|Hurrying South in November
Thursday, November 8, 2007
There is no frost to be seen this morning but the word around town is that some places got down to the high twenties last night. My sleeping bag is about five pounds of heavy stuffing so there is no problem staying warm--as long as I stay in bed. The problem is that getting up is a shocking experience that takes your breath away. Daytime is warmer, of course, but not much: the sky has turned to cold slate and the temperature will have trouble getting out of the forties. I can start the day warm enough but as the hours pass the surface chill on my skin will burrow deeper and deeper. To recover core warmth the best thing is a hot shower at the end of the day. If that is not an option, a respectable alternative is to fire up the Coleman stove with all the canvas zipped on. It is so effective that in spite of the abysmally low R-factor of canvas I feel as if the radiant heat is tanning me--and not just on the fire-facing side. Here is evidence that the best approach to effective heating of homes is not passive solar systems or super-insulation or sustainable sources of fuel. These are excellent approaches--I applaud them all--but the most effective is learning to live in smaller spaces.
Our society has constructed some pretty queer norms. A single family dwelling of less than 1,500 square feet has come to be viewed as undersized. Indeed, to even build something less than 1,000 square feet often runs up against prohibitive residential codes and zoning ordinances concerned with the "quality" of constructed housing. What size has to do with quality is a mystery, but in any event we now turn our backs on modest dwellings that even half a century ago would have been considered ample--and that was at a time when families were bigger. Here on Kobuk the effective living space is less than that of a jail cell, and yet I do not find the circumstances impossible. I can cook and clean. I can sit in a comfortable lawn chair and read. I have a spacious bunk where sleep is never a problem. I can stand up and move from place to place without having to duck. I have windows all around providing a 360 degree panorama. Of course it is not a jail cell; I can jump ship any time I want. But this, in a way, is the point. Large homes do become a little like jail cells, perhaps, since their purchase and maintenance require such a prodigiously large part of all the assets we might accrue in an entire lifetime. Since so much of ourselves gets committed to getting and having homes, we naturally feel that we must use them. The end result is that we spend our lives living in homes when in fact we might be better served to live outdoors and only retreat to our homes when we need shelter from the weather. There is only so much psychic satisfaction to be gotten from an easy chair and a tv, from a polished mahogany dining table and a toilet. These things have their place, but perhaps we have allowed them to become too central in our lives. There are many people I know who find a walk in the woods to be life's best elixir for the spirit--and what can be more precious than the human spirit? Nature makes us well--we all know it. And yet, we retreat into our outsized hovels and seek health there. It is a form of madness.
But I digress. I was beginning to say that winter is coming on and Kobuk never was designed as a cold weather boat. My agenda now is to migrate south, to run down the coast with the frost and the snow flurries nipping at the heels. Only a few weeks remain before I must consign Kobuk to winter storage and return to Utah anyway, but before that day it would be good to get as far south as possible. The lower the latitude, the sooner in spring this adventure can resume. With a little luck, we can make it to Virginia or North Carolina before the end of the month, and that would put us in a place where spring would be well advanced in April rather than May. Really, we already are far enough along that we could survive until reaching the subtropics, but there are things that must be done back in Utah and so a stoppage for winter is the most logical way to deal with them.
From here in the Shark River estuary, Kobuk will go back outside and run a handful of miles down the coast to where the buoys will guide us into Manasquan, an inlet that lies at the northern end of a protected waterway running more or less continuously all the way to the Florida Keys (and much, much farther if one is keen on getting to Mexico). This Intracoastal Waterway is the coastal sailor's ticket to the tropics. Blue water sailors go outside and take a more direct approach to the task. From Norfolk, Virginia, south the ICW is well-known, well-used, and reasonably well-maintained. Between here in northern New Jersey and Norfolk, however, the waterway is somewhat neglected. Throughout its course, it relies on dredging to keep the water deep enough for small boats. But to do this it takes advantage of a continuous network of estuaries, swamps, and lagoons lying behind a string of barrier islands. This world of brackish water is notorious for its constant shifting and scouring of sand and silt. This is a defining characteristic of any flat lying coastal lowland that has been subsiding relative to sea level since the Pleistocene. In this kind of environment, one good storm and a deep water channel can become a shoal. It is a constant battle to keep the shoals out of the ICW, and the strategic choice has been made to only fight the battle in earnest south of Norfolk.
Most yachts avoid the ICW in New Jersey and use Chesapeake Bay to circumvent it along the Delmarva Peninsula. Kobuk, though, was made for this stuff so we will take our chances. When we emerge from the Point Pleasant Canal and begin down the great broad expanse of Barnegat Bay, I begin to see what this means. The bay is several miles across and yet its waters are in most places only two or three feet deep. Except for near an inlet where they scour to greater depths, even channels rarely have more than five or six feet of water in them. The locals flit across the bay in small powerboats, knowledgeable about where they can and cannot go. Kobuk and I spend the day chasing small powerboats southward.
Beach Haven: 39* 34.055' N / 74* 14.592' W
Distance: 53 miles
Total Distance: 6,682 miles
Friday, November 9, 2007
In the ICW, the red and green buoys have a different meaning that they do in coastal waters. Along the coast, the idea is to keep red buoys on the right whenever returning to harbor. In the ICW, however, the red buoys are kept to the right when headed southward towards Florida. In this scheme of things, the green buoys warn you against getting too close to the barrier islands while the red ones keep you free of the more inland hazards. Today, Kobuk is running her way southward with the casino buildings of Atlantic City visible in the distance. Even as we leave Beach Haven, the Atlantic City skyline stands above the many islands and peninsulas that lie between here and there. This coastal lowland is so flat and treeless that most anything of any height is a sort of distant landmark. When you played monopoly and built hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, the buildings you placed on the playing board stood up and stood out no more noticeably than do the actual buildings of the city that gave the game its names.
Although we can almost always see where we are headed today, we hardly ever seem to point that way. The channel demarcated by ICW buoys curls and weaves, this way and that, sometimes with small islands to either side but often with nothing but open water all around. Our standard operating procedure is to slavishly follow the ICW channel markers. There are short cuts all over the place, but we avoid taking them out of fear that we will go aground. This would almost certainly be a minor incident since the bottom is composed of sand and silt, but it is the principle of the thing. I do not want to drive Kobuk onto a shoal; I mistreated her enough that way back on the upper Missouri.
Atlantic City is situated at the north end of a barrier island. One bridge runs into town from the west, leapfrogging from island to island across the broad estuary. Another bridge spans the inlet between the city and the next barrier island to the north. In that part of the downtown located near the inlet, a ship basin has been carved out of the island, excavated to extensive size and fitted with a narrow passageway connecting it to the inlet. I guide Kobuk into the basin and find a place to tie off in the Senator Frank S. Farley State Marina located on the western side of the basin, immediately adjacent to a casino and hotel owned by Donald Trump. The marina is a public facility but it is managed by a corporate entity that carries the Trump name. Mr. Trump seems to be working hard to turn himself into a trademark since he holds a variety of casino facilities here in Atlantic City and every one is branded with his name: the Trump Taj Mahal, the Trump Marina, the Trump Exchange, the Trump Plaza, etc. The Frank Farley Marina is now more often than not referred to as the Trump Marina, partly because it is adjacent to, and integrated with the casino and hotel facilities that go by the name of--you guessed it--Trump Marina. The state legislator for whom the actual marina originally was named may or may not have deserved the honor, but in any event his play for fame is being trumped by the Donald.
In the evening I must seek out an Internet connection. Inquiries in the casino lead to the surprising discovery that there is only one free wifi site in the building, and it is in a restaurant. Only at Hooters am I able to do my online business, so for a number of hours I sit alone at a table with ripe flesh flashing by in a manner that does justice to the franchise motto of "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined." I feel a vague discomfort at my plight. Am I not a sort of low-grade, contemporary version of that poor, ineffectual academic who was so completely overwhelmed by Melina Mercouri in the movie Never on Sunday?
Trump Marina, Atlantic City: 39* 22.741' N / 74* 25.600' W
Distance: 21 miles
Total Distance: 6,703 miles
Saturday, November 10, 2007
In the immortal words of Sam McGee, "It's the cursed cold, and its got right hold, till I'm chilled clean through to the bone." It is not quite that bad, actually, but today is definitely getting me to think about bringing this cruise to a seasonal halt. It is raining, a cold rain dropping from a heartless sky and slanting in a frigid breeze. Inside Kobuk with all canvas set, it would not be too terribly cold for cruising, but I think I am getting worn down and feel no urge to set off into the featureless marshlands. The marine forecast for tomorrow, however, promises the rainbow--high pressure, clear skies, warmer temperature, and a light wind out of the northwest. That sounds perfect for going outside and running along the coast. I exercise the captain's prerogative and announce to everyone aboard that we will stay in port for the day. The crew receives the bad news without flinching and heads ashore to catch a glimpse of the Atlantic City sights.
