Chesapeake Insider

Dave Isbell


Dave Isbell is a retired Coast Guard officer with many years of seagoing experience in large and small vessels. He has been sea kayaking since 1989. In 2002 he discovered the traditional Greenland paddle and shortly after started building traditional skin on frame kayaks from scratch and becoming a devoted practitioner of traditional Inuit kayaking skills.

Dave had kayaked the east coast from New England to Florida and particularly enjoys the Chesapeake Bay area Adirondacks in upper state New York. Dave is a manager at local outfitter in Annapolis, MD, and on the steering committee of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association.

How did you become involved in paddling?

I had a canoe when I was a kid. And I’ve always been on the water earning a living as well as hobbies, mostly sailing. About 26 years ago, I started looking at rowing boats and decided to buy a sliding seat rowing boat. Then I hopped into a friend’s kayak and it was a bit of a revelation. You’re actually looking where you’re going as opposed to facing backwards in a rowing boat. So I decided to buy a kayak instead. I now own three canoes and I think 5 or 6 kayaks.

What draws you to being on the water, and paddling in particular?

I’ve always been fascinated with the water. I’ve always lived by the water and been on the water. Paddling is a more intimate way to be on the water and closer to nature. With a canoe or kayak you can get into some pretty shallow places where no one else can go - up into marshes, back into headwaters of creeks. I’ve paddled on the ocean and on the Bay, but my preferred trips are on rivers and creeks, seldom on the Bay itself. Most of it is on rivers and creeks.

Are your trips mostly single day trips or overnight?

Mine are mostly multi-day trips, anywhere from one night to two weeks. Paddling for a day is fine, but I find that the longer you spend out there, the easier you can relax a little more into the environment that you’re in. And the longer you’re there, the less you’re thinking about what’s going on back home. To some extent, it’s “escapist recreation”. But I also like to use some of the skills I’ve developed in camping and packing a boat, and knowing what to carry and being ready for emergencies and things like that. I’ve taught a couple of classes on trip planning which not only goes into research on the destination, but also what do I carry and what are the dangers of a particular area and what do I do to prepare for it.

Where do you find destination ideas for a potential paddling trip?

I am really bad at that. I rely upon other people who say ‘hey, I’m thinking about going here, do you want to come along? I use other people’s ideas, but then I can bring the planning resources in because I’m actually pretty good at doing that.

You’re a member of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association. Can you tell me a little about that club?

Chesapeake Paddlers Association has been around for a long time. I’m one of the longest running members I guess. My membership number is 22.  I have a lifetime membership. We have almost 700 members. Over the course of 20 plus years, we’ve had close to 6,000 total members as people come and go. It’s mostly a bunch of like-minded people who want to go paddling and want to go with people who are fairly confident in their skills or new paddlers who want to paddle with someone who is a little better than they are. You want to be able to learn from other people who have been out there doing it a little longer.

It’s a good group, a non-profit organization, and very safety conscious. We hold classes and events that are open to the public. And then some that are open just to members. At $10 a year, it’s easy to join. A lot of meet-up groups incorporate the Chesapeake Paddling Association’s safety requirements into their organization and into their paddles. Belonging to a paddling club or group is an excellent way to get out there.

Take a moment and tell me about your planning process for a paddling trip.

If I’m going somewhere new for a multi-day paddle, I’ll research the area. Things like how to get there, are permits required? How long can I stay? What kind of resources are there as far as resupply? Is fresh water available? If there’s fresh water that you can filter, that’s great. If there isn’t, you have to carry all of your water, and that is a limiting factor in trip duration and how many other things you can carry because water is heavy.

Another issue is the weather and climactic conditions - that’s going to dictate what kind of clothing, and what kind of safety gear you need to bring. Communications is another planning issue: are there cell phone towers or do I need a VHF radio? In some cases, I’ve rented a satellite phone/ Is there any search and rescue assistance available? A lot of people rely on assistance and don’t plan for the worst case scenario. When you know that nobody is coming to get you, you look at things much differently. You become extremely conservative. The old saying modified for kayakers is ‘there’s old kayakers and bold kayakers, but no old bold kayakers’. They don’t live long enough to make it.

When planning the details of a trip, what resources are most useful?

I use NOAA websites if it’s a tidal area and I get tides and currents for the duration of the trip. I’m a professionally trained navigator of the old school and I really like having paper charts to look at. Although I have a GPS and I use the GPS. Electronics break down, batteries fail. Knowing map and compass or chart and compass I think is still important. I know how to do that so I do it. Other resources are published maps of particular trails. Patuxent Water Trail has a map that has all the campsites on it.  So, I’m still carrying paper charts and electronic charts if I happen to have that area for my GPS.

Are there any specific items that you like to have with you?

Oh, I like to read. I like to carry one or two books, depending on the length of the trip. And that’s weight and bulk, but that’s my luxury item.

What are a few of your favorite places around the Chesapeake region to paddle?

I enjoy Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. In Virginia, I recommend paddling on the Rappahannock. I’ve also spent time at the southern end of the Bay on the James River and Chickahominy Creek area – that’s a lot of fun.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a 2,285-acre island refuge at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's an important migration stopover and wintering area for thousands of waterfowl.

Chickahominy Riverfront Park

This 140 acre park sits on the Chickahominy River near its confluence with the James River. The park provides a range of opportunities for recreation in a riverfront surrounding, including overnight camping, boating and fishing.

Michael Land

Mike is an active advocate for the Chesapeake Bay and enjoys photographing the Chesapeake's special places.

April 25, 2016

Main image: Michael Land / National Park Service
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