Plum Tree Island NWR - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip
Day Trip Report
October 10, 2006
David J. Mack
Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR ) is a 3,500 acre wild, marshy area which buffers the city of Poquoson from the full force of the Chesapeake Bay. Like a huge watery lung, it breathes in and out twice a day with the tides. Even the few strips of land above sea level get flooded a few times a year. It is thick with wildlife, and lies a short drive from the homes of several million people in the Tidewater Virginia region. But it receives few visitors other than watermen because of restrictions which are unusual even for a NWR.
I had puzzled over how to explore Plum Tree Island by kayak for a few years, but it looked tough: open Bay conditions, the apparent need to either set up a shuttle or retrace a long semi-circular route, and few places to legally land. But from aerial photos I noticed that the good people of Poquoson have cut a long ditch along the backside of the marsh. If that ditch were passable at high tide, being able to do a circumnavigation would help.
At Messick Point Landing at mid-morning, men were pulling fish from nets and dropping them into large buckets. Seagulls were patiently waiting on nearby piles, as if they were part of the team and expecting their share. The new, louder, F-22A Raptors out of Langley AFB were turning sharply overhead, condensation appearing in the roaring vacuum behind the wingtips. My day was starting late because I had had to wait for the flood tide to help me slip through the ditch. The recent nor’easter had saturated the marsh like a sponge, also helping to raise water levels. Who knew what might have washed up on the beaches. The 10 mph NW wind was too strong for my taste, but I planned to hide from it as I climbed upwind. Unlike tides, winds are fickle, but with luck it would help blow me home.
Turning left out of the landing, I meandered past moored vessels, then faced a line of apparently unbroken marsh sprinkled with derelict boats. The entrance to the southern end of the 20’ wide ditch was found by heading for the back of Bill Forrest Seafood. Further inland, small bushes and trees bordered the narrowing ditch, with put-ins from homes. A boat carcass has rotted to its most resistant bones: a metal fuel tank, a porcelain toilet. Because the marsh was inhaling so fast, it was a challenge to stop and take pictures.
The marsh is rich in life but the wide variations in salinity restrict diversity. As always, the main plant life is smooth cordgrass. The most obvious animals at this time were the marsh periwinkles scaling the grass, a thumbtip-sized snail which rarely gets its foot wet. The evolutionary cost of living so exposed is they become living rocks, with shells so thick and strong they can only be crushed by a pliers. Diamond-back terrapins can devour feisty fiddler crabs as easily as a human eats crackly chocolate-covered cherries out of the refrigerator, but even their jaws are no match for the ubiquitous marsh periwinkles.
The first portage is at a gravel road under which the strong tidal current was carried by a narrow sewer pipe. Somehow I was expecting a low bridge, but that would have made it the highest point in Poquoson and schoolchildren would have pestered their parents to come and visit. The other side of the road is what I’ll call the middle ditch, and it is truly more ditch than canal. To the left are Poquoson backyards, and to the right is a berm presumably created when the channel was dug or widened. In the crystal clear water I could see submerged pilings with a few blue crabs in mating clutch, the boys patiently waiting for the girls to get undressed.
Many of the homes in this area used to have small footbridges to cross the 8’ wide ditch, but storms have washed out all but one. That single footbridge required a 3’ portage past some fenced-in hunting hounds which were staring vacantly into space as they sat among reeking piles of their own excrement. I cringed, knowing what to expect from bored, self-righteous dogs. One particular thing these dogs are bred for is to make a racket which can’t be believed unless you’ve heard it. Between all the yips and howls you would think their souls were being torn out.
The middle ditch came to a road, then veered right into a pond which is a nexus for all the tidal flow (one alveolus of the lung as it were). The lack of current here meant that below the shallow clear water there was a gelatinous goo waiting to trap someone on a falling tide. One could probably find a high-tide path all the way to Fire Pine Creek and out to the Bay, but that would take you across restricted NWR property. As I’ll explain later, you really don’t want to press your luck in the southern section of Plum Tree Island NWR.
Backtracking to the road, it was clear the squirting sewer pipe was indicating the correct path. Minutes later I was in the ditch on the other side of the road, staying well clear of the now-sucking pipe, and marveling at the both the chest-deep water and the hard bottom. From the roads of Poquoson, one gets the impression that all ditches are silted in. But this is because the water is so slow at the ends of the ditches that it drops any sediment it is carrying. Where tidal currents are present, the scouring action removes everything but heavy sand and gravel. Though the tide was against me now, it was a relief to be back in inarguably navigable waters. The berm was gone and there were again marshes and bushes to either side, and the few homes were almost invisible. A single walking bridge had to be portaged, and I easily skirted an Aluminum step-ladder which was standing incongruously upright in the channel.
