INTO THE BLUE
"We’re almost an island in Mathews," says Neil Webre. "We have an unusual amount of waterfront for such a small amount of land."
And there you have it, folks. In 20 words, the reason why you should be packing up the paddles, stuffing your dry bags and heading for Mathews County, Virginia. Because just over three hours from the District, you can launch yourself into some of the best sea-kayaking in the mid-Atlantic.
Almost due north (by water) from the Hampton-Norfolk area, Mathews County is a peninsula cradled on three sides by the open waters of the Chesapeake and Mobjack bays and nearly pincered off on the fourth side between the Piankatank and North rivers. Pierced as well by the East River and riddled with countless inlets, tidal creeks, sheltered coves and navigable marshes, and boasting 18 public launch sites, Mathews is a flat-water paddler’s paradise – a mere 87 square miles of land and more than 200 miles of shoreline.
Until not so long ago, the only thing missing was the paddlers.
Then a group of local residents, interested in promoting low-impact cultural and eco-tourism in the county, got together and decided to change that. The result was the Mathews Blueways Water Trail – a more than 90-mile mapped loop around the peninsula, made up of five interconnected, self-guided paddling trails, all outlined in the detailed Mathews Blueways guide.
Webre is co-chair of the Mathews Blueways committee. The first Blueways guide was produced on his computer in 1998, a cut-and-paste of NOAA marine charts and narrative descriptions produced by the committee itself.
"We divided the
county into sections to create five trails," explains Webre’s
co-chair, Marcy Benouameur. "Then each person took a trail and went
out and paddled it and wrote it up."
More recently, a grant from the National Park Service (the Blueways trail is part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, in which the Park Service is a partner) helped fund professional production of the second edition of the guide, with individual, waterproof pullouts for each trail. It’s loaded with information, a bargain at $12, and if you visit the Blueways Web site, www.blueways.org, you can still download free the longer text descriptions from the original guide. Though you’ll have to supply your own zip-lock bag now.
There are three roads into Mathews County, and two of them cross a bridge to get there. At various times a lively center of shipbuilding, maritime commerce and the fishing industry since it was first settled by English colonists about 1650, Mathews began a slow decline into sleepy obscurity when the steamships stopped calling early in the 20th century.
Which might not be such a bad thing, after all. Somehow, Mathews has remained virtually unspoiled by intrusive development. No 300-unit waterfront condo complexes. No Brew-Thrus or tiki bars. And if real estate prices are spiking upward still, a drive around Mathews is a tour of refreshingly simple clapboard frame houses, one-room post offices, woodlands, marshes and fields green with growing crops. You can bicycle along a winding side road – and nearly every road in Mathews is a side road – for miles without spotting a single car. The stars spangle the skies at night, and it’s so quiet you can hear the liquid click and scrabble of the fiddler crabs scuttling about at low tide. Mathews County is a place residents regularly refer to, without a trace of irony, as "paradise."
However, as paradises take poorly to population explosions, the people I met in Mathews also stressed, in the nicest possible way, how happy they are to welcome visitors.
Come. Enjoy. Then, if you don’t mind, go home.
"Catch-and-release tourism" is how Bobbi McElroy, executive director of the Mathews County Visitor and Information Center, described it to me.
Early on a cloudless August morning, I met Benouameur at her 1880 home, where her green kayak was already perched and waiting on her car roof. As is true nearly everywhere in Mathews, water is not far from Benouameur’s door. During Hurricane Isabel, it got even closer, flooding her house up to several feet deep. She came back from evacuation to a drive impassably choked by trees and a home of ruined appliances and floors beyond salvage. Later in the day, a woman I met told of watching an entire deck float by upright during Isabel, with a grill and flowerpots still on board.
On this morning, however, the sun was already beating down hot on our heads, the wind was a gentle and welcome breeze playing ripples across the water, and the sky arched blue above us. It was paddling weather.
