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After a 2 hour drive through a drizzle, I arrived at mid-morning under mostly cloudy skies. The Maryland shore 5 miles away was a grey smudge. Despite the gloom, there was cause for rejoicing: it had stopped raining, there was no wind, and the temperature was in the 40’s but headed for the 50’s. If the wind report was right, I had a 5 hour window to paddle before being blown to the Land of Oz.
Wildlife was apparent as soon as I got there. While distracted getting my Prowler 13 SOT ready for the day, I ignored a chirping sound that seemed to come from a songbird the size of a dodo. A minute later, a bald eagle took flight from the tree behind me and disappeared into the gloom to look for breakfast. It was the first time I’d heard one vocalize.
Turning right to head downriver, the water was calm and brackish with 3’-4’ visibility. Ducks rested several hundred yards out on the river, where they would remain all day almost as still as decoys. The only power boats were on the Maryland side. Tiny white dots, they produced no noticeable wakes, but their engine buzz was like having a mosquito inside my ear.
After passing a stretch of groined beach, I reached Horsehead Cliffs. Large signs stated that no trespassing was allowed on beaches below the cliffs. I rolled my eyes, thinking cynical thoughts about how the threat of lawsuits had distorted safety perceptions. But it wasn’t five minutes before I realized how wrong I was. If I’d been paddling with a liability lawyer, I would have bought him lunch and ordered crow for myself.
The cliffs were alive … with the sound of landslides. Cascades of ice on the north-facing slopes were melting. Sprays of wet sand fell like rusty waterfalls. Drying clay flaked away from the wall from bottom to top like a slow fuse. In the wettest places, mud dribbled down the face, looking like concrete running down the chute of a cement truck.
Every 10 minutes or so, I would see large chunks fall nearby, spin, fragment into head-size pieces and smack the wet sand beach. Further away, I would hear the booms as washing machine- to room-sized mounds fell. If I looked quickly enough, I could see the splash from these “underwear changers”. (Confusingly, the natural sounds were mixed with detonations from nearby military installations.) Almost none of the landslides run past the low-tide line, but the falling trees certainly do since I had to frequently skirt deadfall. Now when I look at a 100’ oak tree on top of a cliff, I think of it as God’s fly swatter.
Awestruck by the real-time erosion, I cruised off-shore or waded away from the cliffs in knee-deep water. Other than the beach near the put-in, the only beach where you can legally land is at a (cliff-free) creek mouth on the east side of WSP. A nature trail leads here so expect company. It’s a nice dry place to stretch your legs. If you choose to trespass on the narrow beaches below the cliffs, I suggest wearing an extra large, yellow hard-hat. When your body is found, it will be easier to identify if the facial features aren’t crushed beyond recognition.
Near the top of the cliffs there is a thin ferricrete bed below a reddish sandy layer. Ferricrete is one of the few rocks that forms locally. It usually consists of sand or fine gravel which has been welded into a reddish solid by iron minerals. It varies in strength from something you can crumble in your hands to something approximating tank armor. Mother Nature put the ferricrete there so it would shatter into billions of triangular pieces, making it hopeless for anyone to search the shallows for shark’s teeth. Actually, I found one the first 5 minutes and didn’t see another the entire day. I admit to being shark tooth-challenged, but the love of my family has helped me to overcome my handicap.
A furry brown torpedo appeared parallel to my track. I drew closer until I was rewarded with the sound of a tail slap. It was a medium-sized beaver. He couldn’t go very deep here, so he left a large V-shaped wake like a fish. Given the slightly brackish water in this part of the Potomac, I was surprised to see him. It turns out that beavers aren’t industrious to a fault; he and a few companions had left their freshwater creeks at least a half mile away to take advantage of the smorgasbord of bark from recently fallen trees. A beer truck overturning in front of a frat house could not have been more welcome.
Kingfishers were common, and once I even saw a pair that weren’t fighting. There were a few great blue herons as well, but usually far away. A pair of bald eagles landed in the trees hanging high over the river. Crows pecked at crumbly white fossil clams in a fresh house-sized landslide, possibly for the calcium. By carefully working some of these clams out of clay blocks in the river, I obtained a few large specimens which were salvageable at home with Elmer’s glue. From up close, the fallen clay sometimes looks like the edge of a book, because the impact splits it into mm-thick sheets.
The water was dead-flat because the SW wind was blocked by cliffs. A fog covered the shoulders of the cliffs where sunlight reached. I started tipping toward “chilled” in the morning, but a little hot tea and some faster paddling stabilized me. It was a day when the water temperature and the high air temperature would sum to only 100 Fahrenheit. For a chunky guy like me in a wetsuit paddling an SOT, that seems to be the dividing line between no problem and a slow slide into hypothermia. Of course, it also depends on the wind, sun, and how wet you get. Once the sun came out and the day warmed a few degrees, I had no problem.
East of Westmoreland SP, where the Lee family home of Stratford Hall is located, fossil bones of sea mammals are found in the shallows. Thinking of your kayak as a time machine, a downriver paddle is a journey through the middle Miocene in which successively younger exposures are encountered at river level. The appearance of bones at Stratford Hall probably says as much about the evolution of sea mammals as it does about how good their groins are at trapping things besides sand.