By late in the afternoon, the rain has stopped and the clouds above are breaking up into giant billows and layers that occasionally reveal a small patch of blue. I bike over to the Atlantic City waterfront to see whether this American icon merits the reputation that precedes it. I find the boardwalk, of course, and spend a couple hours strolling along it. For sure, the boardwalk merits its reputation: it is wider than a St. Lawrence Seaway lock and it extends endlessly in both directions. It is wooden planked--a true boardwalk--but unusual in that single planks could never span its great breadth. It is partitioned into four equally sized strips, each planked on a diagonal and with each diagonal running the other direction from its neighbors. Stores and casinos line the boardwalk on its landward side while off to seaward grass-stabilized dunes partially obstruct the view of the open ocean and usually mask completely the sandy beach. Every once in a while a small walkway extends perpendicularly across a dune to give beach access. When I go out on a dune to look at the view, burly swells from the Atlantic are curling ashore, breaking southward in a steady roll down the beach. It is just what the surfers like--at least the ones who like to turn left.
At widely spaced intervals, there are jetties extending out to sea. On one of them the rides and shacks of an old amusement park sit silent, faded and forlorn. I am told that Donald Trump is going to tear it all down and replace it with condos selling for a million dollars a pop. Rumors run rampant in a town like this.
Up near the north end of the boardwalk, a tall, spare woman--as dark as the night--sees me holding my camera and comes over to give me suggestions for where I might get good photos. She is overflowing with hospitality and gifted at making friends of strangers. She tells me of her children, a son who is a lawyer and a daughter of thirteen who was an "accident." Nearby stands her equally tall and lean husband, a man whose bright eyes contradict his withdrawn silence. Patricia and Bunny are their names. They are on the boardwalk with a pushcart, a two-seater with protective plastic curtains all around. The cart is pushed by a horizontal bar across its back and it is the boardwalk equivalent of taxi service. Patricia and Bunny are out here making a living, I guess.
The casinos of Las Vegas have their branch outlets here, smaller and less opulent but quite recognizable nonetheless: Caesar's Palace, Harrah's, the Tropicana, etc. There is something peculiar about an old, established community like Atlantic City remaking itself into a copy of an upstart place like Las Vegas. Before World War II, Vegas hardly existed, and now it has become the model for a city with a history. It's too bad, actually, because I doubt that Atlantic City will ever be able to out-Vegas Vegas. Then again, there's a lot to be said for playing second fiddle when the money's good.
The boardwalk, though--it's a trademark that Vegas could learn from. The Strip in Vegas is ripe for redevelopment, I think, by which I mean the Strip itself and not the buildings beside it. The stop and go vehicular traffic along that thoroughfare is a blight and the city fathers should abolish traffic, put in underpasses for a few of the crossing streets and block off all the others. That would make the Strip something to work with. Just imagine, for example, if it were set up for drag races--the top competitors in every class, vehicles of every kind, thundering down the strip at the top of every hour. It would be something to bet on, of course. Or another idea: it could be reconfigured with raised platforms on which the best buskers in the world go head to head. Jugglers, contortionists, mimes, acrobats, the whole shmear.
Pavement is not very interesting so some other sort of material should be used to give the strip some pizzazz. The whole thing could be paved in dollar bills, for example. After all, it only takes about ten of them to cover a square foot so if we put them in an impervious but transparent matrix we would have a surface that would cost, say, twenty dollars per square foot. That may sound like a lot, but don't you think those hotels with their miles and miles of flooring are already spending upward towards that amount on their miles and miles of lush carpeting and quarried marble?
Yes, if Vegas is to outclass Atlantic City in the one remaining area where it lags, it must do something about the Strip.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Setting out from Atlantic City on a clear, cold day, Kobuk turns right and heads for the open ocean. A light wind from the north is putting a ruffle on the surface, but the surface is not flat; it is sinuous and undulating as burly swells roll in from the northeast. It is all coming from behind us, though, and pushing us towards our destination. The Atlantic City skyline is off to starboard, a mile or two across the water, and the blocky structures seem to string along the beach in a single row. They give no depth to the scene. They look more like a cardboard cutout than the real thing--like a cheap set for a stage production. The buildings themselves exist in a purgatory between highrise and skyscraper--too tall for the former but way too short for the latter. The whole place looks better close up than it does from a distance, and if that isn't a condemnation of the place then I don't know what is.
We are roaring along under Mazda power. The ocean's surface is sufficiently peaceable for us to get away with this, but things fall apart and the battering starts whenever our speed gets much above twenty miles per hour. The swells are sleepwalking giants, silent and robotic. Motoring along like this, we must make our way up the back of one, slowing down noticeably with the effort, before cresting it and then zooming down its front face. The struggle to overcome a swell is so great that it feels as if we might stall out, and then when we roar down the face our acceleration is exhilarating. Conditions vary, even for swells, and some manipulate our forward progress much more than others. Every once in a while we catch the front of a swell that sends us rocketing forward, much more so than usual. When that happens, an illusion overwhelms us: the entire ocean is tipped slightly downhill in front of us and surely we will with time run right off the edge of the earth.
We are flying along with the engine turning over at about 5,100 rpm's. On flat water with no wind, that would translate to a speed of about twenty one miles per hour, but because of the swells our pace varies between fourteen and twenty three. At one point, we even bog down to only 11.1 miles per hour and at another we go surfing at 27.3. It is for me an object lesson on the power of the ocean, for it is in fact behaving itself today and yet still has the capacity to dictate our rate of forward progress.
Cape May at the southernmost tip of the Jersey shore is a fishing port--a town whose harbor is crammed with fisherman of all varieties. Sport, charter, commercial--you name it. The inlet to the harbor is awash in traffic and every nook and cranny of the harbor itself is thick with boats. After I tie off Kobuk in Utsch's Marina, I find the docks and boatyard alive with people who talk nothing but fish. The men seem to have a boisterous, macho tone to their voices, but they all are friendly and respectful. Nevertheless, I am not sure what would happen to me around here if anybody should discover that I don't know how to fish.
The town of Cape May is a short bicycle ride from the harbor, located over next to the broad swath of sand that runs the full length of the Jersey shore only to terminate just south of here.. It is the end of the line and geographic isolation has helped to preserve a flavor of days gone by. Not days from the twentieth century; days from the nineteenth. There are those who believe that Hitler is holed up in Paraguay or Brazil or some such place, but the real secret is far more stunning: Queen Victoria is alive and well in Cape May. She must have sent out scouts who reported back and one of them must have discovered the love affair that this little town has with the Victorian era. Houses here are gingerbread, row after row of them, and now in this new century they all are restored, preserved, and properly painted. I do not know whether such riotous colors were used back in her day, but they are delightful to look at and the reality of careful attention to detail makes them perfectly respectable in their mauves and chartreuses and pastels. It is a funny thing, though: the downtown, two or three blocks long and reserved for pedestrians, is crowded with shops that occupy thoroughly unVictorian buildings. The buildings along this strip have instead false fronts like the Western towns of frontier days. They are not so rustic, but their architecture is comparable--modest buildings with streetside faces that are squared off at the top to give the impression of solidity. Go figure. In any event, I'm sure that the queen takes secret pleasure in the fact that not all is lost south of Canada.
Cape May: 38* 57.081' N / 74* 54.346' W
Distance: 45 miles
Total Distance: 6,748 miles
Monday, November 12, 2007
During World War II, commerical ships were sitting ducks for Nazi U-boats operating along the Atlantic shore and evidently the passage into Delaware Bay was a favored poaching ground. For this reason, it is claimed, the Cape May Canal was dug across the sandy peninsula that hooks around to form an eastern pincer inhibiting entrance into Delaware Bay. Evidently, the rounding of the peninsula is especially hazardous--even without U-boats firing torpedos at you--and so Kobuk and I are opting for this safer route into the waters of Delaware Bay. I am skeptical about the reason given for building the canal: would not the narrow inlet a ship must use to gain access to it be at least as vulnerable as the many miles of open water that run across the mouth of Delaware Bay? Anyway, the canal now exists and Kobuk is motoring on through it.
For those of you who have ideas about going boating in Delaware Bay, my advice is "don't." This is one particularly nasty patch of water. The main channel of the Delaware River weaves a sinuous course down the middle of the bay and out to sea, but most everywhere else the water is very shallow. The open Atlantic shoves waves up into this shallow basin and the result is all sorts of chunky, choppy unpleasantness. Even today when the wind is only a whisper, the surface of the bay is a frothy brew of whipped cream peaks that are miserable little creatures. Kobuk is going with the weather--running downwind--but even so, the ungainly surface is flogging us with its unpredictability.
