Explore Virginia's Eastern Shore By Water


by Bill & Mary Burnham

The bows of our kayaks clear the muddy banks of a marsh creek. In that moment, the quiet shelter afforded by tall saltmarsh cordgrass gives way to rushing wind that has churned the open water into frothy chop. We scan a far-off island framed by tall pines and fringed with a sandy shoreline.

The question is: Can we make it that far in our small boats?

Well, Captain John Smith did. Way back in 1608, with 14 men in an open boat called a shallop. When he reached it, he named it Smith Island. That name stands today, the island marked by the Cape Charles light.

Our gaze swings southward toward brown pelicans flying in V-formation over a low-slung mass of dark marsh of Fisherman Island. What's out there, we wonder? Shorebirds and solitary wading birds for certain. And the ruins of an old 19th century quarantine station, and the buried bunkers of the U.S. Coastal Artillery which, once defended the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay in tandem with Fort Story of Virginia Beach.

Moments like this -- in this case the view from our kayaks as we paddled the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge -- typify our paddling trips around the Eastern Shore. Wherever the road ends, a creek or a gut continues on, its passage waiting to be explored by shallow-draft canoe or kayak. Spend a few hours out here and it's tempting to think that somehow, someway, time has stood still.

But not really. Nautical charts and curious place names hint of days gone by when residents valued the Atlantic islands and bayside creeks for reasons other than their natural beauty. Islands made ideal pastures for grazing livestock. The creeks afforded access to markets. After the Civil War, the tourist factor attracted duck hunters and beachcombers. Mix in a few yarns and your imagination is stoked: Blackbeard's Creek has to reference Edward Teach, right? And why do locals call Fisherman Island 'Linen Bar'?

Textbook history of the English in Virginia starts with Jamestown and ends with their surrender to General Cornwallis at Yorktown. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is both part of, and apart from, this tableau. Capt. John Smith embarked from Jamestown in 1608 to explore the Chesapeake Bay. His stops along the Eastern Shore yielded precious little fresh water, but he left a legacy by naming an island for himself, and other landmarks for men in his crew. Steamships linked Cape Charles and the lower Shore with Norfolk and Hampton; farther north, towns like Onancock were more closely tied to Baltimore.

For all this, the Eastern Shore was largely isolated from the "western shore" for generations. The geography of the Eastern Shore molded the character of its residents: it was remote, flush with fish and shellfish, and endowed with good soil for growing crops.

Today, if you paddle from the town wharf in Onancock, it's easy to re-imagine those long ago days, when barrels of potatoes lined Market Street down to the landing, and farmers waited in line with horse-drawn wagons loaded with strawberries. The Hopkins and Bro. Store dates to 1842, and stands today at the town wharf (once known as Hopkins Wharf), a landmark to a bygone era.

First sailboats, and then steamships -- maybe the Pocomoke or the Eastern Shore -- docked here and took on this cargo for overnight delivery to Baltimore. As the lumbering giants moved out of the creek to open water, they stopped at Finney's Wharf on the creek's south side, and Mears Wharf at Poplar Cove on the north bank. These once-busy trading centers are now quiet, marked by stately homes and expansive yards. Their stories are in the memories of longtime residents, in the history books and your imagination as you float past.

Tangier Island, a small island community in the Chesapeake Bay, stands 11 miles off the mouth of Onancock Creek. It was seized by the British Navy in 1814 and used as a base to attack Baltimore and Washington during that War of 1812. Surrounded by marshes and small creeks, the island is ideal for immersing yourself in a timeless atmosphere.

The island now has a featured paddling trail with five routes, each marked with color-coded signs. The natural aspects, especially for birders, can't be overstated: terns and black skimmers nest in July and August, and the herons and egrets are ever-present. So too are signs of the old waterman's lifestyle, from the "shove boats" -- small flat-bottomed boats indigenous to the island -- to the still-active crab shacks that line the main channel into the harbor.

