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Having forgone a summer vacation this year in favor of renovating the house the annual Duckhead trip to the Pocomoke River was our first break from work and home construction. Boats racked and car packed I headed down on Thursday to beat the Bay Bridge traffic jams.
Headed down with my timesaving EZPass automatic toll device. Approaching the Bay Bridge I slid into the far left lane and, grinning triumphantly at the poor suckers waiting in line to hand over their cash, made it to within 3 cars of the toll when the bridge authorities shut down the EZPass booth to open an addition lane on the bridge.
And there I sat for 30 minutes, sweltering in the heat, while the cash paying suckers to my right, smirking in satisfaction, paid their $5 and drove on. Yeah, I love technology.
Pocomoke River, Snow Hill to Milburn (Night Float) 7.6 miles
OC1 David Hone, Kevin Finch, Mike McCrea
A select group of early arrivals elected to try a night float. Dusk saw the tidal action on the Pocomoke nearing high tide, so the decision was made to put in upriver and float down with the start of the falling tide.
Having ridden a swiftly falling tide downriver from Shad Landing some years before and beaten our shuttle drivers back to camp in the process, we elected this year to put in further upriver at Snow Hill.
Just how much further upriver was not fully appreciated. I seem to have trouble calculating distances and reading the maps for that particular section of the tidal Pocomoke. But no matter, downriver is downriver, and we have all night.
Downriver is downriver but in a slack tide, on a pitch black night, on a section of river with many islands, tributaries, coves, guts and dead ends it can be a challenge to determine exactly where the river runs. Good thing we have all night.
Fortunately I was in the presence of a magnificent night navigator, and after a few bewildered wandering canoeist circles amidst the lily pad edges, we arrived at the Milburn dock safe and sound. Well, safe anyway.
Pocomoke River, Porters Crossing to Snow Hill, 5.1 miles
OC1 Steffi Mueller, Digger Mueller, Joe Steiner, David Hone, Mike McCrea
OC2 Les Leedy/Robi Leedy,
K1 Vitas Eidukevicius, Mary Eidukevicius, Sally Baker, Pam Gunter, Kevin Finch
This section of the upper Pocomoke is the most reliable paddler’s haven for cypress swamp cruising on the non-tidal portions of the Pocomoke. The Pocomoke River Canoe Company helps keep this section open and generously allows paddlers to use their canoe dock as a take out point. If you take advantage of this generosity please visit the paddleshop and drop a little cash.
The paddle from Porters Crossing to Snow Hill was open and easy as promised and the shade provided by the canopy of cypress and hardwood much appreciated on a blazingly hot and sunny day.
A lunch stop respite at the traditional highground break area half way down saw the only swim of the trip as Robi and Les explored the difficulties of reboarding a canoe via a steep, muddy bank. The Pocomoke is surprisingly deep, even near the banks.
Joe, having learned this lesson on past trips, elected to do his impersonation of Chef from Apocalypse Now (“Never get out of the boat…never get out of the boat”). What frightens Joe isn’t the possibility of encountering a tiger in the jungle, but of encountering a photographer in mid-capsize.
Each swamp trip teaches Joe a new lesson though. Today’s lesson when flailing wildly at a kamikaze deerfly do not swat your glasses off your nose. Remember, the Pocomoke is dark and deep.
Taking out at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company I asked one of the outfitter staff about the conditions along the section of river upstream from our put in. The Whiton Crossing to Porters Crossing section is even prettier; smaller, faster, twistier and more intimate, but all too often an absolute strainer-fest. He informed me that there were five portages or carry-overs. Quite manageable, and we have a plan for Saturday’s trip.
Pocomoke River, Pocomoke City to Milburn (Night Float), 4.8
OC1 Theresa Alexander, Patty Hale, Kevin Finch, Anna Weichold, Mike McCrea
OC2 Russ Mason/Robin Mason, Frank Weichold/Tony Weichold/Lena Weichold
K1 - Vitas Eidukevicius, Sally Baker, Candi Crichton, KC Crichton
Friday’s night float saw a larger contingent of Duckheads, and an easier piece of the Pocomoke to cover, as we decided to take advantage of a slight upriver breeze and a slack tide and float from Pocomoke City back to our campsites at Milburn.
Taking names and assigning numbers at the launch brought us to the cusp of Duckhead # 600. With four new participants in attendance Russ was # 596, Robin #597, KC #598 and Candi #599. One more new paddler and the Duckheads would reach another century mark.
And, partway to the take out a ghostly Sawyer Champion loomed ahead out of the inky darkness. Frank Weichold, paddling downriver to meet us halfway. Frank Weichold with a cousin visiting from Germany as his bowman. Congratulations Tony on becoming the 600th participant in a Duckhead trip. For his timely appearance Tony was awarded the last of the Duckhead hats and one of the few remaining Duckhead huggies.
Falling into Squatter-style paddling cadence - which is to say no cadence, and very little paddling - beside Patty, Theresa and Kevin (Kevin is an honorary Squatter and has the tee shirt to prove it) we soon fell well behind the main body of paddlers as the Squatters assumed their traditional position as sweep boaters.