I followed Benouameur along narrow, meandering roads to the Winter Harbor Haven boat landing – one of Mathews’s unusually abundant supply of launching sites – where some 20 fellow paddlers had gathered, arrayed in a catalogue’s worth of water shoes, flotation vests and sun hats. One woman’s T-shirt read "Association of the Paddle Obsessed."
My companions for the day included members of the Ladies International Picnic and Paddle Society (founded Mathews County, 1999), along with the SLIPPS (Spouses of the Ladies International Picnic and Paddle Society), as well as several random others. If the average age of the group ran more to AARP than X-Games, there was nothing retiring about the agility with which everyone was hopping into their boats and shooting out into the green-gold waters of Winter Harbor. And yet quite a few of them, I soon learned, had come to kayaking only in the past few years.
Our guide was Jan Towne, co-owner with her husband, Shawn, of Bay Trails Outfitters, located – where else? – on the edge of the water in Mathews. Bay Trails sells canoes, kayaks and paddling gear, and offers instruction as well as scheduled and custom guided tours. Jan Towne was originally co-chair of the Blueways committee with Benouameur; in the fall of 1998, as the trails guide was coming together, the Townes launched Bay Trails to serve the paddling community that was to be.
It must have been something of a leap of faith at the time. Jane Witmer, a potter (one of the first in an area that has now become known for its arts community) as well as a paddler, told me that she and her husband, Steve, were some of the first kayakers in Mathews, and that was only in 1995.
"We started kayaking in the Florida Keys, and we came up here and said, ‘Whoa, it’s protected water,’ " Witmer said. "People saw us running around the county with our blue tandem Aquaterra on our car roof – we call it the Blue Toupee."
The Blueways committee formed a few years later, the Townes opened Bay Trails, and voilŕ – "There are so many cars with kayaks on top now," Benouameur told me, "but it’s all happened in the last five years."
"How many are visitors, we can’t say," committee co-chair Webre added later. "We just note a lot of action out there."
On Winter Harbor, the action this morning was a flotilla of brightly colored kayaks, paddles flashing in the sunlight, with Jan Towne leading the way. Though it opens into the Chesapeake Bay through two different channels, Winter Harbor is well sheltered by land. According to Towne, it also remains largely free of that bane of late-summer swimming on the Bay, the tentacled jellyfish (and indeed, I saw not one all day). And though expansive, Winter Harbor is also mostly shallow. The kind of shallow, you may wish to keep in mind, that can lead on occasion to a sludgy portage across an unexpected mud flat when the tide goes out. Look for the "tide dependent route" note on your Blueways guide.
"There’s a lot of water in Winter Harbor – it’s just spread real thin," said Towne as we skimmed along. That’s why Winter Harbor is ideal for a kayak ("As they say in Louisiana, ‘It floats on the dew,’ " Webre noted) and blessedly not ideal for fast-moving, motor-driven watercraft. No drone of speedboats or Jet Skis to spoil the tranquil lapping of water against your bow and the sounds of sea birds calling as they wheel above.
We rambled through passageways between islets green with marsh grasses. An egret rose from its perch and flapped lazily away. A fish flipped into the air and splashed down.
After several hours spent zigging to and zagging fro and poking up this and that inlet (and yet only barely, I discovered, putting even a nick in the actual 15- to 22-mile Winter Harbor trail), we headed for a small spur off the main waterway. In the distance, across the water and close to where we’d started from, another kayaking group was visible.
"That’s our kids’ camp," Towne said. After a morning spent learning to kayak through games and play, the kids were cooling off with a swim, she explained.
They drifted from view as we moved farther away, and soon the shoreline grew closer on both sides and a few rooftops showed above the trees. The water and a paved lane dead-ended against each other in a brief patch of mud, sand and weeds, and we hauled our boats into the grass and set off along the roadway, dribbling trickles of the Atlantic behind us.
Our destination, only a short distance down the lane, was Towne’s back yard, where a picnic lunch of wrap sandwiches, cold drinks, salads and chips was laid out on a table beneath the shade of a spreading tree.
"Is this the way it always is paddling in Mathews?" I asked through a mouthful of Waldorf salad. "I’m definitely coming back."