SouthEast Expeditions (www.sekayak.com, 877-22-KAYAK) guides two-hour, half- and full-day kayak trips throughout the Eastern Shore. The Plantation Creek tour (full-day) harkens back to Colonial Virginia. Historic Arlington plantation was one of the shore's first settlements. New in 2007 is a special two-hour tour of Historic Onancock Creek. It departs from the Onancock town wharf and explores three branches of this quiet, sheltered waterway. Southeast also conducts kayak tours of the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge, and bay and seaside islands and marshes.

Eastern Shore Adventures, (757-615-2598, www.easternshoreadventures.com) and Broadwater Bay Eco-Tours (757-442-4363, www.broadwaterbayecotours.com) offer eco-tours of barrier islands via power boat. Operated by longtime Shore residents, the trips are strong on local history and the story of barrier island communities of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tangier Water Trails is the handiwork of the Tangier History Museum and Interpretive Cultural Center, which lends recreational kayaks to visitors for free. There are five routes, all marked with color-coded markers. The Tangier Island Ferry departs from the Onancock Wharf, Memorial Day through September (804-453-4434, tangierisland-va.com).

Paddling Hampton Roads
By Mary Burnham

In Colonial times, the term "roads" referred to waterways, rather than land routes. In that vein, Hampton Roads Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay, the James and York rivers served as watery freeways for Hampton Roads.

Take some time to see the region the way Captain John Smith first viewed it in 1607 – by water. Let Hampton Roads Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay, the Elizabeth, James, and York rivers serve as watery freeways. For a more leisurely pace, meander down “backroads” of tidal creeks, shallow backwaters and quiet rivers.

Virginia Beach
Located on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating waterfowl, Back Bay is a unique wilderness where the bird-watching is sublime. The water ranges from brackish salt marsh to freshwater bald cypress swamp. In summer, the osprey are hatching; in winter the tundra swam make a visit. This is a large, open body of water, so it’s wise to check the weather and tides before heading out. For more sheltered routes, explore tidal creeks like Muddy Creek, Hell Point Creek and Asheville Creek. There's access at Ashville Bridge Creek/​Lotus Garden.

A kayak or canoe is a great way to reach False Cape State Park, the state’s more remote state park, accessible only by foot or boat, where primitive camping is available. Put in at Little Island City Park on the eastern side of Back Bay.

Explore First Landing State Park from Broad Bay by putting in at the Narrows boat ramp at the end of 64th Street. Look for soaring osprey and their nests in tall, dead trees along the shore. There are several sandy beaches to stop for a rest, picnic, or hike on the nature trails.

“Lynn Haven Roads” appears on old maps in the vicinity of the Lynnhaven Bay and Lynnhaven River. Along the area’s many inlets, settlers built homes and churches facing the water. Pleasure House Creek is too shallow for motorboats, but perfect for human-powered kayaks. The creek’s name derives from a tavern built along its shores in the 1770s. Put in at Crab Creek for a short trip, or at Lynnhaven Boat and Beach facility off Shore Drive for a longer one. You’ll pass Bayville Golf Club, with its rebuilt dairy barns reminiscent of the Bayville Dairy Farm, and the early 1800s Bayville Manor House.

More experienced sea kayakers can head to the oceanfront for a chance to paddle among dolphins.

The Norfolk Waterway Trails System follows 38 miles of the city’s waterfront and wetlands along the Chesapeake Bay and the Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers and Mason Creek. Play in the surf along Ocean View or brave the busy waters the Elizabeth River with huge barges and tugboats. For a quieter trip, the trail connects with the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River and passes into Virginia Beach with a take-out at Carolanne Farms Park. The Western Branch of the Elizabeth River leads into Portsmouth, where there’s a boat launch at Portsmouth City Park.

