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As I was working on the trip notes from the annual Duckhead weekend of rivers trip to Milburn Landing I looked back through the photo archives and found the earliest evidence of (pre) Duckheads group paddling the Pocomoke. Dated 1983, so this was our 22nd year of camping, canoeing and carousing at the Pocomoke River State Park.
While we usually have 80+ participants in attendance and had, as usual, booked every site in the park, we were due a special guest in 2004, Hurricane Charlie, come to visit all the way from landfall in Florida. With the hurricane forecast to arrive sometime Saturday night, many of the usual suspects opted to stay home and batten down the hatches. Still, true Duckheads can't be put off by the weather, and we eventually totaled 47 campers and paddlers in attendance, despite the forecast of Charlie's wrath.
Thursday 8/12/04 Night Float
Pocomoke City to Milburn Landing (4.8 miles)
OC1 Mike McCrea, Tom Wilhelm, Bob Wilhelm, Kevin Finch, Joe Steiner
OC2 Les Leedy/Robalee Leedy
K1 Ann Muldoon, Pam Gunter
Ah, the joys of night paddling, black water seeming more inky, more silky, more fluid, maybe your senses are especially connected to the water because there is no visual distraction and you are solely dependant on touch and feel and movement.
One of my favorite moments of any night float is when a first-time after dark paddler invariable utters, "This is so cool". One of my other favorite moments is when a night paddler finds a barely submerged cypress knee with the hull of their boat and suddenly begins spinning in circles that would be the envy of any freestyle paddler.
Eventually Joe was dislodged from the cypress knee. Little did we know that Joe mishaps would be a recurring feature of the weekend's paddling activities.
As we progressed down the river it began to rain and, like the frequency of don't-try-this-at-home Joe demonstrations, little did we realize that rain on paddling trips would be the theme for the weekend. In the rain and the dark we nearly missed the take out, saved only by the faint glow of lights from the campground.
Arising Friday morning to find the rain still with us we opted for a restaurant breakfast at Don's in Pocomoke City. We were headed in that direction anyway, planning to launch from the landing at Winter's Quarter Lane on the Pocomoke for a trip up Dividing Creek. Little did we know that eating at Don's would be another recurring feature of this trip.
Dividing Creek (12 miles)
OC1 Mike McCrea, Tom Wilhelm, Bob Wilhelm, Kevin Finch
K1 Ann Muldoon
The hard rain and incoming tide had brought the Pocomoke up to a very high level, floodwaters being another recurring theme for the weekend. While this boded well for finally reaching the headwaters of Dividing Creek (the Holy Grail of Pocomoke trips) our frequent stops under sheltering trees and bridges to dodge sudden downpours delayed our progress up creek, and Dividing Creek's headwaters remain a future Duckhead objective.
The paddle out of Dividing Creek featured a visual oddity I've never encountered before; following Tom down the rain spattered creek the reflection of the trees ahead of his canoe made it hard to determine where the forest stopped and the water began, and the ripples from his bow wake threw off a mirage-like horizon line. Every time I looked ahead it appeared that Tom was about to fall down an abrupt drop. Although Tom falling down is not uncommon, it's usually back at camp and late in the evening's festivities.
(Note to Ed Gertler: We have probed back well beyond the guidebook-noted 5 mile limit of navigability on Dividing Creek trips that combined high tide with floodwater rains. Also, my 1996 4th edition of your wonderfully comprehensive Maryland and Delaware Canoe Trails lists the gradient as "excellent" uh, Ed, even when flooded the gradient is still nearly nil).
Perhaps next year, if pluviality prevails, we will plan to put in at the Fleming Mill Pond bridge, probe up as far as possible and then float back to Pocomoke City. The Duckheads still have a lot of unexplored river and tributaries along the Pocomoke. We haven't been down the 8-mile section from Rte 364 to Whiton Crossing in a decade (not since the infamous strainer run from hell of '93), haven't yet covered the lower river from Pocomoke City to Rehobeth, and haven't bagged upper Nassawango Creek or Marumsco Creek. We still have plenty of unexplored water in Worcester and Somerset counties.
Back at camp the NOAA forecast did not sound promising; with a storm track potentially putting Charlie atop us on Saturday night. I made the rounds of the sodden campsites and saturated campers to announce that, if by Saturday morning Charlie was still predicted to whack us, I might consider packing up and getting out of Dodge before any shore evacuation was underway. Apparently using the words "hurricane" and "evacuation" in the same sentence was enough, or perhaps too much, for Elaine and she hurriedly packed up and departed, preferring the big city company of sex offenders, murderers and crazed drug addicts to a visit from Charlie.
Friday Night Float (4.8 miles)
OC1 Mike McCrea, Tom Wilhelm, Bob Wilhelm, Mary Beth Rochowiak, Steffi Muller
OC2 Frank Weichold, Lena Weichold, Anna Weichold
K1 Sally Baker, Vitas Eidukivicius, Mary Eidukivicius, Ann Muldoon, Vic Chenowith
After another rainy dinner at Don's the night floaters headed back to the river to take advantage of a break in the weather, with the Weichold clan, Vic and Mary Beth opting to put in from camp and paddle downriver to meet us half way. With a slack tide the direction of travel on the Pocomoke was easy enough either way, and midway through our return to camp the ghostly shape of Frank's vintage Champion suddenly appeared beside us as though conjured up by an illusionist's magic trick.
Oh, yeah, the break in the weather didn't hold. It rained.
Saturday morning was wet and promised to stay wet. Back to Don's for another breakfast that couldn't be beat and then back to camp to solicit preferences on where to paddle.