A half-mile or so before our take out a boat ramp appeared, allowing the Squatters to assume their other traditional position as, well, Squatters. Kevin may have the tee shirt, but he’s still a stander. I hope.
Pocomoke River, Whiton Crossing to Porters Crossing, 5 miles
OC1 Pat Kingman, Annie Hepner, Joe Steiner, Anna Weichold, Brian Sill, Theresa Alexander, Patty Hale, Mike McCrea
OC2 Russ Mason/RobinMason, Jim Hepner/Chris Hepner, Les Leedy/Robi Leedy, Frank Weichold/Tony Weichold/Lena Weichold
K1 Bill Bruchey, Darletta Bruchey, Pam Gunter, Vitas Eidukevicius, Mary Eidukevicius, Sally Baker, KC Crichton, Candi Crichton,
I should have realized that the previous three trips were all too easy, too organized, too free of chaos to constitute a Duckhead weekend. Today would present the yin to accompany the yang of the weekend’s earlier trips
Beginning with the now traditional difficulties of gathering 20 boats, 25 paddlers and a dozen vehicles from campsites scattered throughout the Park. Running only an hour late for our declared start time we began to get the convoy organized only to discover Kevin on his hand and knees in the forest. Kevin, or any other Duckhead for that matter, on their hand and knees isn’t a unusual sight at Milburn, but it more customarily seen late at night.
Kevin is searching for his car keys. Always the sympathetic trip leader I give him a map to the put in, tell him it will take us at least an hour to set the shuttle and say I hope we see him there.
An hour later, shuttle set, I realize at the put in that we have Russ’ canoe, and Russ’ daughter, but not Russ. He was planning to ride along with Kevin. Eventually this dilemma is resolved when Vic delivers Russ to the put in. Sorry Kevin, but we’re leaving without you.
A quick count of boats (just so we’ll know at trips end that we’ve finished with the same number we started with) and we’re off paddling into the dense upper Pocomoke swamp.
Off and paddling for a clear and open 50 yards, before we come to the first strainer. “That’s one” I happily tell the group, “Only four more to go”.
Another 50 yards. Another strainer. “That’s two”. And soon “Three”. “Four”. “Five”. “Six”
Wait, weren’t there supposed to be only five.
“Seven”. “Eight”. “Nine”….”Nineteen”. “Twenty”. “Twenty five”.
Seven hours later “Fifty three”…”Fifty four”…seven hours to paddle five miles. Now this is more like it, this is a Duckhead trip!
They are a hearty bunch those Duckheads. Frank somehow navigating his 18 feet of Sawyer Champion down a tight, strainer-filled swamp creek. Bill and Darletta, paddling inflatable kayaks, no doubt wishing they had brought a patch kit. Pat in her antique whitewater boat, no doubt thinking this is a whole ‘nother kind of wildwater.
Jim and Chris, probing ahead with the Sven saw, clearing a path through the smaller stuff. KC going for a cooling swim during a lunch break and impaling his hand on a sharp stick but soldiering on. No one losing heart, despite struggling for 7 hours to beat our way through 5 miles of swamp.
The last time I was that relieved to see a take out come into view was, hmmm, well, whadda ya know, on this very same stretch of river 15 years ago. I think that serves as proof positive that Duckheads enjoy a challenge. Or have a barley-concealed streak of masochism.
KC made a trip to the emergency room to get the remaining bit of tree removed from his hand, a procedure that was concluded by a nurse using an entire roll of gauze to bandage his hand, so that the stick-stuck middle finger protruded permanently upright, like a plump white zucchini in one fingered salute. The remainder of our crew returned to camp to find several delights in wait.
Chef Vic had forgone the day’s epic trip and scoured the eastern shore for hard crabs, soft crabs, corn, melons, mussels and more. Vic was in toque-wearer heaven, with pots and pans and steamers and deep fryers all hissing, bubbling and steaming around him. Simply put, damn that boy can camp cook. (Of course it helps when you load the back of a full-sized pickup truck with all manner of cookery devices. No many people bring deep fryers on a camping trip).
Our other delight was a quest appearance by Bruce. A little back-story on Bruce several years ago we first encountered Bruce as we were paddling the Porters Crossing to Snow Hill section of the Pocomoke. Bruce was paddling upstream in a loaded Allagash, going solo commando camping in the cypress swamp. The next year we ran into Bruce again, this time as a fellow camper at Milburn Landing. The next year Bruce was the State Park Camp Host at Milburn (boy did we get away with murder THAT year).
This year Bruce is living locally and has come over for a visit, bring a selection of fine Martin guitars and his lady friend Birdy with her array of drums. There will now be a lengthy musical interlude as Bruce and Birdy provide fine acoustical entertainment while we all pig out on fresh seafood. Yeah, this too is a Duckhead trip.