Lake Drummond is in the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The put-in on Route 17 in Chesapeake places paddlers on the Intracoastal Waterway for a short stretch, before turning right onto the Feeder Ditch. This straight-as-an-arrow canal stretches on for three miles, and is more picturesque than its name implies. Before reaching the lake, there is a take-out to circumvent a small dam. There are restrooms and a picnic area here. After a short portage, the lake awaits a few minutes up the canal.

As one of only two natural lakes in all of Virginia, Lake Drummond is a vast waterscape fringed by twisted and ghostly trunks of bald cypress. Sticking to the shoreline will reduce wind issues and permit glimpses into the impenetrable swamp forest that surrounds the lake. Escaped slaves sought harbor in this dense environment, and George Washington built some of the ditches in an attempt to drain the swamp and harvest the timber. Today this refuge, larger than the city of Norfolk, is home to about 300 black bear.

Keep an eye out for the entrance to the canal. Once out on the lake, it’s difficult to see the small buoy that marks this spot. A compass is advisable, as well as bug spray.

The Northwest River, while outside the refuge, is an environment very similar to the Great Dismal Swamp. Paddlers can meander its narrow 10-mile route to the wide, Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. Canoe rentals are available at Northwest River Park. To launch your own boat, use one of the put-ins outside the park, on Bunch of Walnuts Road, Indian Creek Road, or Battlefield Boulevard.

Access North Landing River, on the border of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, via a put-in on Pocaty Creek, on Blackwater Road. A 10-mile round trip takes paddlers through a preserve of wetlands and cypress swamps with a great diversity of plant and animal life. The Nature Conservancy has made preservation of land along this river a priority, and more information is available by contacting the group’s Norfolk office.

Smithfield/​Isle of Wight
Put in on Jones Creek to explore the tidal flats, wetlands and creeks off the Pagan River. The Warraskoyak tribe, one of 30 in the great Powhatan Empire, once inhabited these shores. Pull up to Smithfield Station, perched at the edge of the Pagan River, to have lunch or dinner.

The Blackwater River forms the border of Isle of Wight and Southampton counties on its route from Petersburg to North Carolina. The swampy river is lined with tupelo and bald cypress, some hundreds of years old. Put-ins at Zuni, south of Zuni on Routes 603 and 611, and in Franklin allow for a leisurely trip of a couple of hours, or a 30-mile adventure. Either way, paddlers enter a true blackwater swamp environment with winding paths of rust-colored water through swamp vegetation and grasses. Water may be low in summer, so try this route in the fall, winter or spring.

Eastern Shore
Put in at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge on the ocean side near the southern tip of the peninsula. The trip starts on Raccoon Creek and leads through salt marsh before entering the open and shallow waters that surround Fishermans Island. The Nature Conservancy owns many of the islands and boaters can explore them from the water, but not land. Mockhorn Island is state-owned and visitors can pull onto the sandy beach near a hammock at its southern tip and explore the ruins of an old hunting and fishing resort. For a thrill, paddle into Fishermans Inlet and beneath the bridge portion of the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel as traffic hurtles above you.

On the Peninsula
Taskinas Creek in York River State Park is a meandering river of grass that doubles as a natural laboratory for the study of estuarine habitat. The state park service rents canoes and leads guided trips. A tobacco warehouse once stood at the mouth of the creek for shipping tobacco via the York River, and archeologists have uncovered evidence of Indian habitation dating back 10,000 years. Today’s paddler travels through several habitats on the creek, starting with tidal marshes, leading next to salt marsh meadows and into towering hardwood forest.

In Hampton, explore the Back River from Gosnold’s Hope Park or brave the Chesapeake Bay surf at Grandview Wildlife Preserve. For a more urban paddle, put in at Millpoint Park in downtown Hampton for a tour of Hampton Creek, gliding past the Virginia Air & Space Center, Hampton University, and at the creek’s exit in the Chesapeake Bay, Blackbeard’s Point, where the pirate’s severed head perched on a pole in the 1700s.