If the surface conditions are not sufficient to deter you from venturing here, you should at least be aware that if things turn truly bad there are few places to hide. Neither the Jersey nor the Delaware side has good harbors for getting out of the weather so if you go out on the bay have a plan for where and when you expect to get off it. There are a few retreats, in case of dire need, but they are neither obvious nor convenient. In our case, we are set on getting through the whole of the bay all at once. This, however, is a long day trip by our standards and can only be accomplished by using Mazda power and traveling at least twice as fast as the little Yamaha could manage. We are, therefore, committed to moving along at a good clip on choppy water with a broken stringer.
As we get out near the middle of this bay, neither shore is readily visible. We are more or less at sea, and Kobuk's broken stringer plagues me with visions of what might happen if a particularly harsh pounding were to breach the planking near the break. The planking is nothing more than three eighths inch plywood and as it happens two sheets of ply butt together right below the broken stringer. Butt blocks overlie the two adjoining sheets of plywood, but they are held in place by glue. The glue is touted as being stronger than wood, but my confidence in this contention has declined noticeably since the broken stringer also ripped up a reinforcing piece that was glued to the top of the stringer--ripped the reinforcing piece free right along its glue line. I am trying to figure out how to keep up speed without aggravating the already serious injury.
Finally I come up with a strategy. The fracture line of the stringer happens to fall at a location that is directly below a circular hatch in the floor of the boat. That hatch is located in the passageway right beside the driver's bench. By removing the hatch cover, I can stand in the bilge with one foot on top of the broken stringer and my right hand on the steering wheel. Now I am able to feel what is going on down there. For the next couple hours we motor along at around fifteen miles per hour with my body weight acting as a sort of counter to the force of the waves against the bottom of the hull. My weight may sound insignificant in comparison with the forces operating on the other side of the plywood, but the vulnerable area is only about four square feet in extent. As we motor along, I can feel the plywood working underfoot. That the amount of flex is so small is reassuring but the fact that there is any flex at all is disturbing. Anyway, we make it through the bay without springing a leak.
Eventually, the rugged waters of the bay funnel down into a winding estuary for the Delaware River, and once past a bend or two the surface of the water becomes much calmer. We motor along with a very unusual looking commercial ship immediately in front of us. Modern shipbuilding is creating vessels that look pronouncedly different from what we have come to view as traditional. In this case, the hull is a hard-chined, vertically-walled tower of steel that rises a tremendous distance out of the water and looks as if it is riding so high as to be an iceberg inverted--95% out of the water and 5% in.
With only minutes to spare before sundown, I drive Kobuk into the little harbor of Delaware City, situated next to the entrance to the C & D Canal. There is a public dock at which we tie off, but the signs say that one can only stay there for a maximum of four hours and in any event not past ten at night. I bike around to check the place out and discover that over on the other side is a boat launch area with floating docks beside it. Since the town dock is posted whereas the boat launch is not, and since both facilities almost certainly are municipal facilities, I conclude that the lack of posting by the launch ramp can be taken as permission to tie off indefinitely. After pedaling up to get some gas at a nearby station and then assaying the few small establishments along the sleepy main street, I hop aboard Kobuk and turn on the running lights. For the first time in three seasons, I take Kobuk out on the water after dark. The streetlights, though, make the far side dimly visible, and without any problem we attach ourselves to a couple cleats on the dock by the launch ramp, and I go to bed.
Delaware City, DE: 39* 34.532' N / 75* 35.338' W
Distance: 63 miles
Total Distance: 6,811 miles
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
All night long the rain came and went, drumming down on Kobuk's deck in gentle, spasmodic outbursts. When daylight filters in, it is a dim, white light--fluorescent through thick gauze. The mist hangs heavy and still. We are moored along the banks of a small canal, across from the little town of Delaware City. The canal runs away from town, straight, up under the low arch of a highway bridge, and on to join the D& C Canal a mile or two away. I take Kobuk out into the middle of the channel and aim for the bridge. Although the nautical chart indicates a high tide clearance of only six feet, the tide is still coming in and there is ample room for Kobuk to get her cabin top under the arch.
After the moors and marshes and sand of the Jersey coast, the thick stands of deciduous forest running along the sides of the C & D Canal seem as luxuriant as a jungle. The canal itself is a deep, broad thing, perhaps two football fields in width and in most places filled with over forty feet of water. The banks to either side rise but a few feet, although the trees that line them climb aggressively skyward. This region has a hint of relief to it, but the swales and vales are much too small ever to be labeled hilly. The land is nearly flat, but not quite.
I wonder where they put the dirt? This ditch must have required the removal of an awful lot of earth, but the banks do not look as if it was piled up there. Besides, lining the excavated canal with levees would have played havoc with the local drainage. They must have handled the problem in some other way, but I can't figure out how.
The canal bears us along through rural, undeveloped country. At some unknown point we pass from Delaware into Maryland and a few miles farther on we fetch up at the little town of Delaware City--a postcard hamlet arrayed around a natural inlet off the south side of the canal. The rain has given up and the gray sky has begun to lighten. I tie off at the handsome town dock where the signs invite guests rather than forewarning them of the dire consequences of inappropriate behavior. It is a floating dock, recently installed and well-maintained. It runs beside a town park. The dock is empty except for Kobuk. A couple is loitering in the otherwise empty park. I take a walk along the main streets of the town, soaking up the colonial flavor, and eventually stop in at a luxury restaurant next to the inlet--a dining room that overlooks the inlet. There I have my lunch and use their wifi connection to do my work. Out the large picture windows with tops shaped as shallow arches, I can gaze out across the inlet at Kobuk and the park and the heart of the town, all lying peacefully under a high, delicate highway bridge that runs over the canal. As time passes, the skies clear and the sun comes out.
In mid-afternoon, I set out for Havre de Grace, located at the very northern end of Chesapeake Bay, where the Susquehanna River comes into it. Soon we have exited the canal and are making way down an estuary of the Chesapeake. It is lavish in its beauty. The landscape laps down to the water in gentle folds and the forest of deciduous trees, burnished in muted autumn colors, rolls itself down right to the water's edge. Time is running short before sunset, so I switch us over to the Mazda and we motor along on still waters with nobody else around. The sun is low in the sky and it has filled the hazy atmosphere with a light that has the alloy quality of gold and silver mixed. We are heading towards the sun and its light, neither warm nor cool in its appearance, is playing on the water, giving ephemeral highlights of gold and silver to a surface that otherwise is a more perfect blend of the two precious metals.
The lower the sun gets, the darker becomes the irregular coastline that runs raggedly around us on all sides. It is deliriously lovely and it reminds me of the times when, late in the day, my father would take me waterskiing on the flat evening waters of Newfound Lake in New Hampshire. We would be out there alone with nothing but the calm lake and the countryside that enfolds it. We would cruise along quickly, just as Kobuk is doing now, and as I rode behind the boat at the end of the tow line I always thought that I was reveling in the skiing. But now, looking back after so many years, I can barely remember the feeling of skiing. I remember instead the intense joy of being in such a beautiful place.
Havre de Grace, MD: 39* 33,052' N / 76* 05.312' W
Distance: 38 miles
Total Distance: 6,849 miles
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
It was dusk by the time we tied off for the night in Havre de Grace. I grilled some bratwurst on the Coleman Stove and ate a simple dinner before retiring early. We were parked near a railway bridge that spans the Susquehanna and all night long trains were passing. A few times every hour a commuter train came rumbling by, even in the small hours of the morning. The only other encounter with train traffic of such intensity was back on the Missouri when Kobuk was tied off at the public dock in Atcheson, Kansas. That was all freight, though, whereas this was passengers.
We set out in the early morning under a lid of cold fog that limits visibility to a few hundred feet. This is just enough to easily follow the buoyed passage through the extensive shallows in this part of the upper Chesapeake. The fog is slow to lift and even at midday it continues to hide the shoreline on either side. It is calm, though, so our progress is peaceful and smooth. The navigating trick here is to stay in the vicinity of the main channel so that the water is plenty deep, but to stay out of the channel itself where commercial ships pass unpredictably.
