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The 2006 Pocomoke weekend of rivers trip saw a slimmer turn out than in years past, with many of the stalwart regulars absent. It must have been the weather forecast.
Which was plum perfect – no torrential rains, no sweltering heat, no passing hurricanes – just blue skies, moderate temperatures, low humidity and light winds. After years of weather-related suffering we finally got four days of ideal conditions for cypress swamp explorations.
The Thursday arrivals began rolling in before sunset, allowing Kevin and I to troll for a shuttle bunny willing to accompany us uptide, drop us off for a night float and drive our van back to the camp. Thanks Mary.
Shad Landing to Milburn Landing (Night Float)
OC1 – Kevin, Mike
For ease of shuttle I talked Kevin out of his kayak and into the spare solo canoe I had racked, and the Odyssey 14 met with his approval ("I’ve gotta get a canoe").
Arriving at Shad Landing we were staging our boats and gear when a ranger pulled up.
"Going canoeing?" he asked brightly.
"Yup." we respond, "Heading down to Milburn."
"Ah, it’s getting dark ya know" he cautions
"Yeah, we know", we reply, agreeing to the obvious.
"You won’t make it before dark" he says, sounding more worried.
"Yup, that’s the point" we tell him.
"Do you have a cell phone or anything" he asks, now plainly concerned.
"No, but we have lights, whistles, pfd’s – everything we need"
"You won’t make it before dark" he repeats.
Finally we cut to the chase and tell him that we’ve probably night floated this river 50 times over the past 25 years, are experienced and prepared, know what we’re doing and will be fine.
He seemed somewhat reassured and left us to our devices.
Just a quiet, easy float through the inky darkness, with the start of the outgoing tide, a gentle breeze and the company of a friend of 29 years. As the first trip this bodes well for a sweet weekend.
Nassawango Creek/Pocomoke River - Red House Rd to Shad Landing
OC1 – Les, Mike
K1 – Vitas, Mary, Anne, Sally, Kevin
Even with a smallish group of 7 participants the struggle to break away from camp was evident, and Les, Kevin and I declared that we were going on ahead to set the shuttle and possibly put in via Old Furnace Rd a couple of miles above the laggard group’s entry point.
Scouting the creek from Old Furnace this seemed highly inadvisable, as just the visible portion of the stream was heavily strainered and we estimated it would likely take us a half hour to paddle the first fifty feet.
Change of plans, we’ll go ahead and set shuttle and meet the laggards at Red House Road. And a second change of plans – the breeze is out of the north, so we’ll revise our take out from upwind along the Pocomoke towards Snow Hill to downwind towards Shad. A much longer shuttle, but we have time and the downwind ease is sure to be appreciated at the end of the trip.
Well timed again, as we wrapped up the shuttle to find our laggards just finished offloading their boats.
More delightful weather and more delightful company. Paddle a bit, muckle up for a bit and ease our way on down to the Nature Conservancy lunch stop on river right half way to the Pocomoke.
Back afloat after a leisurely lunchstop we were soon into the more open tidal portion of the lower Nassawango. Animal oddity of the day: A Great Blue Heron crossed from right to left, "Braccck, braccck, bracck" all the way across and alit on a snag. "Braccck, braccck, bracck" on the snag, just vocalizing nonstop. Paddling closer he finally retreated back to the far bank, "Braccck, braccck, bracck" all the way back, talking the whole time.
I’ve paddled with people like that. On the whole find the “Braccck, braccck, bracck” far more pleasant than the yak, yak, yak.
Pushing out onto the open Pocomoke we were pleased to have made the shuttle change as the northerly breeze helped push us down to Shad Landing. Actually a bit past the entrance to Shad, as I attempted to shanghai the rest of the group into a trip up Corkers Creek. Only Vitas and Sally took the bait, as the rest of our party found the availability of high ground and rest rooms at the take out irresistible.
Shad Landing to Milburn Landing (Night Float)
OC1 – Theresa, Paris, Mike
OC2 – Jim & Anne
Once again dependant on the kindness of Shuttle Bunny extraordinaire Mary, we again put in at Shad for another night float. The rangers, seeing that we somehow survived the pervious night’s perilous endeavor, did not repeat their questionnaire of concern.
Again, perfect weather and good company, riding the outgoing tide under a full moon night sky with the occasional Perseid meteor blazing a streak of light. It really doesn’t get much better.
This night float took on a certain magical quality. A quiet magical quality, as an unspoken consensus was reached to paddle as silently and noiselessly as possible, the only sound the dripdripdrip of water from paddle blades.
Pulling into a patch of lily pads part way down for a midnight muckle, I noticed the outline of a small heron or egret, silhouetted against the moonlight in a snag almost directly overhead. As five more boats pulled in below his perch he remained nearly motionless, turning his head slightly from boat to boat, unconcerned in his misconception that he was invisible in the dark.
Not wanting to disturb his meditations we floated on, arriving, as always on night floats, too soon at the Milburn dock. So soon in fact that Theresa, Paris and I continued on downriver for a leg stretcher at Squatter Hotsprings before returning to camp.
