When people ask me when are the best times to be out on the Chesapeake and its tributaries, I usually say May and October. While few are disappointed who spring and fall it, my advice is not the whole truth.
Many of my most memorable times afield, in kayak, canoe and skiff, have come in the dead of winter. Such times aren't for the casual tripper or the ill-equipped — and may indeed be "an acquired taste," as John Page Williams says in his fine guide, "Exploring the Chesapeake in Small Boats."
But there is elemental loveliness to the winter Chesapeake, satisfaction in being out when most aren't, and the pleasures of clean air, clear water and unsurpassed dawns and sunsets.
Let me show you around.
It's mid-February, a moonless night coming on as we paddle toward a tiny, uninhabited island a few miles north. Snow and sleet driven by 20-knot winds are forecast; but by then we'll be camped in the lee of the island's small sand dunes.
Soon, we'll have a tarp up and fat oysters roasting over chunks of radiant oak stashed there in balmier times. A band of wild tundra swans, which has flown 4,000 miles from Alaska's North Slope to winter here, hallooos from the dark and cold. Sleet rattles the tarp as the advancing storm blots the sparkle of lights from small fishing towns on the mainland.
For swans and humans, it's a night for snuggling deep in down, savoring the wind's roar. We wake only to thump ice off the tents. First light reveals a hushed Bay, bejeweling an expanse of sugar-frosted marsh. We depart to a round of applause, the clapping of the swans' paddle feet and great wings as they lift off into the dawn.
Two degrees below zero—rare cold for Dorchester County and too iced up to think about boating; but a fine morning for tramping the marshy edge. The snow has a crust on it that almost holds your tread, then breaks, making walking tough.
But it is easy passage for rodents, judging by the intricate networks of their thousands of tiny footprints laid down during the night. It must have been a sight to behold in the radiance of the full moon. And then another, most curious pattern, laid down at frequent intervals along the frozen edge—broad, bold brushstrokes in the powdery crust.
Only one thing it can be, a friend explains. All that rodent traffic on the frozen, moonlit snow must have made the easiest of pickings for barred and great horned owls, swooping silently, leaving only wing prints.
It was 10 degrees above zero — and the sun well up — when we left the mainland by skiff for uninhabited, treeless South Marsh Island and one of the most luxurious afternoons I've ever spent outdoors.
The water was so clear. We plucked dozens of oysters from the shallows by sight as we drifted across a creek mouth. We arranged them in a bowl-shaped piece of driftwood and ate them raw and briny, followed by
mussels gouged from the marsh banks and steamed on a camp stove.
Sated, we found a patch of mattress-soft saltmarsh hay and snugged down behind a driftwood windbreak to watch birds and clouds and to nap — warm enough in the sun's radiance to shuck boots and coats and hats as the mercury rose to maybe 20 degrees.
Clear water is a reliable winter bonus, as the production of algae that so murk the modern Bay slows to a crawl. The underwater grasses die back too, and it can be mesmerizing to simply drift with a breeze across the estuary's shallows, sighting huge old tree stumps, foundations of long-gone buildings, gorgeous red sponges, little channels and dropoffs where fishing might be worthwhile come warmer weather.
The best clear-water viewing of the Bay I ever heard of came from a National Guard aircraft during the winter of 1963. Donald Heinle, a marine researcher with the University of Maryland, was aloft on a training exercise. It had been extremely dry, with low runoff, further retarding algal growth; and that was before the Chesapeake began to suffer badly from widespread overfertilization with nutrients from farms and development.
Heinle flew the length of the Bay that day, able to see the bottom 30–40 feet down, which is to say most of the Bay's bottom. Because he came from Puget Sound, far deeper, the visible shallowness of the Chesapeake made a deep impression.
The cold can kill you quickly out there in winter, of course. We don't venture far without plenty of emergency gear and dry clothes sealed in waterproof bags, or without proper cold weather gear, or without telling someone where we are going and when we'll be back. Simply having two boats, or two people, sharply reduces the chances of a disaster.
And I seldom plan winter ventures when it's windy; but there are exceptions. The prevailing winter winds blow from the northwest, and it so happens a couple of my favorite creeks and rivers run more or less in that direction.
So when a big nor'wester huffs through, I can launch my kayak in stretches where it's narrow enough not to let big waves build, and run southeast before the wind for miles and miles with little effort. A few years ago on just such an exhilarating jaunt, I saw around 40 bald eagles in 15 miles of Maryland's Marshyhope Creek (originally called the Northwest Fork of the Nanticoke).
Another day on the Marshyhope, windless this time, water smooth and dark as slate in the deep cold of a winter evening, I watched as ice literally grew. Small patches, roughly diamond shaped, longer than wide, only slightly more opaque than the water, began to appear. They floated randomly, then touched and fused and thickened. By the fire that night you could hear the ice making up.
Above all there is winter light, appreciated all the more because the days are short, the sun scant. It has a sharpness, a clarity not found in summertime. Between the equinoxes — when night and day are equal— in September and March, light moves through its lowest ebb on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year.
The sharp slant of winter's sun makes light glancing off the water reverberate in waves through the leafless forests of tidal swamps; casts a golden blaze across the expanses of saltmarsh; stabs the dark edges of the landscape with the most vivid hues of dawn wherever water penetrates; and bathes the waterfronts of ordinary Bay towns in a Vermeer-like glow.
There is much more: the winter music of loons and swans, geese and sea ducks; the cold-weather courtships of early nesting eagles and great blue herons.
And there is satisfaction, refuge from an increasingly crowded world in wintertime Bay journeys.
I have always loved the poem, "Winter Fisherman," written decades ago by Rock Hall, MD, native and poet Albert W. Dowling:
It is not need for bread alone that drives
A man from fireside to the ice's flow,
But goading inner appetite that thrives
On hazards which the meek will never know,
An eagerness that spurns and scorns the weak
And welcomes winters on the Chesapeake.