As the ditch narrowed the current increased. Now only about 4’ wide but still 4’deep, the channel became too narrow for comfortable paddling, but not so narrow that I could reliably pull myself along by the bayberry bushes. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter a single mosquito, tick, or spider along the way, perhaps due to the lateness of the season or the recent salty overwash by the nor’easter. Still, with my vision blocked by bushes at times, it all felt so, so wrong and there wasn’t even room to turn around. Only the strong current convinced me I would end up in the Chesapeake Bay and not the outflow pipe from some Poquoson waterman’s peeler-crab shedding facility. My GPS maps lacked detail but comforted me with the knowledge that I was at least in Poquoson and not lost in restricted NWR areas.
After a few hundred meters of more African Queen-esque travel, the channel opened up. This brought me to a moist grassland bordered by lines of tall pine trees on slightly higher ground. From aerial photos, these trees appear to be rooted in ancient shoals that were exposed when the sea-level dropped. Further along, the woods retreat leaving a wide expanse of marsh with scattered great egrets too shy for pictures without a powerful telephoto lens. The channel meanders through the increasingly wide marsh before opening onto Lloyd Bay.
I nominate Lloyd Bay for the loneliest large body of water on the Virginia Peninsula. Despite the almost frenetic activity in nearby Bennett Creek, only a few low-draft power boats of fishermen dare the shallow waters of Lloyd Bay. Stretching over a mile from SE to NW, it is a huge pan of water slashed by a few marsh islands. On a tandem trip with my daughter one summer down Bennett Creek, I remember mulling over whether to enter the choppy waters of the Poquoson River or risk getting lost in the calm waters of Lloyd Bay without a good map … and choosing the chop.
Paddlers who don’t come from the Atlantic coastal plain may not realize the potential for feeling lost in one of our salt marshes. Since your eyeballs are only 3’ above sea-level, the meandering exits to the marsh are invisible. All you see is a brownish-green smudge in all directions. Whatever islands are on the map are indistinguishable until you’re right on top of them. Fine details on maps become obsolete after a big storm. The good news is that there is nothing to block your vision, so it’s easy to spot distant tall landmarks. So if you’re willing to hike through the marsh and swim every channel you cross, you’re sure to reach your landmarks… if the sucking muck doesn’t finish you first.
Duck blinds are sprinkled about Lloyd Bay. To the right are signs marking the border of the NWR. I headed upwind across the cold, choppy bay, spying more great egrets. A red-tailed hawk screamed from the trees, and a juvenile bald eagle flew by. Searching for the exit was like trying to thread a needle whose eye was invisible. By paddling along the shoreline, I eventually stumbled onto the 20’ wide jet of seawater which was trying to fill Lloyd Bay.
Once I passed through the slot, I was in the mouth of the Poquoson River where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Turning right, for the next 1+ miles I was exposed to wind-driven swells of 3’ beginning to feel the bottom. Near-shore conditions were highly variable with waves breaking on the shallows near points and reflecting off shore structure. I gave up and moved 100 yards offshore. Small, sandy beaches alternated with the peat shelves topped with marsh grass, all severely scoured by the recent nor’easter. So far from shore, I couldn’t see anything on the beach smaller than a dead sea turtle, and indeed saw nothing. In warmer seasons, medium-sized rays will cruise by with both wings paddling the top of the water. Terrapins will surface to take a breath then, stunned to meet company, bolt away. But I saw no such critters today and there was no relaxing, because steepening 4’ waves would occasionally pop out of nowhere due to a small change in bottom or swell conditions.
Very nearby, two elderly watermen had disappeared a few days earlier when they went out in their 17’ boat to pull in a net. Conditions deteriorated fast as the nor’easter roared in. When the winds are running 50 mph, the water in this area is simply too shallow to keep huge swells from turning into pounding breakers. The Bay temperature has dropped to about 70F which doesn’t sound bad if it’s not you who’s in the water. But, for an elderly person, immersion for more than a few hours in water that cold isn’t usually survivable. I had feared that this trip might lead to a body recovery, and had accepted the grim prospect as part of being a mariner, but the gentlemens’ remains were recovered the day before. Watermen work hard, sometimes in unforgiving weather, and when one of their own dies, they suck it up and go back to work like the other netters I had passed that morning at Messick Point. Those of us with desk jobs can’t imagine their life.
I finally made it to Marsh Point and slipped a sandbar between me and the Bay to rest. The water was crystal clear, only a few feet deep, and with a white sand bottom; “aquarium” conditions that I seek but rarely find in the Tidewater area. There were lots of birds here: different colored pelicans, cormorants, and a wide variety of gulls. A few of the gulls were almost the size of large hawks. The birds must enjoy this area because it’s close to their Bay cafeteria, small sandy islands give some limited protection from predators like raccoons, and the waves have lost their strength after crossing extensive sandy flats.
