admiring vast stands of spatterdock and meeting more birds along the way. A duck and a flashy yellowish warbler zoomed by before I could identify them, tree swallows twirled and whirled, and Canada geese splashed at the shore. Ospreys occupied just about every navigation marker we passed, perched on the edge of sprawling stick-pile nests. Sometimes, we could make out the very top of a nestling’s curious head.
We passed the turnoff for Broad Creek, one of the most popular paddles in the area, according to Offen, because of its largemouth bass fishery. Our destination was Sharptown, just across the state line in Maryland. A century and a half ago, Sharptown was a bustling shipbuilding community. Eighteen U.S. Merchant ships were built there and the city’s docks held the largest fleet of schooners on the Nanticoke. When we pulled our kayaks from the water, there was not another boat to be seen.
From Sharptown, the river flows another 55 miles or so, growing wider and wilder before it empties into the Tangier Sound near Deal Island. Altogether, the Nanticoke is punctuated by 25 public launches, boat ramps and fishing piers, and, remarkably, they’re some of the least crowded on the Delmarva peninsula — for now. But I have a feeling that pretty soon everyone will be singing the river’s praises, perhaps as loudly and enthusiastically as the ospreys that call it home.
Ashley Stimpson is a freelance writer based in Maryland.