Ever so slowly the fog diminishes. By mid-afternoon the chill has been wicked out of the air and we are motoring towards the mouth of the Patapsco Estuary under a greasy sky that sometimes relents enough to let the sun scatter a few rays of warmth. Even before reaching the Patapsco, the haze overhead begins to take on a thinly sulfurous hue, a sign that not all industry has abandoned Baltimore. When we round the bend and head up the estuary, the reality of industrial Baltimore smacks us in the face. Both banks are blackened and bleak landscapes of unrelieved industrial activity: warehouses, docks, and derricks, with ships in various stages of cargo transfer; hulking freighters hanging by their anchor rodes in various corners of the waterway. The grim scenery extends miles off into the distance, up past the Francis Scott Key Bridge for which we are headed. It is not so surprising to have this sort of land use along the water, but on a murky day like this when he light is too enfeebled to cast shadows, it oppresses the spirit. Off to starboard is Sparrows Point where a lifetime ago Bethlehem Steel operated the world's largest mill and fabricated girders and steel for everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to World War II battleships. The glory days of American steel production are long past and now an effort is under way to redevelop the massive site as a high-tech industrial park. When viewed from the water, though, there is not much sign of progress in this direction.
When finally we curl around the last small bend in the estuary, Baltimore's Inner Harbor unfolds in front of us and the transformation is miraculous. One would think that it has just struck midnight: the grimy Cinderella suddenly becomes a glittering princess. Baltimore's downtown redevelopment is clean, fresh, and bold. Everything you can see is either totally new or caringly restored. There are a couple marinas in the Inner Harbor, but just before coming around the last bend we passed a large marina that almost certainly would be less expensive for us: we backtrack to it and, after hitching Kobuk to a dock, I set out in search of the marina office. The docks for the marina are so extensive that I find it a little confusing trying to get to shore, but when I finally arrive I can find no obvious marina office. I do eventually get connected up with someone who works for the marina--a kind-eyed man with a three-day growth of gray-toned beard named Tom. When I tell him that I am a transient looking for a slip for the night, he nods knowingly. I ask him if I can stay in the marina and, if so, how much it would cost. He flashes me a secretive smile and says "How does ten bucks sound?" I confess that it sounds mighty good, and he sets me up with a key to the bathroom and an electronic key for the gates. In the process, he explains that the manager for the marina is gone for the day and that he is just collecting beer money for when he gets off work in a half hour. He'll be going to a little pub just down the street, he says, and when I ask for directions to it he gives them to me. "If you just keep going down that same street," he says, "you'll come to all kinds of bars and pubs." Then he stops and looks at me for a moment before continuing: "If you like drinking and night life then you've come to the right place. If not, well, . . ." and without finishing the sentence he casts me a shrug and a sympathetic smile. After it is dark, I cycle out into the Fell's Point District and, sure enough, Tom is right.
Baltimore Harbor: 39* 16.731' N / 76* 35.268' W
Distance: 51 miles
Total Distance: 6,900 miles
Thursday, November 15, 2007
With the Coleman stove as a source of BTU's, I lounge in Kobuk's small cabin reading a book, my back cushioned against the cabin side and my legs stretched out along the bench seat. A wind whipped rain harries us and I am waiting out the worst of the passing squalls. The weather forecast calls for clearing skies in the afternoon. Patience is the order of the day. In a break between showers, I hop on Bike Friday and pedal into the Fell's Point District where a small tea shop allows me to seek haven from the storm and lets me order coffee instead of tea. Kobuk is a satisfactory haven, but when you're in a new place you want to get away and see a little of what is out there. The hours pass and gradually the rains diminish. In early afternoon I venture out under cloudy skies and the snappier temperatures that come with the passage of a cold front. In a flurry of afternoon exploration, I manage to tour the Museum of Public Works, the lighthouse and the three ships of the Nautical Museum, the observation room at the top of the World Trade Center (sorry, but that's its name), and the full panoply of exhibits in the Aquarium.
The Museum of Public Works is the first stop, a detour that I take when I see its sign and suddenly realize that I have never been in such a place before. The exhibits teach me about how sewer systems are laid out and operated, how water is purified, and what is involved in managing stoplights and street signs. The topics get addressed both as generic engineering issues and as a set of historical evolutions in the city of Baltimore. It is an orderly exposition on subject matter that might appeal to the same Reverend Doctor Dryasdust to whom Sir Walter Scott dedicated Ivanhoe. Actually, it is more interesting than that. In fact, considering that its entry fee is less than that of a movie nowadays, it is a pretty good deal.
For me, however, the most educational aspect of the Public Works Museum is the exposure it gives me to a Baltimore reality that will become ever more evident as the day progresses: Blacks do not simply occupy this city--they manage it. Here and elsewhere, exhibits make it clear how substantial has been the role of Blacks in the life of the city. Here and elsewhere one sees Black men and women doing the work of the city--not just the menial work or the unskilled work, but the managerial work and the public relations work as well. Some of the people I meet will strike me as competent and engaging whereas others will seem sullen and uncooperative--but this is the nature of any casual contacts in any city, is it not? For me, the more enduring impression is that Blacks are in charge. This obviously is a gross generalization that could be challenged with a virtually limitless number of counter impressions, but I do not offer it as a truth--only as an impression. As such, it gives me a certain respect for the city that I would not otherwise have had. Political and economic power exercised by Blacks in a city where Blacks are a big part of the population--well, in the long run it can only help resolve the race problem in American society. And race is, in my estimation, the American problem, even more toxic than the worst of our environmental ones.
When I make my way through the lighthouse and the various ships of the Nautical Museum I am as always intrigued by the things that I see. But perhaps this is not healthy: too often I seem to arrive in a new city or town and then spend excessive time inspecting the maritime tradition to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps I should make a point of avoiding such places once in a while. After all, as I shuffle from submarine to Coast Guard cutter to lightship, all the hardware and all the mocked up displays look somehow familiar. There is always something new, of course, but I am having to look harder and harder to find it. And now when I do find it, it turns out to be something that has no relationship to things nautical. In the lightship, in the room with exhibits dedicated primarily to dogs that have served as ship mascots, there are a handful of photos showing ship crew members from days gone by. One of those photos, taken over a half century ago, is fine young man in uniform with his hand on a dog that presumably was a ship mascot. Oh, he is a good looking young sailer and I recognize him. It is me. He has my eyes and the shape of his face is the same. He keeps his hair cut as I did and his look of unworried seriousness is one that I often wore. Often we see people or pictures of people who look like someone we know, but I have rarely recognized myself in anybody else's face. I stand staring, fascinated by the notion that I am not the only one of me.
It is late in the day and I am famished. Fatbelly is across the street and looks as if it would have good sandwiches so I stop in there. The staff is a bunch of adolescents who all look and act as if they are juiced up on high energy drinks. They're cheery, industrious, and respectful: two healthy young Black guys taking orders and starting the sandwich assembly line; three Black gals toasting and finishing and wrapping the sandwiches; and a scrawny White kid with his baseball cap on backwards managing the cash register. I am the only customer in this large place, and when they finish preparing my sandwich they turn to casual conversation. I sit alone at one of the many tables, looking out the large open doorway and the great picture windows that flank it. The voices of the staff bounce off the cavernous, high ceiling and reach me as chatter, attenuated and unintelligible. Suddenly, there is excitement. A small bird has flown into the restaurant and even now is flitting about trying to find a way out. The little guy comes out from behind the cash register, grabs a duster with an extendable handle, lengthens it, and begins trying to herd the bird back out through the open door. It is comedy of ineffectiveness, and the three young girls come out into the dining area to watch the action. They jump up and down and squeal with excitement and run away whenever the bird gets overhead. They tip over chairs and nearly collide with my table. All the while, the kid with the backward baseball cap is swiping away with his twenty foot duster. Purely by accident, of course, the bird finally passes through the doorway and escapes from the circus.
After that little scenario, I go back to being a tourist. The observatory at the top of the World Trade Center gives the panoramic views that one would expect and the aquarium outdoes all the other attractions with its fifty foot waterfall, its tropical rainforest, its replication of a coral reef, and its sharks swimming around in a vast circular water tank that completely surrounds you. But really, if you ever go sightseeing in Baltimore you should go to the lighthouse ship that is part of the Nautical Museum and see what a nice looking fellow I was when I was young.
Friday, November 16, 2007
A chill November wind is pushing yellow leaves across the red brick cobbles of Thames Street as I pedal Bike Friday up to a Panera that I spotted yesterday at the head of the Inner Harbor. I intend to spend most of the day there, drinking their coffee, eating their baked goods, and using their free wifi connection. This voyage on Kobuk will soon be coming to a seasonal end, but so will the fall semester at the university: there is grading to be done. With better conditions I might have departed Baltimore today, but the wind is in an angry mood. Once again, contrary weather helps me get my work done.