One of the sandy beaches was covered with recently killed horse-shoe crabs, drowned in air only a few yards from the ocean they couldn’t reach due to the continuously driving nor’easter. I don’t usually get such a good look at them: not when they’re alive because their feeble struggles in air are so pitiful I quickly let them go, and certainly not when they’ve been picked over by scavengers and bleached by the sun. These could have been napping.
Paddling to the SE, the water deepened and watermen’s boats were puttering in and out of guts. A wall of crab traps was stored on a beach. I stretched my legs near an offshore island. The marshy scenery, with a backdrop of lines of pine trees, is gorgeous.
As I worked my way further south, the surf got rougher. Seductive long, low lines of scoured beaches began to appear. Attractive bays lie behind some of these beaches. Unfortunately, after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, objects believed to be unexploded ordnance were exposed in the shallow water of this area. This area had long ago been a bombing range for Langley AFB, and was never open to the public, but it was decided to make new signs and add a 100 yard exclusion zone.
The area is a maintenance nightmare. You can’t put up a sign without first scanning with a metal detector, and as soon as it’s in place the Bay inexorably works to knock it down. For a hoot, you might check aerial photos for black pockmarks in the southern section of Plum Tree Island NWR. (Type Poquoson, VA, into Google Earth then zoom out a bit and fly east.) There’s a lot of variation in size, but the average bomb crater appears to be about 30’ in diameter though they may have shrunk or even grown over the years. It looks like the bombardiers were aiming for the same strips of sandy, higher ground (those ancient shoals) that would attract trespassers.
The hazard is real. An old Daily Press article reported that a kid had his foot blown off here in the 70’s. Plus, I noted (assume I was squinting through binoculars) that the beach is littered with rusty, many decades-old beer cans which make even a low-beach excursion rather nerve-racking. Given the realities of soft sand, erosion, and beach migration, this area will be hazardous for hundreds of years. Leave it strictly to the wildlife.
Reaching the Back River, I turned right to leave the Bay. The sand-clogged mouth of the river is shallow except for a narrow channel, so it can be a little rough until the waves have lost their strength. Here the beaches beckon even more strongly, but are still off-limits. A concrete bunker on the beach was used for spotting bomb drops. An abandoned pier perhaps used to bring spotters to Plum Tree Island still juts into the river, now a sturdy hangout for cormorants and pelicans. A tall spotting tower which was a local navigational landmark has sadly been disassembled. (Admittedly, it was probably a magnet for trespassers.) The relatively protected waters of the Back River and its relatively undeveloped shoreline invite future exploration. Back at Messick Point landing, the fishermen were long gone.
The described trip was 14 miles in 7 hours. Despite the pleasantly cool weather, the nature of the trip made it rather tiring. Although I got the desired overview of Plum Tree Island NWR, I only recommend portions of it. The following are of significant local interest for scenery and wildlife.
- Southern end of ditch - access from Messick Point. Beginner trip, easiest if you ride the tide in and ride the tide out.
- Lloyd Bay to marshes at northern end of ditch (access from Bennett’s creek). Intermediate trip.
- Northern section from Marsh Point to Whalebone Island - access from Bennett’s creek. Intermediate trip. Some restrictions apply, but at least not the 100 yard prohibition.
The following area is not
Southern section from Whalebone Island to Back River - Unless you’re a gray whale, what’s the fun in paddling parallel to a distant shore you can never land on? There are equally beautiful marshes and beaches in the Bay you can visit without such headaches (e.g., very nearby Grandview Island).
From I-64 in Newport News, VA take Rt. 171 east to Poquoson. (The name of Rt. 171 will change from Oyster Point Rd. to Victory Blvd. to Little Florida Rd. along the way.) Follow the road as it winds through Poquoson, keeping your eyes peeled, until you reach Messick Road.
Turn left and follow it to Messick Point Landing. Along the way, note the many homes only recently raised on blocks after Hurricane Isabel, a reasonable condition imposed by insurance companies to retain coverage in this flood-prone area.
Messick Point Landing is a busy, quality landing with two large concrete ramps. There is a nice informational placard describing the restrictions at Plum Tree Island, located right next to the ramp for incoming boats. I saw it on my return and read it carefully.
The ADC street map book for Greater Hampton Roads has several pages of excellent maps of this area.
Aerial photos and topo maps from http://www.terraserver.microsoft.com were useful, as were virtual tours via Google Earth.
I use http://tbone.biol.sc.edu/tide/
for tide predictions.
The CBOFS wind forecast for the Chesapeake Bay area can be found at http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/ofs/cbofs/wind_forecast.shtml
Plum Tree Island NWR main website:
Plum Tree Island NWR profile:
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