Alas, alfresco feasts are not a standard-issue feature of a Blueways adventure. On the other hand, every Bay Trails guided tour ends with a slice of Towne’s homemade pound cake. I can assure you from careful, personal research that her pound cake would give Dr. Atkins and Dean Ornish fits, and fine by me. More for the rest of us.
Perhaps too much more, in my case. Or perhaps it was the fateful moment when Towne said, "Try the cobbler. It’s made from our own cherries."
Not long after, I reeled back to my kayak noting that my flotation vest had grown oddly more snug in the past 40 minutes and thinking that nothing goes so well with two generous helpings of dessert than an extended nap.
But it was not to be, for I had places to go and things to see, and I was on one side of a biggish patch of water, and my car was on the other.
Elsewhere on the Trail
In a morning, I had hardly sampled a taste of the Blueways trail. If I’d set out to cover more mileage on the Winter Harbor leg, my route would have taken me out into the Chesapeake Bay proper and into the neighboring Horn Harbor, "which is a lot different from Winter Harbor," Webre says. "If you are going to do a one-day paddle, and paddle one whole trail, Winter Harbor will probably give you the most variety," he adds.
If I’d been feeling particularly ambitious, I could have tagged onto the next section of the trail system – Gwynn’s Island/Milford Haven – and paddled all the way back to Lane’s Creek (marked as a "spur trail" on the Blueways guide) and the comfortable waterside guest cottage where I’d left my family that morning thoroughly investigating the benefits of sleeping late.
With a little research via the Blueways guide and the Mathews visitor and information Web site, www.visitmathews.com, it’s possible to plan a point-to-point excursion from one accommodation – campground, guesthouse or B&B – to another. And if you like to live light and leave no trace, "there are some unpopulated places," Webre says, "various little places where, if you are careful, you can tuck in for wilderness camping."
Linking two trails together – even if you only do a portion of each – is a good way to experience the sheer variety of the Blueways. "The trails are very different, from creeks to wide-open water," Benouameur notes. "And you get to see a lot of things from the water you wouldn’t see from the road – like the wildlife and the beautiful old homes."
One of the most popular destinations for paddlers is the New Point Comfort Lighthouse. The third-oldest lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and first lighted in 1805, the lighthouse sat on the southernmost tip of the Mathews peninsula until a fury of a hurricane in 1933 turned the tip into an island.
Up the East River you can see the last remaining tide mill (a mill powered by the rise and fall of the tides) on the Bay and maybe catch sight of the world-champion (no kidding) Mathews High School rowing team at practice. On the Gwynn’s Island/Milford Haven trail, you can watch the Gwynn’s Island swivel bridge rotate slowly open for passing fishing boats, and pull out at the Milford Haven landing for lunch at the Seabreeze restaurant, a popular clam strips and crab cakes kind of haunt where the desserts are homemade and the windows offer a good view of the water.
In short, a day on the Blueways is not enough. For an experienced paddler, "it would take about three days to do the complete circumnavigation," Webre says. That’s if you could possibly resist slipping down all the dozens of little creeks and inlets and pulling out to swim, catch a few blue crabs or explore an inviting stretch of sandy beach. But why would you want to resist? The pleasure of the Blueways trail is the endless variety of possibilities it offers, opportunities that change every day with the seasons, with the tides, with the wind.
Start planning your trip with a visit to the Mathews County Visitor and Information Center’s Web site, www.visitmathews.com, where you can order a copy of the Blueways guide and research your options for lodging, dining and recreation. You’ll also want to get a preview of the Blueways trails at www.blueways.org.
To get to Mathews take Interstate 95 south to U.S. 17 east to a left on Route 198 to a right on Route 14. When you get to Mathews, stop by the visitors center (240 Main St.; 877-725-4229) for other goodies, such as a Virginia Department of Transportation map to Mathews County (handy for getting around all those back roads), a Gateways Network map and guide, the usual assortment of brochures and fliers, and good tips on what to do and see when you’re not on the water. If you’re lucky, you can also witness Executive Director Bobbi McElroy feeding the toadfish, blue crabs and eels making their home in the visitors center’s aquarium tanks.
