Off The Beaten Path

Paddling the Pocomoke: Tour of swamp to Chesapeake takes you back in time


The good news for Chesapeake adventurers is that the Bay has a lifetime of waterfront to explore, about 11,000 miles if we include its tidal rivers and islands. Unfortunately, only about 2 percent of these land-water edges, which contain so much of the Bay’s beauty, fish and wildlife, include public access.

Only by boat, preferably small craft adept at navigating the estuary’s extensive shallows and nosing up its countless creeky inlets, can you experience the best of North America’s greatest estuary.

I prefer canoes and kayaks, totable on the smallest econo car, launchable wherever there’s a bridge or a ditch or a gap in the bushes, burning no fuel but body fat, moving quietly at speeds that would take forever to visit the whole Bay — exactly the point.

Today’s journey launches in the deep shade and bright bird song of a spring morning by the little bridge across the upper Pocomoke River at Porters Crossing, about four, winding water miles above the rural village of Snow Hill.

The Pocomoke rises not far north of here, 66 miles from Chesapeake Bay, in lower Delaware. There, a massive swamp of cypress, cedar and pine once occupied nearly 100 square miles of the Delmarva Peninsula’s interior. It was the last refuge of black bears in the region.

Grain fields, drainage ditches and chicken houses dominate much of that landscape now. But the Pocomoke itself retains some of the Chesapeake region’s best forests, including some spectacular bald cypress, majestic specimens centuries old.

A few paddle strokes out of Porters and you’ve left the world of humans behind for the next few hours. Big, old maples, gums, river birch and cypress filter the morning light and overhang the stream, which is no more than 50 feet wide. It creates a cathedral-like ambience, encouraging silence and contemplation.

Tides from the Chesapeake don’t exert an influence until around Snow Hill. The gentle current pushes our kayaks under big logs of fallen trees, into loops and side channels, beautiful mini-excursions, even if they don’t lead anywhere. It’s pretty easy to recover the main channel — just follow the flow of dark, tea-colored water.

We pass a Canada goose, body flattened, wings spread across a nest on a little island of bushes in midstream. Striking, golden warblers flit through the understory and sometimes perch and sing. They are prothonotaries, one of several species of songbird that summer here and winter in the tropics. The name comes from a class of religious cleric who wore saffron colored vestments.

Beavers are coming back, judging from the “chews” on the trunks of trees along the banks. They once inhabited the entire Chesapeake watershed by the millions, their dams effectively controlling the Bay’s hydrology, creating countless ponds and wetlands, filtering pollution and stabilizing flows to the Bay in rainstorms.

Train yourself on such paddles to always be looking ahead to where the stream disappears around another bend. You’ll see a lot more wildlife — shy turtles sunning on logs, water snakes (nonvenomous) hanging from a low branch, herons stalking the shallows, and wood ducks taking their young for a paddle; maybe even a river otter.

Through April and May, the upper Pocomoke is as lovely botanically as any river of the Bay. Wild azaleas blossom pinkly and the white panicles of fringetrees shimmer in the breeze. Native viburnums festoon the banks. Bald cypress just unfurling its feathery, fresh green needles, has a delicate, gauzy look that contrasts pleasingly with its statuesque trunk and branches.

About halfway to Snow Hill, where the stream broadens and the canopy falls away, you’ll pass under a power line. For the next several hundred yards pay attention to the forest on the right-hand (northwest) bank where it rises steeply. You’re passing several acres that make up one of Delmarva’s special, hidden places.

The trees along here — loblolly pine, cypress, oaks, ironwood, gums, tulip poplar and more than a dozen other species — attain a size and diversity that is as close to the original Delmarva forest as you’re going to see in the 21st century.

No one knows exactly the why of this lovely little patch. The farm family who owns it chose not to cut for generations. The soils are rich and it gets abundant sunlight. It’s private, no access, but plenty of nooks where paddlers can pause for lunch or a break and drink in the beauty of this favored woods.

The river broadens as Snow Hill approaches. Later in spring, you’ll see the fresh greens of rooted aquatic plants begin to sprout from the shallows along here. Arrow arum, pickerel weed, spadderdock— all the ‘tuckahoe’ of the Indians. Their starchy roots were such a food staple that American Indian densities on Delmarva strongly correlated with the fresh water reaches of rivers lined with tuckahoes.

For day-trippers, Snow Hill, founded in 1686, could be journey’s end. It features a couple of bed and breakfasts, a few lunch places and an easy pullout just above the Route 12 bridge, where the Pocomoke River Canoe Company occupies a big wooden building on the south bank.

You can rent paddle craft there and arrange shuttles up to Porters Crossing, or to and from other points on the river. They also have maps and expert advice.