There are only a couple hours of daylight left when finally I pack up the computer and set off to see a little more of the city. At the Inner Harbor Visitors' Center, a matronly woman who takes her job seriously listens to my query about what to go see during the few hours I have left in Baltimore. Her reaction is not a list of suggestions; it is a diktat. I must, she asserts, visit the Museum of Visionary Art. Located nearby and small enough to be properly explored in a couple hours, it displays items created by ordinary people with no training in art. I pedal off to take a look.
When I enter the museum, it certainly becomes visionary for me. Behind the counter stands a young woman whose size, shape, and bearing set to humming all the tuning forks in my body. She is becomingly small and leaves an overall impression of being thin, even as her black slacks and short-waisted jacket make it abundantly clear that her shape is voluptuous. She has a peach complexion, a somewhat chiseled face, and a mop of hair that is lifted up above the ears and floats on top of her head in a stylish Parisian fashion. The color of her hair, which I presume is not natural, shows a distinctly orange tinge. It manages the near impossible task of being simultaneously outrageous and appealing. I am smitten with this twenty-something lass. Naturally, I begin to think about how best to conduct the short conversation we will have when I approach to buy a ticket, but it does no good. Our verbal exchanges are no more charged with hidden meaning than the announcements for boarding flights in an airport. As I am preparing to pay for the ticket, she looks at me in a querying and apologetic way and says, "You wouldn't happen to be fifty five years old would you?" Yes, I did get the senior discount, but I would have gladly paid full price to not have been asked the question.
A cutout from a magazine is posted on the wall in the foyer for the museum and it is a listing of somebody's ranking of the twenty five best museums in the United States. The Museum of Visionary Art is on the list, and a lot closer to the top than the bottom. When first I look at some of the art in the museum I am only mildly impressed by it and begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. But then, the more I look the more it begins to sink in that these works of art are pure and uncorrupted. They are direct and unambiguous expressions of the creative drive, brought into existence for neither fame nor wealth. They are manifestations of individuality, but unadulterated by selfish motivations. Once I realize this, it becomes much easier to admire everything I see--even the items with which I find it hard to identify.
The museum's artwork is visionary in that it obviously springs from some dark well deep inside the artist. The results are unconventional--not unconventional in the self-conscious way of artists who wish to be pathfinders but unconventional in the unpredictable way that raw amateurs conceive and execute a given mission. With no training and no preconceived notions about what media or materials should be used, the works on display explore themes that most professional artists would never think to develop.
There is one particular artist who does pen and ink drawings that set humans and objects of the natural world into a swirling kaleidoscope of geometric shapes. The final product is an image perhaps two feet square that contains such a wealth of minute detail that the museum hangs a magnifying glass next to it. The posted bio for the artist claims that he starts each picture with no idea of what he is going to draw--neither the subject nor the composition. He proceeds from a single point on the image and expands it to completion in the fashion of an ink drop bleeding outward on a paper towel. The end product is beautiful, balanced, coherent, and thematic. The detail is so extreme that you get the feeling a more powerful magnifying glass would reveal levels of detail invisible under the one you are using. This inspires a sense of awe that is similar to what we might feel if we were to stand in a tropical rainforest and contemplate not just what we can see before us but also all that exists there at a scale too small to be visible.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
We are running down the Patapsco Estuary, past the Francis Scott Key Bridge, past Sparrows Point, and on south towards Annapolis. The upper Chesapeake, that part lying in Maryland, is a dendritic scheme of estuaries and sub-estuaries all feeding in to the main one. Waterways are broad and the landscape surrounding them is low, but nowhere are the open water stretches so great that the other side cannot be seen. Indeed, even across the main stem of the Chesapeake the far shore usually is close enough to be more than just a dark, horizontal smudge. Often, the distance across is sufficiently small to see the profile tops of the more outstanding trees, to see the boxy blotches of individual homes. No matter where you are on the water, the distant shores surround you--except to the south where the main stem runs on and on and on until finally reaching the sea. This is the nature of the Chesapeake on a bright day, on a day when clear skies and an unburdened atmosphere permit keen vision.
Today is such a day. Filmy cirrus hang high in the sky as do scattered banks of altus, but the sun is only partially obscured and only part of the time. The wind is heading us, but her tempo is more that of a waltz than a jitterbug. The current is running against the wind so there is an awkward shape to the oncoming waves, but for us the hobby horse motion is not unpleasant. The only difficulty is maintaining direction: the little waves often knock us off course and the Remote Troll steering finds it hard to recover.
As I look around at all the surrounding shorelines, I can make out some amount of detail along them and this creates an illusion: one thinks one can see more than is actually visible. When out on the water it is often nearly impossible to make out the place along a stretch of coast where a channel or a bay penetrates landward. This is especially so when the land is low lying. Hereabouts, the coastlines to east and west are ragged, elongated peninsulas alternating with deeply penetrating estuaries, one after another in rapid succession. But from out on the bay, this complexity is almost completely hidden from view and all one can tell is that there is land over there. It looks as if we are virtually surrounded by land but in fact our encirclement is by hidden waterways as well.
Annapolis is the capital of Maryland, the home of the Naval Academy, and in the eyes of many (especially locals) the sailing capital of America. It probably merits its nautical reputation and indeed on this late fall day it still has a handful of sailboats out and about in the near offshore. There is more sailing going on here and now than I have seen anywhere since leaving Newport back in early October. I take Kobuk up the Severn as far as the highway bridge and stop at the Annapolis City Marina, across the water from downtown, to arrange a slip. We are assigned a spot deep within the marina. I am leery of the narrow, convoluted channel we must negotiate to get there and worried about the awkward alignment of the designated slip. I ask Jeff, the marina attendant to be on hand to help us when we arrive to tie off, so he gets to watch my totally botched attempt to fit into the designated slot. Kobuk is intent on slipping in there sideways rather than bow first, so Jeff and I have to scramble around manhandling her off of looming pilings and protruding sailboats. I can't decide whether I was sensible to ask for assistance or whether the problems arose because there was an audience.
Even by the time Kobuk is secured and cleaned up, darkness is coming on. I cycle over the bridge and into the town of Annapolis before all light is gone. After a quick run up and down a number of the main streets, I slip into the Middleton Tavern for dinner and a beer. Please understand: it could not be avoided. The Middleton Tavern claims to have opened its doors in 1750: I would be derelict not to experience such an historically significant place. It is quite clear that I am not the only person in town with a well-developed sense of history; great crowds of people are milling around, happy and noisy about their good fortune at being in such an august place. Actually, I do eventually discover that the source of their high spirits is something a little less highbrow. It seems that the Naval Academy has just vanquished some mighty foe--I think it was Southern Illinois University.
The evening progresses. I end up seated at the bar next to a portly young man named Doug who appears to know many people in here, but only as acquaintances. In spite of his occupation (computer software troubleshooter) and his employer (the IRS), he turns out to have a literary inclination and we end up reciting poetry to each other. He points out to me that it would make more sense if instead of buying Middleton micro-brewed beers at five bucks a glass I were to order oyster shooters which consist of two two-ounce shot glasses, one with an oyster and cocktail sauce in it and the other filled with my choice of beer. Since these only cost a dollar a piece and since five of them will give me the near equivalent of a glass of beer, I can effectively get my dinner thrown in for free. I take his advice and we spend the evening buying each other multiple rounds of oyster shooters.
More people roll in, and about the time the televisions wrap up the last of the Saturday night college football games,a blues band pushes its way through the door and begins to set up. Tables are cleared away and until well past midnight it is a rightful stomp, dancing to the blues and making brief returns to the bar for additional oyster shooters.
Annapolis City Marina: 38* 58.320' N / 76* 29.008' W
Distance: 32 miles
Total Distance: 6,932 miles
Sunday, November 18, 2007
It was to be a day of travel, but my constitution does not cotton to the idea of motion so we shift over to plan B. I haven't the stomach for bouncing around out at sea and I don't think it was the oysters. At a late hour in the morning, I ease myself onto Bike Friday and slowly pedal to town where I find the Black Bean Cafe & Bookstore. There I plant myself for the rest of the daylight hours. Grading papers is the order of business, a thoroughly distasteful activity that deserves to be undertaken when feeling out of sorts.