Pocomoke River – Porter’s Crossing to Snow Hill
OC1 – Theresa, Paris, Joe, Jim, Anne
K1- Pam, Vitas, Mary, Ann, Sally
OC2 – Les and Robby
This section is the meat and potatoes of a Pocomoke trip. Kept open by the Pocomoke River Canoe Company
It promises 5 miles of shady cypress swamp paddling without busting brush and scrambling over strainers that such endeavors often entail.
Camp laggards again delaying our departure, we decided to set shuttle in shifts, with half the group dropping boats at the put in before heading downstream to drop off vehicles, followed 20 minutes later by the remaining paddlers.
This was such an effective plan that it may become standard operating procedure for such trips. It helped eliminate the chaos and parking squeeze at the put in, as we passed each other going to and fro on the road instead of tripping over each other at the tight put-in.
And easy it was; few obstacles, more great weather, more fine companions. Such trips are, of course, enjoyable, but lacking in the memorability department. This has just been too easy, no epic weather, no grueling man-hauling of boats through the swamp, no impending darkness halfway through a trip. None of the stuff memories are made of.
Careful what you wish for.
We concluded our Porter-to-Snow Hill float in the usual fine fashion, taking out on the floating dock at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company. A young employee of the outfitter graciously assisted hauling boats out onto the platform (although I insisted on waving him off, and had a hard time convincing him that I didn’t need help, nearly resorting to a cranky "Go away you whippersnapper, I can still get out of a boat on my own dammit").
Another older gentleman from the outfitter (Brad?) informed one of our companions that, "We cleared Whiton-to-Porter of strainers to within a mile of the put in." He also added that a Scout troop had done additional clearing, and added "There are only about 5 strainers, and they’re all within the first mile."
That last statement I admittedly found a bit ominous. Quote the 2005 Pocomoke River trip report, from the same place and same dates last year:
"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."
And, from that same trip report, the strainer count at days end:
"Seven hours later, 'Fifty-three strainers… Fifty-four strainers… seven hours to paddle five miles.'"
His declaration of "only five" strainers seemed awfully familiar. But the weather is supposed to be fantastic, we have a smaller group than the mix 20 boat flotilla of OC1’s, OC2’s, K1’s and even a couple inflatables that made the strainer run from hell last year. We only trashed 3 boats and sent one person to the hospital last year, and everyone here survived that trip relatively unscarred.
Remarkably, everyone is ready to give it a go again. An open, recently cleared Whiton-to-Porter under perfect weather is too good to pass. That’s the morrow’s plan.
There did occur one minor miscue when running the backshuttle. After dropping Paris off to retrieve her upstream car, Theresa and I followed her out from Whiton Crossing. Paris turned left onto Rte 354, heading back to camp and I went suddenly right, struck by an irresistible urge to check out the parking and river conditions at Whiton for tomorrow’s trip.
Well, ok, that sudden, un-signaled right was also a Squatter test. As we headed north (away from camp) I remarked innocently to Theresa "Where is she going?" and was treated a 10 mile discourse from an older (much, much older) sister fretting about sense of direction of a younger (much, much younger) sibling.
I finally fessed up our actual destination after we got to the Whiton bridge. Ample parking and the river looks fine and open.
Back at camp however Paris has not yet arrived, despite now having a 30 minute head start.
Paris eventually arrived, having driven south nearly to the main road, then, convinced that this must be the wrong way, back north nearly to the sign that reads "Welcome to Delaware," then back south again to camp. A scenic tour of the farm fields and chicken houses of the Delmarva.
Dang, where is Squatter Laura when we need her to navigate?
Back at camp, lost younger (much, much younger) sibling safe and sound, we settled in for a long night of eating and drinking. Chef Vic is scheduled to work his Milburn magic. Every year Vic’s feed-the-people campsite extravaganza grows more extensive, from the range of cookery items he hauls down (multiple deep fryers, stoves, griddles) to the menu itself.
Three picnic tables lined end to end, covered in brown paper. Have a seat and the Paddling Gourmet will keep the space in front of you filled and refilled (and refilled, and refilled) with perfect steamed crabs, fried soft crabs, roadside stand tomatoes and corn on the cob, fresh cut too-hot-to-touch French fries, bread and beer.
Nobody gets up hungry at Vic’s. It was well worth forgoing the pleasure of another night paddle to get stuffed, especially since the proceeds benefit St. Kevin’s for Little Girls. (St. Kevin the Unfortunate, the patron saint of the unwashed).
Stuffed, sleepy and early to bed; tomorrow is a big day, the upper Pocomoke under ideal conditions.
Pocomoke River – Whiton Crossing to Porters Crossing.
OC1: Theresa, Paris, Joe, Jim, Anne, Mike
K1: Vitas, Mary, Sally, Pam, Kevin
A manageable paddling contingent of 11 boats, all paddlers that were here last year. A noon start, mild weather and a reportedly open river. This should be cake and I’m already looking forward to one last night float to cap off the trip.
But, just in case, I give a little spiel about how we are going to handle the 5 strainers: "When you get to a strainer follow the leader, stop on the other side and wait for the next boat to clear and when they are through keep going while they take your place."