A spell of dock sitting and meteor shower viewing wrapped up the evening’s festivities, and we all stumbled back to our tents (some stumbling more than others)
Nassawango Creek, Red House Rd to Snow Hill, 5.4 miles
OC1 Joe Steiner, Dave Hone, Tiff Hone, Steffi Mueller, Digger Mueller, Theresa Alexander, Patty Hale, Mike McCrea
OC2 - Russ Mason/RobinMason, Jim Hepner/Chris Hepner, Les Leedy/Robi Leedy
K1 - Vitas Eidukevicius, Mary Eidukevicius, Sally Baker, Pam Gunter, Annie Hepner, Vic Chenowith
I had been postponing a trip down Nassawango Creek. Although it is one of the prettiest runs in the area the bug population in the swamp had been especially fierce when we first arrived, but that plague seemed to have abated some, so we decided to give it a shot.
Miracle of miracle, Nassawango was about as bug-free as a cypress swamp can be expected to be in mid-August. Slowly meandering down the creek we paused in a cove to muckle-up and tested the water depth. This is always an amazing experiment along the Pocomoke or its tributaries. Five feet from shore, on a narrow tidal creek, we dipped a 9’ paddle its full length before touching bottom.
A lunch and swim stop at a Nature Conservancy area at our midpoint allowed everyone to rehydrate and reapply sunscreen before we paddled forth into the open and shadeless lower Nassawango.
On down to the confluence with the Pocomoke, where a delightful tailwind aided our passage up to Snow Hill. Les and Robi unfurled a golf umbrella and were soon out of sight, the others paddled to keep up, and I was left bringing up the rear with David, Susan and of course the Squatters. Not as fast as they look indeed.
Taking out again at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company dock the outfitter staff declared when asked about the Whiton stretch that “No one here would tell you Whiton-to-Porter was do-able; we tell people its impassible” I dunno, the guys I asked on Friday was wearing a PRCC shirt and loading canoes on one of your trailers, but maybe he was just a helpful stranger with a twisted sense of humor. Anyway, we’re Duckheads nothing is impassible!
Boats racked and back shuttle run we were returning to camp when Pam and Joe see the police pull Jim over behind them. Kindly companions that they are they circle the block and pull in behind to await the outcome.
The officer approaches their truck and asks Pam for her license and registration (remember, Joe’s glasses are at the bottom of the Pocomoke, so Pam is driving). “Oh, we just circled around to check on our friend up there” Pam tells him. “That was mighty nice of you” the cop tells her “We got you for speeding too”.
The cop walks back to his car and runs her license and registration. Walks back and says, “So M’am, when did your stolen license tag reappear?”
Pam explains that Joe, needing a couple of screws for the Airstream trailer, decided that the best place to get them was the front bumper of the truck. And then misplaced the front license tag. And then, after calling it in as lost or stolen, found the tag a few months later in the back of a closet and reattached it (Pam wonders where he got those screws).
The cop, perhaps having a Duckhead experience for the first time, walks away shaking his head. He talks to his partner and again walks back to Pam.
“M’am, are you aware that there is a warrant out for your arrest?”
Allowing Pam a quite memorable few seconds to freak out and develop a vivid mental image of the County jail, he smiles and says “Ah, just kidding”. A cop with a Duckhead sense of humor.
The cop then asks if both Pam and Joe have their licenses. Yes. Good, because your friend up there is driving on a suspended license and one of you is going to have to drive his vehicle. Now granted, Jim honestly didn’t know his license had been suspended, but if it had been me Diane would have been looking up Snow Hill Bail Bonds in the phone book.
Back at camp, our numbers greatly reduced by Sunday evening departures, the contingent that was staying over until Monday gathered around Squatter Central, making it all the easier for Theresa and Patty to ply us with drink. Well sure, if you insist…
Once again a meteor shower dock night was undertaken and once again we all stumbled back to our tents. Or almost all; it was decided that the safest course of action with David’s inert form was to douse it with bug spray and leave it where it fell.
Monday morning I awoke at 6:30, intending to drive out for breakfast at Don’s in Pocomoke City. I must have planned for a quick and easy departure, because I awoke in my tent fully clothed with my shoes still on. By 7:00 I had a plate of eggs, hash brown and pancakes in front of me. Good plan.
En route back to camp I scouted out a put in at the head of Dividing Creek; it looks like a long hard day of paddling down a teensy cypress swamp run replete with numerous strainers. Next year!
Back acamp we debated squeezing in one last run, but the heat, bugs, and paddling both day and night had worn us all down, and so the annual Duckhead gathering on the Pocomoke came to an end. We will, of course, do it all again next year.
You may have noticed that my constant companion Tom, ole canoeswithduckheads himself, was conspicuously absent from these pages. Tom, who has not missed a Milburn trip in nigh on 20 years. Tom, the swamp rat portage king mud dog par excellence.
It pains me to tell you, but Tom has traded his canoes for a radio controlled sailboat and now spends his free time on the banks of the community pond dressed in a shabby trench coat, naked from the waist down, muttering to himself and manipulating a small toggle switch.
But he still falls in occasionally.