If you want to paddle where few have paddled on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Monie Bay with its three marked water trails — and potential for freelance exploring — is worth a day trip.
The paddler sign-in log where we put in near Deal Island, about 20 miles south and west of Salisbury, had one other name, from more than a year before us.
The road to Monie slides west out of Princess Anne off the spine of Delmarva, U.S. Route 13, through fields of grain, mixed pine-oak forests and past chicken houses, toward the Chesapeake along a broad “neck” of land that lies between the Wicomico and Manokin rivers. At its end lie the villages of Deal Island’s watermen.
For all the press given its islands— Smith, Tangier, Tilghman — the Bay’s real nature is peninsular, ranging from Delmarva itself to the hundreds of greater and lesser necks created by the extension of tidewater deep into the landscape along the length of the estuary.
The last few miles to the Monie Bay launch ramp are a veritable wildlife drive. We saw an eagle’s nest, dozens of snowy and great egrets feeding in the salt marsh, marsh sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and a variety of herons.
Many of the loblolly pines that edge the horizon-spanning marshes are dying, victims of saltwater pushed up by sea level rise.
Monie Bay escapes mention in Hulbert Footner’s 1944 classic, “Rivers of the Eastern Shore.” By the time Footner reached the lower Wicomico where it lies, his boat and eyes had already turned north toward Hoopers Straits and the Nanticoke.
John Smith, whose 1608 voyages of Chesapeake discovery inspired the current paddling trails at Monie Bay, gave its shallow and marshy environs scarcely a look as he, too, sailed for the deep-flowing Nanticoke.
We did share a Smith moment on our mid-May Monie trip. We had planned a one-way trip rather than the standard paddling trail loop (more on that later). In our zeal to take full advantage of the flood tide, we launched at low water, which proved extremely low that day.
We ended up mired in a marsh creek, waiting for enough tide to float our heavy two-seater kayak, while gnats and deer flies delighted in our company. As we swatted, I thought of Smith, who ended up aground and chewed more than four centuries ago, just a few miles away on Bloodsworth Island.
On the good side, low tide is a time to appreciate the immense productivity of the Bay’s tidal wetlands. The rich brown peat banks are fully exposed, grown thick with mussels and oysters. Periwinkles by the bushel cluster at the base of the spartina grass. Schools of small fish feed furiously where countless rivulets of detritus-laden water stream from the marsh’s interior. The “sheds” or empty shells of recently molted blue crabs were strewn along the muddy edges.
We chose to follow the White Trail from the Dames Quarter boat ramp at the end of Messick Road. It is the longest of three trails, whose lengths range from a couple of miles to more than eight. It ranges through salt marsh and then emerges into open water along the miles-long edge of Monie Bay.
You pass on all but the shortest trail within 20 yards of an active peregrine falcon nesting tower, as good a view of those marvelous raptors as I’ve ever had. A small flock of black skimmers, perhaps the most beautiful of all Bay birds, passed low overhead. Everywhere, diamondback terrapins stuck their heads up.
Little sand beaches, a rarity in the mid-Chesapeake Eastern Shore, dotted the edges of the White Trail; great spots to stop for a break or lunch if there’s enough breeze to keep bugs at bay. (October might be a better time for paddling Monie as far as bugs, though gnats vanish with just a few miles per hour of breeze.)
I’d expect in June that these little beaches would see some terrapins coming ashore to nest. One caution: This longest route is exposed to winds from the west and north. If they are blowing more than 12–15 miles an hour, the open Bay could get fiercely choppy; but in the worst case, it’s shallow and no one’s going to drown.
If you paddle early enough in spring and summer you may see one of the oldest and rarest ways of harvesting blue crabs commercially — the bank trap, which is only legal in Somerset county.
Bank traps dot the edges of Monie Bay. Several yards of low fencing is staked perpendicular to the shore, intercepting all manner of marine life moving along the shallow edges, guiding it into a wire cage big enough to hold a few people, half underwater, half out. Set mainly to catch crabs, bank traps also may take rockfish, weakfish, horseshoe crabs, terrapins and other critters. It’s a nice way to fish as it keeps everything alive until the watermen can dump all but his targeted species back in.
A tall pole with a red channel marker attached signals the end of the White Trail. There, the trail map we had downloaded shows a loop through a point of marsh that puts you on a return path to your car.
You don’t have to do that if you’re game for more Monie. The mouth of Little Monie Creek lies nearby. It is inaccessible from land as it winds for several miles into a landscape of wetlands and farms.
We were aiming farther up the Bay for the mouth of Big Monie Creek, or just Monie Creek on most charts. We’d left a car a few miles up the creek at the only decent public access I’m aware of: where the abandoned terminus of Drawbridge Road falls off into the water. It was here we saw the only other boater in three hours, a fisherman in a kayak.
If you are alone, or just like to bicycle, you could stash a bike in the woods at the end of Drawbridge and ride 10 or so miles of mostly quiet, scenic roads back to the launch ramp. The aforementioned peninsular qualities of the Chesapeake enable a lot of “bikeable” trips, even walkable loops, where you can put in, paddle for miles, and take out not far from where you started. (A loop for the truly ambitious: Federalsburg in Caroline county, down the Marshyhope Creek and Nanticoke River; up the Bay through Hoopers Straits and the Honga River to the Choptank River, then upstream to Denton. The paddling time is maybe four, five days; but you’re only 16 miles from where you started.)
I hoped to finally pin down the origin of Monie Bay’s odd name (pronounced muhNYE). It may derive from Nomini, an Algonquian name of a bay on the lower Potomac River, meaning “beneath, within, deep down,” according to Hammill Kenny’s Place Names of Maryland; but I think no one really knows.
The region around it has undergone multiple name changes. Devils Island and Damned Quarter were changed to Deal Island and Dames Quarter after Methodism swept down the Delmarva Peninsula in the early 1800s. One wonderful name, the Mongrel Neck, persists.
Monie Bay is also one of three Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserves in Maryland, places of ecological significance and long-term scientific studies.
If you paddle the Monie Bay trails, download a map from the Internet, available at www.dnr.state.md.us/waters/cbnerr/moniebay.asp. The advertised color-coded trail signs (white, orange, yellow) seem to be all green signs, but there are numbers that correspond to the maps. A GPS would be a help, too, if you’re departing from the marked trails. Or, keep the big, white church in the Wicomico River town of Mount Vernon a little to your left to find the mouth of Big Monie Creek.