Tidewater Review - February 2009
Chesapeake Winds and Tides
Chesapeake Winds and Tides by Don Parks. Cherokee Books. 258 pp. $14.95
“There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in small boats,” as we learned as children from Kenneth Grahame’s classic book, Wind in the Willows. Don Parks knows that truth well, because he has done it and enthusiastically written about it.
On his boat, Yankee Rover, he made a series of leisurely trips of discovery on several rivers of the Eastern Shore, but doesn’t tell the reader what was his home port of call during the time of his “messing about” from 2005 to 2007, but he must have loved being on the Shore. As a child, he says, he was always near the water and learned to love the Chesapeake Bay as his father did. He’s a retired school administrator who now ties up Yankee Rover near his home in St. Michaels.
Parks’ father was a waterman and Parks himself has owned a long succession of small boats, beginning, he relates, with buying his first one as a newlywed. As he explained to his dubious bride, “A boat is a necessity, just like a refrigerator. Besides, boats last forever. We won’t need to replace it for a long time.”
Well, not exactly. Parks says his choice of boats has vacillated “between power and sail, large and small, slow and fast.” At the tail end of this was Yankee Rover, his 21st boat. It’s what he has dreamed of for a long time, a diesel-powered inboard vessel, slightly longer than 20 feet, with a two-and-a-half-foot draft. It was built in Nova Scotia from the lines of a lobster boat, not the deadrise workboats common to the Chesapeake Bay. Its covered cabin has a space for light cooking and storage, plus a forward sleeping space and head.
When he found his quest in Maine, he learned that its previous owner docked Yankee in Annapolis. It was perfect for Parks, who prefers to travel alone, writing, “Desiring not to be bothered with dinner menus, clothing choice and other land-based niceties, solitude was preferred.” The reader assumes that list includes tight schedules.
In a series of separate adventures, Parks moseys between the banks of the Choptank, Miles and Wye rivers, the Big and Little Annemessex rivers, the Pocomoke River, the Nanticoke River and the Wicomico River. Not content to be hemmed in by river banks, he also ventured out into open water and put in at the islands of the mid-Bay: Holland, Smith and Tangier. Visiting closer waterways, he also worked his way north to the Honga River, the little Choptank and the Poplar Islands group.
Along the way, he took notes on the history of his scenic trips, turning to Pete Lesher, curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, for expertise on the era of steamboat stops that remain on the shores of many towns. He also made subsequent road trips to small towns he encountered as he putt-putted past. He interviewed old-timers who knew and remembered when their area was a hub of canning and shipping seafood or manufacturing, shipping lumber or carrying goods to the Port of Baltimore by steamboats. Modern boat traffic was often crabbers, oyster tongers and tugboats pulling or pushing all manner of cargo.
Most of all, though, he basked in the beauty of countryside, the tranquility of his solitary wandering and the majesty of sky and water. He delighted in finding quiet coves for tying up the boat for the night, savoring the silence and the lap of current to lull him to sleep.
One gets the sensation that Parks was like Huck Finn on a raft, content to go where the water took him.
His Choptank River voyage started at the leaning tower of Sharps Island Light, the broad opening to a 50-mile trip as far as Denton. His November departure ushered in a spell of frigid weather. After a turn to port to take him into the beautiful Tred Avon, he went ashore at Oxford in search of hot coffee, only to be told by a resident that all restaurants were closed for the winter. He found sustenance farther upriver in Cambridge, but the cold spell intensified and he shivered on board Yankee in a sleeping bag.
Undaunted, he forged ahead and the weather moderated as he followed the narrowing river past magnificent waterfront homes and fallow farm fields. He made a sentimental side trip into the Warwick River to see the docks where his late father unloaded his catch, and to Cabin Creek’s Suicide Bridge, which puzzled him. How, he wondered, could anyone commit suicide on a bridge so close to the relatively shallow water? He learned that firearms, not drowning, was the answer. He passed riverside marshes that he surmised might explain why several Indian tribes made their villages nearby to harvest the wild rice growing there. His journey was accompanied by flocks of geese and ducks in the air and on the water, filling the air with their calls and chatter.
Following “a crooked path” upriver, he poked into the village of Choptank and admired its marina and a sign that marked its stop on the steamboat circuit. Upriver, the entrance to the Tuckahoe beckoned, providing another possible hidey-hole for the night’s anchorage. The narrow entrance opened to “a natural, unspoiled wonder” all the way to Hillsboro.
A backtrack put Yankee on the Choptank again and on its way to Denton, the terminus of Parks’ Choptank journey. He loved a walk through town, its historic houses and its legacy of bustling industry and steamboat activity. It fulfilled its promise of a glorious river for exploration.
Another trip, this one on the Miles and the Wye rivers, drew this observation about the Miles from Parks: “Not a large river by any stretch, but the volume and variety of waterborne traffic on any given summer day produces enough wave action to satisfy a serious waveboarder. Our entry into the river was welcomed by a multitude of bone-jarring jolts, bumps and spray, thanks to the wakes from a parade of giant power yachts hastily exiting the river...on a typical August Sunday afternoon,” he writes.
Parks entered the Wye on his way into the Miles and rated it as one of the most interesting and lovely bodies of water off the main Bay.
Back on the Miles, Parks dropped in to St. Michaels harbor and gives brief recaps of its attractions and history. Lower on the peninsula, he tours the Pocomoke, Nanticoke and Wicomico waters, with their connections to inland cities, Seaford, Salisbury and the gem of a town, Vienna. All have historic sites and some, like Salisbury, have bustling industries and sizeable populations. River traffic in the first two are served by constant coming and going of barges and tugs, making small boat passage lively.
On another trip, he explored Holland Island (a naval bombing practice site) out from the Little Choptank River. Shallow water prohibited a stopping layover, but he dropped anchor off the island and took the dinghy ashore to meet the only inhabitants of the eroding bit of land. He was charmed by both Smith and Tangier islands, where he found a warm welcome. Crisfield was his jumping-off point for a mid-Bay jaunt, and he writes about the colorful scene with a backtrack of commentary of its harbor built on the detritis of its famous stardom in seafood shipping by boat and rail.
After a separate probe into the waters around Deal, one of the last bastions of the skipjack fleet, he ventured on into the hamlets of isolated and not particularly welcoming hosts.
Parks is accurately blunt about sea conditions in specific parts of the Bay, most notably the high waves and winds in such places as Holland and Kedges Straits and Tangier Sound. These can be white-knuckle waters, not for the faint of heart in small boats. As a former sailor who rarely vowed never to leave dry land again, those bodies of water made me adamant to never transit them again, even if Blackbeard was in pursuit.
His journey on the Honga River is recounted with appreciation of the watermen who ply these waters three seasons of the year and, until the market collapsed, trapped the adjacent marshes for muskrats, selling the furs and eating the meat in winter. The area, while catching up with the rest of the world via television, is still remote and reminiscent of earlier times.
Sometimes facts are a bit awry, but as a solitary eye for the unique facets of these beautiful waterways, Parks has created a fine addition to the library of those who love to mess about in small boats.