I found many spongy vertebrae of whales and dolphins, dense bones of sea cows, a fossilized turd, and things I haven’t identified yet. With all the abuse the bones get before burial and after exhumation, most of the delicate knobs and arches have been knocked off the vertebrae, and the soft marrow cavities of the bones are often worn away. From the deep puncture marks on one sea cow bone, it’s clear the crocodiles had adjusted to sharing the water with mammals.
If you’re into rock collecting, around every point, there is usually a lag deposit of cobbles. Considering that a rock has to be nearly invulnerable to survive the trip from the interior, the pickings are surprisingly diverse. Of the rocks that weren’t formed here, the most common are attractive, rusty quartzites and related (but less tortured) mushroom-colored sandstones which have come all the way from the Blue Ridge Mountains. They presumably rattled down the west side of the Blue Ridge in an ancestral Shenandoah River, into a younger version of the Potomac River, and were deposited in an ocean which may then have reached as far as DC. Now they drop out of the cliffs. Head-sized cherts, dark grey with caramel mottlings, could have weathered from the limestones of the Shenandoah Valley as well. Other infrequent rocks include sandstones of nearly every imaginable texture in colors like pink, brown, white, and black.
Many times I would examine a rock plucked from the bottom of the river, only to hear the hiss of sand falling behind me. After a while, I didn’t turn around anymore, but I never stopped listening with complete concentration. One expects water and animals to move, but it’s disturbing when it sounds like the land is sneaking up on you.
Past Stratford Hall is a cliff-less section with lots of driftwood. Many of the trees that tumble off the cliffs eventually end up here, at a spot opposite the Wicomico River. After the soft parts rot or wear away, the resulting shapes and colors are fascinating. Some of this material is out of the ordinary: partially burned wood shows up frequently because it is extremely hard, the most unusual shapes arise from the hard parts of tree bracket-fungi, and a few dense, black pieces of wood may be partially fossilized drop-outs from the cliffs.
Farther still downriver are the Nomini Cliffs. If anything, they are more unstable and unpredictable. Back at the State Park, after a few hours of study, I could fool myself into thinking that I knew which sections were going to fall in the next few days. (E.g., undercut clay blocks or trees are obviously toast, and extremely wet, vertical sandy areas are primed to liquefy.) At Nomini Cliffs, forget it. Large, apparently healthy blocks of clay appear to split off as if sitting on a layer of baby oil.
The ferricrete layer here is so thick and strong it begins to make significant ledges. But what really makes it interesting is that it formed on top of a thick layer of shells. The shells are long gone, but they left molds. Given the long drop down the cliff, and the brittle rock, it’s hard to find a perfect specimen. But you can take pictures of the piano-sized blocks of shell molds.
Planning this trip was frustrating. After planning and canceling 3 times due to winds, I became too stubborn to cancel this trip when I saw that high afternoon winds were predicted. Nature of course couldn’t care less. I can imagine the undertaker telling my dear wife, “Sorry, Mrs. Mack, we tried to remove the stubborn look on his face, but it just wouldn’t come off.”
Exactly as predicted, the wind had been steadily increasing since noon, and shifting aim down the axis of the river. Isn’t science great? I had noted this, but since I’d been in a bit of a wind shadow, I had thought the weather report had somewhat missed the mark. As I headed back to the landing, at first, paddling into a headwind was just good exercise. But there were low whitecaps ahead. Rounding the point, I was suddenly in 20 mph winds with 3’ waves and rapidly numbing hands. Gusts to 30 mph repeatedly stopped me dead in the water, but I clutched my paddled tightly when I saw the tread of the cat’s paws coming. Stopping for 20 seconds to put on a glove was a big, tippy mistake, so I let the other hand suffer. (Carrying heavy stuff in the tank-well that isn’t laying dead-flat doesn’t improve stability.)
The water was only 4’ deep and I was close to shore. But nothing was secured and I didn’t want to capsize and lose 50 lbs of rocks, fossils, and equipment. Dragging my kayak along the shore was not an option because of dead-fall every 100 feet or so. (With 20/20 hindsight, I should have landed, put both gloves on, secured everything, and re-launched.) Fortunately, once I got past the last set of cliffs, the wind lost some of its fury. My other hand had warmed up from the exercise, but it was still a slow paddle back to the landing.
This trip is of significant regional interest for scenery, fossils, rock-collecting, and perhaps the best “cliff weather” in Virginia. The described trip was 10 miles in 6 hours. The park is pretty quiet on winter weekdays. I estimate there were 10 employees and contractors on site, but only about 5 visitors all day.
"Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States" by Jasper Burns, c1991, pp 155-158.
"Virginia Atlas and Gazetteer" by DeLorme, c1999, for the drive.
Aerial photos and topo maps from www.terraserver.microsoft.com were useful, as were virtual tours via Google Earth. Any place you see a sediment plume in the river is courtesy of eroding cliffs.
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.
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