I cheat, actually, by splitting my time between this unavoidable task and reading a book. Each time I finish grading fifteen papers, I reward myself with one chapter of the book. It gets me through the day. As a reward, the book is first class; there are few I can think of that would surpass the The Kiterunner. How often do you get to read a barnburner that is not trivial? In my experience, not often. Since many of you already are familiar with this contemporary best seller, I won't take you over ground that has already been tilled. But, please, if you wouldn't mind, let me make just one observation about literature of this sort: I think it a very good thing that so many modern books are being inspired by cultures other than our own. In this case, the story is driven by love and respect for Afghan culture, the native land of Khaled Hossein who wrote the book. His work, though, is just a sampling of the world literature that is making its way into the American consciousness. With people like Lahiri, Naipaul, Garcia Marquez, and Achebe to educate us, Americans are at last beginning to appreciate what lies beyond the national shores--and this is healthy in an age when our declining national power is going hand in hand with growing global problems. Of course, young Americans nowadays are already much more aware of international situations than their parents, but global information is reaching them via television which is little more than a cheap form of entertainment. Certainly it does little to further the cause of rational discourse. Neil Postman has already made that case. These authors from abroad who speak to us in English are front line educators working in a medium that is not mere entertainment. Well, enough lecturing for now; I think I've gotten it out of my system.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Now this western shore of the Chesapeake becomes a long run of coastline interrupted by five large rivers that empty their flow into the bay: the Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock, York,and James. Each of them is deeply invaded by the saline waters of the Chesapeake, but for the first two--from here to the Potomac--the intervening coast appears to have little in the way of bays and protective harbors. On the eastern side, however, the Chesapeake is a jigsaw of skinny,wiggly peninsulas separated from each other by a warren of waterways. Kobuk and I are headed for the maze, happy at the prospect of something new around every corner.
A ragged claw of land reaches out from the eastern shore like the arthritic, bent forefinger of an evil witch. It separates the broad waters of Eastern Bay from the estuary of the Choptank River. Up near where the witch would wear her magic ring, the town of St. Michaels occupies a particularly narrow section of the peninsula. The harbor for the town is located on the northern side, but if we were to go there tonight we would find ourselves distantly located from any convenient downbay harbors. We would have trouble reaching protected waters before nightfall tomorrow. But tucked up in the underbbelly of St. Michaels there are a a few narrow estuaries that run to within a mile or two of the downtown. We are headed for there. It is not clear that there will be any place for us to tie up on that south side of St. Michaels, but we will look around and see what we can find. Usually, there is some sort of public land near a town--if not a park then a public boat ramp or even the underside of a highway bridge. If all is for naught, the we will have no choice but to anchor off and then head out tomorrow morning without ever visiting St. Michaels. Some might find it distressing to not know whether the evening is going to go as planned, but for me such uncertainty is a form of excitement.
We angle across the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay with the wind at our back. When the get to the forefinger, we keep it to port and follow it along down to where its fingernail would be. There, a few miles before its south-pointing terminus, a canal has been cut across the narrow neck of land and we take advantage of this short cut. It is known as Knapps Narrows. Its passage through the narrow finger of land takes us past a bevy of basins, marinas, and dockside restaurants. We pass under a bascule bridge--it opens upon our arrival, but only because a large sport fishing boat is coming the other way--and we are left with the illusion that size doesn't matter.
Once through Knapps Narrows, we are in the estuarine broads of the Choptank River. Miles across and relatively clear of islands, it gives the deceptive impression that one can go anywhere without grounding out. In fact, the nautical chart portrays extensive shallows protruding great distances from headlands. Within them, the chart says, the water depth often is no more than a foot at low tide. Since high tide here is less than a foot above low tide. these shallows are skinny water regions any time of day. Most likely, the bottom is nothing but mud and sand, but to be on the safe side we navigate cautiously. Soon enough, we find the correct sub-estuary for angling northward towards the back side of St. Michaels. As we move up into it, it brachiates more and with the nautical chart to guide us we make the proper selections at each fork in the road.
Everywhere now, we are seeing gentry estates lining the estuarine banks. Ample land and designer architecture are their trademarks and the main distinction to be made between them is that of the rich versus merely affluent. There is a noteworthy lack of tastelessness, however; ostentatiousness is not condoned in this neighborhood. The big problem for Kobuk and me is that the neighborhood also works to exclude the wider public. There are no public parks, and no public boat ramps either. I steer Kobuk along the shore, up into and then back out of four different small estuaries, searching for some place where we might make landfall without being considered trespassers. No options appear. There are lots of unused docks and vacant buildings, but the rich are not known for indiscriminate sharing.
Finally we reach the neck of water that extends closest to the town of St Michaels and there at its deepest landward penetration we find a street running down to the water and out onto a dock where a cluster of working fishing boats are tied off. To one side is a small city park with no more than fifty feet of shorefront. That is enough, however: I run Kobuk's nose up to the retaining wall and toss an anchor off the stern. We are in and St. Michaels is near.
As I tote the Bike Friday off Kobuk's bow and onto the grass behind the retaining wall, a solitary figure comes back from the end of the dock towards me. His hair is the color of unbleached sand with streaks of seagull white. He speaks to me from behind a face that shows no sign of bitterness but betrays a hint of weary resignation. He is a retired man now who came here with his wife from Vermont a few years ago. We discuss our proximite pasts and when I tell him of my childhood in New Hampshire next to Newfound Lake, he tells me that his parents use to take him to there for summer vacations back in the 1950's. They stayed at the private home of an uncle, only a couple miles removed from where I grew up. He identifies himself as Gary, Gary Van . . . and then something more beginning with a V, but he mumbles it and suggests that it is not worth remembering a complicated Dutch name like his. We walk together up the street towards the center of town, and when we come to his home he points it out to me and invites me in for a cup of coffee. I am not in the mood, however, and excuse myself on the pretext that there is only a little time left for me to see the town before it gets dark.
St. Michaels: 38* 46.829' N / 76* 13.572' W
Distance: 35 miles
Total Distance: 6,967 miles
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
When I pedaled into St. Michaels last night,
enough time to take a look around. What
I saw was a town with lots of curves— a set of little snake-like
creeping into the suburbs from the south, a main street that bends and
like the high street of an old English village, and to the north a big
embayment for the harbor. The trees here
Even the wandering main street of the town contains a remarkable number of substantial, two story residences that have been converted to retail use. Each house has a sign outside indicating the nature of its business, and the confining size of these structures means that the clothing stores and coffee shops and gift emporia are comfortably small in scale. There are a few more substantial buildings that were constructed with commercial intent, but they are the exception.
Out next to the harbor a maritime museum extends across large acreage and includes a number of separate buildings. By the time I got there it was closed for the day so I was able to take the first step in my detox program.
For such a small town, St. Michaels is a remarkably lively place. I started the evening in a crab house next to the harbor and ended it at a bar on the main street. Both places were rocking with a crowd of celebrators, but then, I did notice that many of the happy crowd in the crab house appeared in the bar as well. I think by happy coincidence I ended up in the social flow of the town.
I leave early in the morning.
The voyage south to Solomons on the other
side of the
Except from the water,
Near where we are parked, a row of long, low
crab boats lies
tied with their sterns to shore and their bows pointing out into the
basin. They all are white with low
freeboard and fine bows. They look as
ready to do battle with the bay as a row of white-ducked sailors lined
the forward deck of a destroyer. When you
see these low slung fishers out on the open
I do a tour of town on Bike Friday and what
can be said
Distance: 21 miles
Total Distance: 6, 988 miles
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Cambridge is farther removed from where we are trying to get to than St. Michaels was. In hopes of overcoming the greater distance, we start even earlier in the morning than we did yesterday when the waves from the southwest did us in. The forecast calls for more of the same today, but sometimes just the slightest decline in the wind speed can make a critical difference in the shape of the chop. In the hopes of slightly moderated conditions, we set off down the estuary of the Choptank. For a dozen miles we have some protection from the southwest winds and can use the Mazda to make time, but then we round the corner and head down the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. Now we must progress under Yamaha power, something that is not easy but certainly is less uncomfortable than it was yesterday. The biggest problem now is that because low tide occurred shortly after daybreak we have a contrary current to contend with throughout almost all the daylight hours. This combined with the wind and waves keeps our speed down below five miles per hour and delays our arrival time considerably. On the other hand, we are enjoying unusually mild temperatures and the sky is clearing. By the time we turn to head up into the Patuxent River where Solomons is located, a sliver of summer has wedged itself in between the chill of fall and the frost of winter. It won't last, it can't last, but for this one brief day we feel the glow of solar warmth. What makes it all the more remarkable is that a fly appears in the cockpit and starts sunbathing on the inner side of the wind shield. I do not harry this unexpected visitor for he is a welcome reminder of more temperate days.
The voyage today is taking us past a milestone. On August 30th of 2005, when Katrina was ravaging New Orleans, Kobuk and I reached the town of Washington on the Missouri River, not far from St. Louis. After having spent the summer working our way downstream, this was to be the most southerly location we would reach before heading north once again--up towards the Great Lakes and eastern Canada. Now, over two years later, we finally cross that same line of latitude and head down towards the tropics. It may be irrational, but because of this I regard Solomons as the first of our stopovers to be located in the South.