The more self-reliant can stash bicycles at the takeout, pedal back to Porters and pick up cars. I often do this in more remote locations. Because bicycle speed is three or four times faster than paddling speed, it works well for day trips.

But by all means press on past Snow Hill, for you are now entering the world of the main Pocomoke, where you can travel for another few days with amazingly few signs of human development.

It’s tidal here, weak at first, but picking up quickly as one moves downriver to where it makes sense to consult online tidal calculators to plan as much of your trip with the tide as possible. On a very high tide, you may have to carry your boats around the low Route 12 bridge, or “line” them under the bridge empty, using long pieces of cord attached to bow and stern. At the downriver end of Snow Hill is a nice little town park with drinking water and bathrooms.

From Snow Hill south I’d recommend a couple options. About a mile below the town, on the right-hand side is the mouth of Nassawango Creek, where public and private interests have protected thousands of acres. Nassawango’s 18 miles harbor more than 90 rare plants, Atlantic white cedar, and a dozen species of wild orchid.

Entering the creek’s broad mouth you’ll likely see ospreys fishing, quite possibly bald eagles, big pileated woodpeckers and chattering kingfishers. In its upper reaches, the forest closes in again, reminiscent of the area around Porters Crossing.

About three miles up Nassawango is a small bridge that carries Red House road, a good place to pull out, and not far by bicycle or by shuttle back to Porters or to Snow Hill. (There’s an earlier bridge about a mile up the creek, but I think the best section is between there and Red House.)

For the more intrepid, there is Shad Landing on the left, about four miles below Snow Hill; and on the right-hand bank about six miles down is Milburn Landing. Both are part of Pocomoke State Park, offering tent and RV camping and cabins, bathrooms and cookout facilities. Shad Landing is more developed, with a small marina, playing fields and a small store. I find Milburn more relaxing, and it has a nice observation deck extending from the water’s edge.

The Pocomoke is not big enough water to generate big waves, but below Snow Hill it does open up enough that wind can be a real factor (as well as tide). If the winds were forecast to blow hard for any length of time from the south or southwest — the prevailing direction during the summer — I’d think about running my Pocomoke paddle in reverse, or upriver. Local knowledge from people like Pocomoke River Canoe Company is always worth seeking out.

The modest paddles I’ve outlined are more than they seem. I’ve done some of the stretches therein dozens of times, the same route but never the same. From month to month, season to season, early morning to full moon night, from rain to shine; with kids, with botanists, with expert birdwatchers, with fishermen, poets, historians — there are almost infinite lenses through which to experience the same piece of river; and always one more little inlet or creek you’ve been meaning to nose into, one more bend just up ahead.

Follow Captain John Smith’s trail through Accohannock Country

At the other end of the Pocomoke system lies a different world, the vast salt marshes of Pocomoke Sound, even more remote and untraveled than the cypress swamps and deep forests upstream. On June 6, 1608, on his way to explore and map the Chesapeake, Captain John Smith passed by East Creek, where we’re now paddling, his crew laboring to row their chunky shallop against a southwest wind. The area is now part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

The English explorer and Jamestown founder, whose maps literally put the Chesapeake on the map, was returning from exploring the lower Pocomoke. Smith had poked upriver in search of something more precious than the treasure and passage to the Orient that his bank rollers in England hoped for — drinkable water. He found it and wrote in his journals that he would have “refused two barricoes (6–8 gallon kegs) of gold for one of that puddle (muddy) water of Wighcocomoco (Pocomoke).”

Winding through the prairie-like marshes, blue crabs fin in the shallows, black ducks burst from tidal ponds and a big fish, maybe a striped bass, swirls beneath a muddy marsh bank. As far as the eye can see there’s not a house or a road in sight.

A friend and I launched out of a 33-acre property owned and operated by the Accohannock Indian Tribe known as Bending Water Park. On the road to Crisfield, turn left onto Holland Crossing Road near Marion Station and follow the signs. You can rent canoes and kayaks from the Accohannocks, or launch your own for a small fee. Primitive camping and guided paddle trips are also available.

From the protected launch ramp at Bending Water, follow a 5-mile, marked trail down Tull Branch into East Creek. The lower section becomes progressively more open to wind and wave as it approaches wide open Pocomoke Sound.

The ambitious paddler could go up or down the shores of the Sound, along unpeopled expanses of marsh and beach, poking into myriad creeks. I’ve always wanted to try Marumsco Creek, whose mouth lies not far from the mouth of East Creek. On charts it appears one could paddle all day inland, north and east through wetlands and farms.

This article was originally published on the Bay Journal website on July 30, 2012. 

Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is a freelance writer, splitting his time between Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

July 25, 2016

Main image: Dave Harp
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