Where to stay: There’s no hotel in Mathews County, but there are two campgrounds (tent and RV), several bed-and-breakfasts and a growing number of guest cottages, which range from a fairly basic one-bedroom efficiency to the five-bedroom Grandview Manor, complete with swimming pool, tennis court and deepwater dock. It’s $750 a night, with room for up to 10 people. (On the East River at 46 Tick Neck Rd. in Foster; contact McElroy in the visitors center at 804-725-4229 for reservation information.)
We chose Holly Cottage, a more than well-equipped and very reasonably priced two-bedroom, waterside cottage owned by retired Navy captain Will Story and his wife, Martha. The very hospitable Storys were a font of interesting Mathews history and lore, and my 7-year-old son was thrilled to catch his first blue crabs (and release them, ever the lover of all creatures great and small) under the watchful guidance of "the Captain." (On Lanes Creek at Cricket Hill Road near Gwynn’s Island; 804-725-9134. $100 a night, $500 a week for a fully equipped two-bedroom, two-bath cottage.)
What to do: Paddle, of course. But if you’re in town on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday between May and October, put the Gwynn’s Island Museum on your must-do list. Packed into a two-story former Odd Fellows Lodge that was a near-ruin only a few years ago (ask to see the picture), the museum is a very well-organized but almost indescribably eclectic collection spanning the natural and cultural history of Gwynn’s Island, from a 400-million-year-old bryozoan fossil that museum Director Jean Tanner picked up while beachcombing in front of her house one day, to a mastodon tooth and leg bone, to photographs and a collection of medical instruments (some of them alarming to the imagination) that belonged to island physician Jennings Haynes. The museum is free, but donations are welcome. (804-725-7949; on Route 633 on Gwynn’s Island; www.qsl.net/w4rzb/gimuse.html; open Friday-Sunday 1 to 5 from May through October).
Load your carbs: There are two full-size grocery stores within a mile of each other on the main route through Mathews for provisioning your picnic basket, and a single fast-food outlet (Hardee’s). Southwind Cafe (on Church Street, one block from the visitors center; 804-725-2766) came widely recommended and serves fresh, contemporary cuisine. For fried clam strips and the local scene, Seabreeze restaurant is just over the bridge on Gwynn’s Island (804-725-4000).
Get your feet wet: If you’ve never tried kayaking, Mathews is a good place to start, and a guided tour with Bay Trails Outfitters is a good way to get on the water for the first time. (www.baytrails.com; 888-725-7225; retail hours Tuesday-Saturday or by appointment; from the visitors center take Route 14 east to left on Route 608 to left on Route 609. Bay Trails is one mile on the right.)
"I don’t recommend that your first experience be a class," says co-owner Shawn Towne. "Our tours give enough instruction for you to see if you like it. We want to make sure you have a good experience."
That good experience includes fitting you to just the right boat. But beware: Bay Trails’ in-stock collection of some 150 kayaks can precipitate unbridled lust. And best forget about your romantic visions of hitting the water with your spouse in a tandem: "We call them ‘divorce boats,’ " Towne says.
Required reading: In the museum or the visitors center, pick up a copy of Gilbert Klingel’s "The Bay." A naturalist, boat builder, adventurer (he once spent several months happily shipwrecked on an island in the Bahamas), and, as it happens, Marcy Benouameur’s father, Klingel penned this delightful account of the Chesapeake Bay’s natural worlds above and below water. First published in 1951, it will make you weep for the Bay that was; fortunately, your sorrow will be tempered by the sheer pleasures of the prose, as in this line about the alarums and excursions of the fright-filled life of the fiddler crab: "Although there is not a sound to be heard, so violent are their exertions that one can almost imagine them rushing down the beach screaming."
Caroline Kettlewell is a freelance writer and the author, most recently, of the book "Electric Dreams.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company