Like so many other little ports along the Atlantic littoral, Solomons is in the process of redefining itself as a center of pleasure rather than fishing. When we pass the last red nun and enter the harbor, there are quite a few commercial fishing boats tied up along the waterfront, but the sport fishing boats and the sailboats are more numerous. When you go ashore and look around you find a continuous row of establishments that do not sound like the sorts of places a traditional fisherman would frequent: Solomons Victorian Inn, the Tiki Bar, the Tobacco Barn, Jessie's Psychic & Palm Readings, Kim's Key Lime Pies and Coffee Shop, Western Shore Outfitters, Blue Heron B & B, Bears by the Bay, Carmen's Gallery, and so on and so forth. The waterfront does not smell of fish. The gulls do not flock and squawk. The harbor is clean and the docks are spruce. Now this is the haunt of the weekenders and the affluent.
I tie off in front of Stoney's Kingfishers Seafood House where a series of signs designate spaces that are reserved for transients. The season is over and it looks like I might be the only transient in town. Certainly there are no other visitors at this particular establishment. When I go in to inquire about staying overnight, the manager of the restaurant tells me the price for an overnight stay. I propose a lesser price--a free night for Kobuk if I eat two meals there, but she claims to not have the authority to enter into such negotiations. It is quite remarkable how many managers nowadays are little more than petty bureaucrats charged with no decision more taxing than that of deciding what fixed policy is appropriate in a given instance. I decide not to stay and instead move Kobuk a mere twenty feet, over to a retaining wall that is waterfront for a miniature public park. Signs there say no swimming or diving, but don't address the issue of transients.
Under cover of darkness, I explore the town. It is a long, strung out affair with a mixture of businesses and homes arrayed along the eastern side of a single street, but with businesses clustering in three distinct nodes. All of them front on the water of this little, protected estuary but the most significant cluster is down here near the harbor entrance where by a stretch of the imagination the skinny promontory lying between the estuary and the Patuxent River is referred to as an island. This appears to be justified by the existence of a little canal that has been dug across the peninsula at its skinniest point. The canal is too small for boats, just as the road across it is too low. It looks more like a drainage ditch, but that cannot be its function. I wonder what it is all about.
Solomons: 38* 19.455' N / 76* 27.622' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 7,031 miles
Thursday, November 22, 2007
With kindly weather, Kobuk and I would take our leave of Solomons. We would cut in half the eighty miles of distance that separate us from Yankee Point Marina where Kobuk will be pulled from the water and stored for the season. But the winds today are strong and the small craft advisories discourage any such forays on the open bay. We will wait for fairer winds and spend this Thanksgiving here in port rather than out at sea.
The town is locked up tight: any business that can get away with it is closed for the day. Those that must stay open do so reluctantly, their employees chafing for their shifts to end. There are, in fact, only three types of establishments that have not hung "closed" signs on their entry doors: liquor stores, gas stations, and hotels. It seems, therefore, a good idea to spend my day at the Holiday Inn a short distance up the way. The facilities there are an obvious attempt on the part of this chain to move upscale and capture some of the less carefully guarded money to be found in deep pockets. Its pretensions to luxury are anchored to its shorefront location and picturesque views, and also to the oversized (but, at this time of year, underused) swimming pool and outdoor bar. Here they have wireless Internet throughout the building and for most of the day they are serving a buffet Thanksgiving dinner. I decide to sit out the day in the lobby doing my online work, with an extended interruption in the mid-afternoon for a Thanksgiving dinner.
When I make my reservation I ask if they expect to be busy and the woman who takes my reservation says they expect to be full. "All day?" I ask, and she replies, "pretty much." When the buffet opens at ten in the morning, people start to arrive. Even at such an early hour the flow of arriving groups is a freshet after a heavy rain. By one in the afternoon it has become a flood. When my turn comes at two o'clock, I must stand in line even to activate my reservation. When I reach the gatekeeper of this melee, she apologetically tells me that no table is free and I will have to wait a while. This is not a problem since I have no other commitments on this day, so I return to the comfort of the lobby and settle back into an easy chair for another half hour before finally being called in.
The buffet contained a large variety of foodstuffs, but from the point of view of this New England traditionalist there were a lot of things missing. There was no squash, for example, and the stuffing was too much like mash like to merit the name. Baby onions or green peas? Nope. And then for dessert there was neither pumpkin nor minced pie. And as for exotica like plum pudding and hard sauce--forget it. There was plenty to eat and goodly variety as well, but to me it hardly qualified as a Thanksgiving feast. Perhaps the modern palate has shifted. Maybe Maryland and New Hampshire have different acquired tastes. In any event, great hordes of people consume an awful lot of food, and I do my part.
Friday, November 23, 2007
The wind continues to blow with enough force to keep us off the water. High pressure and still air are coming our way, the weathermen say, so we will wait here for more peaceful conditions. The distance to the Rappahannock River (where Kobuk will spend the winter) is nearly eighty miles, a leg too lengthy for us to accomplish in a single day of Yamaha cruising. The plan has been to break it in two, to spend a night in Reedville just south of the Potomac estuary, but already the "getting there" mentality has begun to infect my mind and so calm conditions tomorrow will probably get me to forsake my principles: I'll gas up and go, all the way to Yankee Point in a final sprint to the seasonal finish line.
In spite of all effort to control the content of my mind, this prospect of bringing the voyage to a seasonal close keeps worming its way into my consciousness. I would like to be free of such thoughts--free to live today without anticipating what the future might bring--but even as I explore the shops and services arrayed along the single street that runs the length of Solomons Island I find myself contemplating the questions of tomorrow. Will the weather allow departure in the morning? Will it take two days or only one to get to Yankee Point? Will there be complications with having Kobuk stored there? Is the remaining time sufficient to get Kobuk properly prepared for winter? How hard will it be to find my way from there to Newport News in the middle of next week? Shall I pedal south on Bike Friday or leave the little bicycle with Kobuk and stick out my thumb instead? Will it rain when I need to set out? Like the endless stream of questions that issue from a curious four year old, my mind shifts from speculation to speculation in a seemingly random and ungovernable way. The questions of a child are worthy for the answers provided can give the young mind a notion of how the world is organized, but these idle speculations are a curse. None can be answered, not one of them. Seeking answers to unanswerable questions is a mild form of madness, I should think. No peace of mind can come of it.
Well, since I cannot slay the beast I shall try instead to corral it. Tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever it is that I get Kobuk to the Rappahannock, the journey's end will bring us to a rendezvous with a man named Randy Romaine. He is the one who recommended Yankee Point Marina as a winter storage site and his advice has influenced me because we are not strangers. Randy is a voice from the past, a man who I last saw 47 years ago when we both were teenage students at a private school in New Hampshire. I was two years ahead of him in school, and that was of course a huge gulf between us. I would not have remembered him at all if he had not happened to be the younger brother of Gary, a classmate, a close friend, and for one school year a roommate. About a year ago I received an email message from Randy. Through an alumnal connection, he had learned about the voyage of Kobuk and then he managed to track down this website and this log. I received his email message while voyaging in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and a short time later I called him up. When we talked, I learned that he was living in Virginia. He encouraged me to stop by when I got that far in the voyage and so this fall, with the days becoming ever shorter and with the Chesapeake Bay coming ever nearer, I wrote to him asking about winter storage for Kobuk.
Now here in Solomons I wait in mild suspense, wondering what it will be like to meet a person who I knew as a youth but not as an adult. Randy was a lesser creature when last I saw him, an all but invisible younger brother of a childhood friend. By phone and by email, Randy has given me an impression of what he might be like as an adult, but so limited has been our communication that the impression is no more concrete than a recognition that the child has become a man. I am intrigued by the very distinct possibility that neither of us will recognize anything familiar in the other. But also am I fascinated by the prospect that our historical connection, notwithstanding its frail and insubstantial character, may draw us together into a new form of friendship that owes nothing to the past.
Here in Solomons harbor where docks and boats line the edges of long and sinuous stretches of narrow water, the drone of activity that such facilities would suggest has withered away in the chill austerity of late autumn. Many boats remain here, but nearly all of them are silent presences, unoccupied and untended. They lie to their lines in patient resignation and the sun slides down, down until evening is upon us and the moon is rising. The waters are still. The harbor is quiet. There is a mood of motionlessness, a sweet stillness that flows over and through everything like the redolent emptiness of a grand cathedral after hours when all parishioners are home in bed and only the rays of the moon are left to inhabit its vast spaces.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
We're out on the water, past the confines of the Patuxent estuary, and flying south down the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. It is never very possible to tell what is going on out in the open when you are tucked away in a protected embayment, but this morning when I arose the air was still and the marine forecast was calling for still air all day over the Chesapeake. This, I thought, is an opportunity--a chance to make the full, final run all the way to the Rappahannock. I took Kobuk over to a nearby gas dock and filled her tanks with what I estimated would be barely enough fuel to get us all the way to Yankee Point Marina using the Mazda and running fast. I headed out of harbor with distance on my mind and impatience in my heart.