Off we go. And here’s the first strainer. Already? Hmmmm.
One boat over, two, three…ah, well, it’s too much fun watching folks handle this first log. We’ll just watch this one time.
Ooops, a too-high speedbump log. Boats get stuck part way over and we manhaul them across with paddlers intact.
Next strainer. Not all that much further down, but it’s trickier and holds promise of a wet exit or inadvertent dismount. No one wants to miss that, so we all wait and watch.
Another too high speedbump log and we note that perhaps the water is low as we struggle to pull boats and paddler over.
Next strainer. Oooooh, it’s a big one. Get someone on the other side and have them help drag the boats across.
Next strainer. A double, with 30 feet of water between and no low solid ground to get out; time to just walk the boats down river between the strainers. Watch out, it gets deep herGLUBB. Maybe swim the boats a little.
Vitas, who has somehow managed to smash 17 feet of sea plastic sea kayak through everything so far declares this to actually be strainer #1, reasoning that if he didn’t need to get out, it isn’t really a true obstacle.
Hmmmm, if that’s number one this could be interesting.
And interesting it was. There was every manner and variety of possibly woody obstacle in every possible challenging configuration.
Big logs in deepwater, posing the how to get out dilemma. No solid ground to exit and deepwater on the upside, or the downsides or sometimes all around the sides. Pull up parallel to a big log, scramble out slick balanced on top while hauling the boat across and then get back in, all the while teetering like some halfassed Paddling Waledna.
The getting back in part being the tricky bit.
Tangles of branches and poison ivy. Limbo logs so low they required nearly lying in the bottom of the canoe. Speedbump logs in places where the only choice was paddle as hard as you could, lean back at the last second, lean forward and hope you successfully slid over. Hmmm, didn’t make it…what now? Uh, little help here.
Speed bump/limbo combo; need to go fast enough to hop the log, but not so fast as to be decapitated.
A lunch break on a piece of rare solid ground and we were back at it again, all of us I think hoping and figuring that we must be getting close that that famed "clear" section of river.
Back at it and immediately around a corner to face the vision of a half dozen strainers, each spaced 20 yards apart. A football field’s length of pure swamp mucking mud-hell. Plus an end zone.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Or close up the wall with our Duckhead dead.
Perhaps not surprisingly, no one followed me into the breach, the 10 boats behind me preferring to tackle a swamp portage. Been there, done that, and learned to never loose sight of the river in a swamp. Right about where the voyageurs began dragging their boats south, the river made a sudden right angle turn west.
Jim’s first hand description serves better than anything I could imagine:
"On Sunday I paddled it down the Pocomoke from Whiton bridge to Porter's Crossing, a stretch that the Pocomoke River Canoe Company outfitter at Snow Hill assured us had "only five strainers" left on it since his crew had almost cleared it with chainsaws. A mere five miles of river should have been do-able in four hours with a lunch stop. That turned out to be somewhat optimistic. We put our boats in the water at Whiton Bridge about noon. By the time we got to the stretch of river that he had cleared it was seven o'clock, and we were losing the daylight. By that time I had personally sawed out at least a dozen obstructions with a little 14-inch pruning saw. We had portaged our boats about a quarter-mile through poison ivy around a series of massive deadfalls and helped pull boats over four dozen more. We all kept our sense of humor, but we were very, very glad to get to the Porter's Crossing bridge. It was ten after eight when the first boat scraped onto the landing. We had barely enough light left to load the boats onto the vehicles, and it was full dark before the car shuttle was under way."
With the sun nearing the horizon I decided to make a break for Porters Crossing. The van is there, stocked with food and water and multiple flashlights. I shall return, corncob pipe and all.
But not until just before dark. Once out from under the tree canopy there seemed sufficient light to wait an hour or so, have something to eat and drink and bandage a few cuts and scrapes. Then, as dusk descended, strap a D-cell Maglite to my bow, fill my pockets with spare flashlights and my boat with food and drink and head back upriver.
I hadn’t gone ¼ mile when the first of the lost brigade appeared. Thank goodness, because I really wasn’t looking forward to going back over those damn strainers heading upstream, especially knowing that I’d have to cross them a third time going back downstream.
And I was determined to finish the trip going back downstream. Damned if I was going to be part of another tale of bivouacking in the swamp above Porters Crossing.
So, five strainers, eh?
Ok, I’ll grant that the water was very, very low; so a lot of the stuff that hung us up would have been passable at higher flows. And some of the strainers had been cut out but subsequently floated free during higher water, traveling downstream to form new strainers.
But I know the folks at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company read these trip reports, and I had mentioned to them how much we enjoyed last years epic trip, and how we probably wouldn’t have done it without their "five strainer" encouragement.
I think maybe they just know what makes for a memorable Duckhead Trip. Thanks Brad, we wouldn’t have done it without that "5 strainer" report.
I hereby propose that next year we tackle something really difficult; the Nassawango below Old Furnace, Dividing Creek from the Fleming Rd bridge or the Pocomoke above Whiton. Purnell to Whiton anyone?
I’ll be all healed up by then.
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