As we moved south the Severn opened to starboard, Kent Island slid by to port, Bloody Point lighthouse ahead acting as a navigation aid and reminder of the past. On Kent was the first settlement of the Upper Bay, a trading post established by William Claiborne in 1631. In that early time the waters were as clear as the open ocean; fish swarmed the rivers, and every shoal was carpeted by oysters. Trees stretched away in all directions, the forest primeval, individual trunks large enough to be hollowed into canoes capable of carrying 40 Indians. Under the lofty canopy was little underbrush. Deer roamed in a cathedral peace of dim light and quiet.
Among local cruisers today there is an endless argument about the "best" of the rivers. Flowing into the bay are some 40 major estuaries, each fed by its own complex of branches, all feeling the pulse of the ocean to the remotest headwaters, for the entire Chesapeake is tidal. Devotees of the upper and lower areas endlessly sing the delights of their own wide and lazy streams. Hidden harbors are played like cards, and always a secret gunk hole is the final trump, perhaps only to be described, exact location and pilotage details too precious to be divulged, even to make a point.
Before us were my own twin favorites of the Chesapeake. Behind Kent Island stretched Eastern Bay, open mouth of the Wye, the Miles and lesser streams; while a little farther along, past Tilghman Island, lay the Choptank River and its myriad feeders, wandering far across a peaceful countryside. Only from the air could the pattern be wholly comprehended, bringing visual reality to statistics of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which show that the "tidal shoreline, detailed, of Chesapeake Bay and all its tributaries totals about 5,600 statute miles," against "4,840 statute miles of general coastline from the state of Maine to the state of Washington." In other words, measurement of each squiggle of each Chesapeake creek to the head of tidewater, or point where the water narrows to a width of 100 feet, exceeds the coastal outline of the continental United States. Nowhere is there a straight line, everywhere there is one more creek and cove. And in the whole bay country the configuration was never more pronounced and thereby delightful for cruising than the waters over the bow of Finisterre that fall morning.
Again it was the wind that decided our destination. It was too good a day not to sail as far as possible. Wordlessly, when Bloody Point lighthouse came abeam, course was altered for Poplar Island Narrows. Past Jefferson Island we sailed, looking somewhat wistfully at its lovely harbor, and ignored the short cut of Knapps Narrows, a canal used by oystermen and crabbers to save distance. Avoiding the ever-present fish traps, we jibed off Blackwalnut Point to enter the Choptank River by a well-charted channel. Not very far inside, the river is more than five miles wide, making it a rather respectable bay in itself. Laying a course for Choptank light, I switched on the automatic pilot and relaxed against the mizzenmast, nothing to hit that couldn't be seen, nothing in sight, nothing to do but lazily consider the next choice. For at the lighthouse, now becoming visible ahead, we could swing to starboard, following the Choptank past the small city of Cambridge as far as we cared to go, almost 50 miles from Black-walnut Point into the heart of the Eastern Shore. Or at the light we could sharpen up to port and run the Tred Avon River beyond the village of Oxford, selecting an anchorage from an array of the loveliest creeks—by almost universal agreement—of the entire Chesapeake.
We compromised, followed the Chop-tank for a look into La Trappe Creek, then retracing our course into the harbor of Oxford. Here, in a snug inner cove, were tangible reminders of the golden age of sail. Maryland many years ago passed a law that oysters could not be dredged by powered vessels, so bugeyes and skipjacks, with their picturesque clipper bows and raked masts, still ply their ancient trade each winter, drowsing during the spring and summer tucked away in such byways as this, refitting each fall. Nor were these the only links with history. The village, with its spreading trees and smooth lawns, white picket fences and green shutters, bears a close resemblance to a New England town. The surrounding countryside retains much of the graciousness of an earlier era, fields running down to the water, colonial houses set back in flowering groves. And the flourishing boatyards rimming the harbor prove that it is continuingly oriented to the water.
As is our wont when cruising, Finisterre poked in for supplies and a look, and poked out again in quest of a deserted anchorage. Passing Plaindealing Creek, which took its name from the Quakers who traded fairly with the Indians, we continued up the Tred Avon to Trippe Creek, while the sun dropped toward the horizon. Beyond Deepwater Point lay a sheltered bowl of a harbor; almost regretfully we dropped the anchor, hating to end so perfect a day.
If you live right, sometimes—sometimes—the gentle gods who watch over the affairs of Chesapeake creeks are kind. We awakened to a moderate easterly breeze, carrying with it the freshness of the ocean lying just beyond our rampart of land. It still felt like summer. Gingerly I put a foot over the side to be rebuffed by the first chill of winter. But never mind. Always, cruising, there are the compensations. The electric anchor winch whirred, saving more energy, and one heave on the sheet unfurled the roller jib. Finisterre heeled ever so slightly, and we began retracing our course to Eastern Bay, heading now for the Miles River and the town of St. Michaels.
Within the span of my acquaintance, St. Michaels has changed, but only to accommodate the expanding fleet of pleasure boats. At the end of World War II it was a drowsing harbor frequented principally by fishermen, crabbers and oystermen; now marinas have blossomed, slips aplenty for wandering yachtsmen. At the head of the docks is a supply store, while nearby is a crab factory.
Here, as in most other towns, is found one of the principal joys of Chesapeake cruising: living off the land, or perhaps I should say water. Depending on the season, there are soft-shell crabs or steamers to buy, big bay busters transmuted from blue to bright red by steam and spices—or ready-picked back-fin meat, succulent lumps as big as your thumb. There are fresh shad and roe in the spring and native rockfish in the fall. After the leaves begin to drop, oysters may be purchased ready-shucked or by the barrel, the barrel to be lashed on the stern and the oysters opened as you sit along the rail, tossing shells into the water alongside. Local sea food can usually be bought, for fishing is still a major source of income to the area, but there is always the do-it-yourself system. Few are the creeks which will not yield pan fish and crabs. In fact, a long-handled crab net is a standard Chesapeake cruising appendage.
It was nearly dark when we returned to Finisterre after a shopping expedition. Almost anywhere else it would be necessary to spend the night alongside a dock, whether we wanted to or not. But starting the engine, we powered confidently forth as I scanned the chart for a harbor. Almost immediately I discovered Leeds Creek, less than a mile away. I had never heard of it before that moment, but as the red ball of the sun vanished without glare over the church spire of St. Michaels, Finisterre crept into the embrace of the first cove to appear to port, electronic depth finder never showing less than the charted eight feet. It was a harbor that would be famous elsewhere. After the anchor splashed down we lingered on deck, savoring perfection. Around us fish broke. Gulls almost too fat to fly fluttered away. Crickets and frogs began their evening chorus and, with the fading of the last light, Venus shone like a suspended jewel, no more distant than the nearest treetop. By my side Bill said softly: "Think how few people today can know such moments. Most places there is noise and hurry. Here there are only stars—us and them."