But there is a problem here. The wind has died away just as promised, but the waves have not. In my experience, wind and waves go hand in hand. If you have still air and a breath of wind comes along, the water turns to ripples so quickly that you think you can actually see the movement of the air across the water. If it blows a little harder then the waves get bigger-- not after a few minutes but right away. The other way around is a little less immediate, for a dying wind leaves a tumbled sea that does not instantly calm. All that surface activity carries on for a while, but without the push of the wind it immediately loses all its sharp edges and steep faces. The waves become lethargic. They continue to exist, but their motion betrays a lack of enthusiasm, like a ditchdigger in his last hour of a day's work. On such a sea, I have found, Kobuk can be pushed forward speedily without much risk of banging. This has been my experience, but obviously my experience is limited: today is different. The waves have life. The waves have facets. They have edges and lumps and they move and reconfigure like the hidden forms of fighting tomcats in a sack. There is not much here in the way of rough water, but there is enough to make Kobuk stumble--and I don't understand it because there is no wind at all.
I am pushing hard, though, for the Rappahannock is far away and we stand little chance of getting that far if Kobuk does not stay up on a plane. There is that broken stringer, of course, and so once again I am driving from a standing position with my weight on the fractured plank. Kobuk grinds her way southward as I scan the uncertain waters ahead, veering to to avoid the misshapen wave and slowing to more readily absorb the rougher patches of water. It is a stimulating game, this maintenance of a heightened state of readiness, and it makes the hours pass quickly.
In early afternoon, we run across the mouth of the Potomac, a moving, liquid slab that is broader than the Mississippi. As we close with the far shore, we leave Maryland behind and snug up against Virginia. Although the Potomac forms the boundary between the two states, maps seem to indicate that it is all part of Maryland and that Virginia only starts when you reach the southern shore. But what do rivers know of state boundaries? The Potomac flows out into Chesapeake Bay unconcerned with such matters.
The handful of hours that separate midday from sunset go by the board as Kobuk closes with Windmill Point. This is the southeast tip of the Northern Neck, that broad and blunt peninsula sandwiched between the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. Running down towards it in the late afternoon, I become concerned that the fuel supply will not be sufficient to carry us all the way to our destination. Down goes the main engine, and for an hour we carry on with the Yamaha, just long enough and far enough to get us around the point and into the less tumultuous waters of the Rappahannock. Still there are ten miles to go and the sun is sliding off the edge of the western sky. The Mazda once again--but now we can fly. Kobuk roars up the river course and under the high arches of the Norris Bridge. Off the starboard bow, the Corrotoman estuary comes into view and we aim for its broad entrance. Once within its confines, we thottle back and curl around the first portside headland. Beyond it, a neck of water extends inland away from the main channel and there in the dying rays of golden sun can be seen the masts and docks of Yankee Point Marina. By the time we arrive the sun is down and a steely light is darkly draped over the quiet place. It is still and empty of human company. I ease Kobuk up to the floating dinghy dock and tie her off in less than a foot of water. It is low tide so if she ends up grounded she will be free again in an hour or two.
As twilight turns to darkness, I organize Kobuk and prepare for an evening of cosy solitude in the company of a gently hissing Coleman Stove. I sit and sip wine as the stove warms up the canvas cocoon and the world beyond becomes an inky void. Then the cell phone rings and it is the voice of Randy Romaine: "Let me see if I can get you an invitation to dinner."
Yankee Point Marina, Rappahannock River, VA: 37*41.607' N / 76* 29.271' W
Distance: 73 miles
Total Distance: 7,104 miles
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Shortly after the call last night, Randy and his wife Gloria came over to pick me up. When Randy walked out on the dock to get me, the only light was the feeble yellow glow of the Coleman Stove and so we peered at each other's grotesquely shadowed visage, trying to recognize something familiar from 1960. Randy is a lean, wiry man whose movements and mannerisms suggest something other than the retirement that he has so recently entered into. Gloria has a complementary look--slight, light, and lively--but with the sort of dark, expressive eyes that sop up any uncommitted attention that might be floating around. The two of them were going over to have dinner at the home of their friend Jackie, so good a friend that they could call her at the last minute and pose the question of bringing along a stranger. Jackie is an avatar of southern hospitality but not for her is the banality of standard social graces. Nothing pleases her more than animated discussion in which unexpected things are said. Cast into such an alien situation, I felt queerly comfortable.
From life aboard to dinner out with lively company. From camp life to sleeping in a feather bed. That was my remarkable destiny last night. After dinner, Randy and Glo took me to their place and put me up in their guest cottage. I slept in luscious softness, slept and slept. Now it is morning and I can see that these two have a retreat that would be the envy of those who don't normally entertain such an emotion. On a promontory of land that drops away on three sides into a side branch of the Corrotoman River, they occupy a small but spacious home of glass and white walls and gleaming hardwood floors. No matter where you are in the house, you can look outdoors and over the nearby water. Neighbors are tucked away in the woods and the overall impression is one of nature more than landscaping, although both play a role. It is a lovely place.
Glo has to leave to go visit her father in New Mexico, and so I spend the day with Randy. Although it is a rather gray day with a cold south wind plucking leaves from the trees, we go down to Randy's boat in the afternoon and take her out for an hour or two. He owns a 36' Sabre that he managed to pick up at government auction (a businessman who couldn't pay his taxes) and this impressive craft is the second love of Randy's life. He has spent a lifetime around boats, and I should imagine that this particular sailboat is in his mind the zenith of his sailing career. He labors over its maintenance and struggles to find ways to improve on its near perfect condition. We motor off from his private dock and survey the surrounding land--a delicious blend of small estates set down in a forest of Virginia pines and chestnuts.
Randy and I talk of many things, including his brother Gary. Gary was by nature an artist--and a talented one, too. I have a special memory of one particular watercolor painting that he did--a scene depicting a Jamaican man under a tree with island mountains in the background. Somehow the colors in the painting captured a tropical light that I had never seen before, and my natural attraction to anything exotic was stimulated beyond all reason. I have carried the memory of Gary's painting around with me in my head and its detailed clarity remains more vivid even than my recollection of its creator. Back in that time when I gaped at Gary's artwork and we roomed together, we used to talk of such outlandish things as escaping to an unspoiled place. There was a time, late at night after lights out, when we discussed in the dark the possibility of buying an old sailboat. We thought we could fix her up and sail her to the Bahamas. This we would do, we believed, during our summer vacation. Of course nothing came of it, but the idea chased me through the years and even now I think of myself as striving to realize, in a modest way, that one flash of youthful inspiration. Gary's painting was a part of the dream. I knew enough geography to know that Jamaica is not the Bahamas, but the essential element of tropical exoticism was enough for me to hang my hopes on.
When Randy first got in touch with me last year, I was of course curious to know what had become of Gary. It turns out that he disappeared. He came to Randy's door one day--after a failed marriage and a spell in private business--and asked to borrow a sleeping bag and tent. Then he disappeared. Later, Randy was able to reconstruct his movements--followed his trail up into Quebec, but then the trail went cold. People there could remember him but nobody knew where he went next.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Late in the morning, Randy drives me over to the marina. The mute stillness of Saturday evening has been replaced by the sounds of seasonal activity--boats being pulled from the water and prepared for winter. Kobuk's turn comes soon enough and in early afternoon I motor her over to the dock that runs out from the small basin that can be straddled by the travel lift. The crane is maneuvered out over the basin. Straps are looped down in the water and Kobuk is jockeyed into position above them. Once all is ready, she is raised up until the bottom of her hard-used hull is above us. Rivulets stream from her underbelly, but she looks unconcerned suspended there, as if this is really nothing much in her life experience. In the hands of such large-scale equipment, she looks like a baby held by Hercules.
The travel lift carries her to high ground where a pressure wash of her hull reveals nothing to be concerned about. A different piece of exotic equipment--a long, hydraulically adjustable trailer--drives in under her and she is lowered onto it. Then she is taken away to her storage spot, a grassy slot between two sailboats. Here she will rest for four months, and then, in early April, I shall return to lavish her with attention and groom her for the next leg in the voyage.
Yankee Point Marina Storage: 37* 41.717' N / 76* 29.271' W