Pocomoke River, Milburn Landing to Shad Landing and back (8 miles)
OC1 Mike McCrea, Tom Wilhelm, Bob Wilhelm, Joe Steiner, Emily Proctor, Steffi Muller
OC2 Jim Hepner, Chris Hepner, Les Leedy, Robalee Leedy, Mike Yates, Mikey Yates, Dan Gillespie, Sara Gillespie, Frank Weichold, Lena Weichold, Anna Weichold
K1 - Vitas Eidukivicius, Mary Eidukivicius, Sally Baker, Pam Gunter, Kara Brown, Ben Palmer, Vic Chenowith
Pondering the possibilities and weighing the consequences we decided to tackle the lower Nassawango and I circled the campground to distribute maps and give a heads up on departure. Oh, wait, the last time we tried Nassawango in a heavy rain the bridges and sides of the road were flooded, with no high ground to park the vehicles.
OK, Plan B, we'll try the Pocomoke above Snow Hill, with no low water bridges and flood-safe parking for the cars. I make the rounds again with the change of plans. Oh, wait, the last time we did the upper Pocomoke in a heavy rain there were mishaps, including a canoe that was pinned out of sight in a strainer.
OK, plan C, we'll use the flood-safe put in at Snow Hill to launch and paddle back to camp. I make the rounds again with the latest change of plans. Oh, wait, that section means 8 miles of open water paddling and the wind is picking up as Charlie approaches.
OK, Plan Z, we'll put in right here from camp and paddle the 1.9 miles up to the mouth of Nassawango Creek, poke up Nassawango and then float back to camp. No shuttle required, if the wind picks up or people get wet, cold, exhausted or scared they could just turn around and come back. Plan Z is a winner; the simplest solution is the best solution.
In actuality Plan Z would have worked better if I hadn't been reading the map upside down. You know, if you look at a mileage notation upside down on a map it is really easy to confuse 6.1 miles with 1.9 miles.
As I led the way up the Pocomoke I would occasionally inform the other paddlers that Nassawango Creek must be right around the next corner. As I led the way up the Pocomoke I would occasionally cursed Ed Gertler for the obvious mistake in his guidebook mileage. As I led the way up the Pocomoke I kept thinking that this was the longest 1.9 miles I had ever paddled. As I led the way up the Pocomoke I eventually came to Shad Landing four miles upriver and decided that perhaps I should stop paddling and look at the map. Ooops.
Rafting up in the lily pads in the rain (oh, yeah, of course it was raining) we debated head back four miles downriver against the wind and tide to camp, or float four miles up to Snow Hill with the wind and tide and hope the outfitter is open to buy a ride back to camp. The deciding factor in our decision was Vitas' offer to paddle down to camp in his sea kayak and drive up to Snow Hill to fetch us.
A generous offer, but one made by a man sporting the look of a trickster in his eyes and a saturated WWII tanker's cap atop his head. Picture Donald Sutherland in "Kelly's Heros", but with more of a damp, demented look. We decided to take no such chances and paddled back to camp.
En route back to camp I was heartened by the thought that the Rochowiaks had vacated their cabin before we left, and paddled on through the deluge, looking forward to a dry changing room and DIY alehouse for the night.
Only to have my hopes dashed on arrival at camp, discovering that Jane had won the mad rush for a waterproof dwelling, declaring "Possession in nine tenths of the law". Since Jane had two young daughters and two young nieces with her, all of them damp, and had already made the cabin beds complete with turned down sheets and stuffed animals on the pillows I decided that I could just as well stay wet for another night. Jane, it was the hospital corners on the sheets, the precise triangular turn down on the blankets and the stuffed animals on each pillow that did the trick.
And the rain beat down. Where to go for dinner? Don's, of course. Entering the restaurant we espied a table full of Duckheads here, another there. And as we ate more and more Duckheads gave up attempts to dine in the downpour and headed for Don's. In the end the entire camp arrived in two and threes at Don's, all excepting Chef Vic, whose Dutch ovens are well-seasoned and impervious to the scud and Tom, who was oddly insistent on cooking a roast despite all entreaties to come and join us for oyster stew, crab cakes and waitress joshing.
Returning to camp we huddled under the tarps and created a dangerous new Duckhead tradition. One by one each tarp denizen was required to return to their camp and fetch back "interesting things to drink" in a Dollar Store toy basket. An eclectic collection of intoxicants grew on the table. Grew and grew as the rain slackened and miraculously stopped, allowing us to partake in another Duckhead tradition, sleeping it off on the dock. Thanks to Tom for returning to throw a blanket over me and to Frank for encouraging me to believe that I could in fact rise from the prone position and walk back to camp. It was all the toy basket's fault I tell you.
By now you can probably guess that it was raining on Sunday morning, and you can probably guess where we went for breakfast.
Pocomoke River, Porters Crossing to Snow Hill (5.1 miles)
OC1 Mike McCrea, Kevin Finch, Joe Steiner, Anna Weichold
OC2 Jim Hepner, Chris Hepner, Frank Weichold, Lena Weichold
K1 Sally Baker, Vic Chenowith, Kara Brown, Pam Gunter
After the usual gluttony of a Don's breakfast, where a short stack means you only get two pancakes the size of Frisbees (the 175 gram Ultimate model) and where the omelets fully span a ten inch dinner plate, we headed off for Porters Crossing to drop boats.
Joe apparently heard something about dropping boats and elected not to tie his canoe in the truck bed at all, so that when he crossed the intersection of Rte's 12 and 354 his boat remained behind, forming a large blue speed bump for oncoming tractor-trailers. Joe was able to scurry back and retrieve it none the worse for wear. Tough stuff that Royalex.
This section of the Pocomoke, from Porters Crossing to Snow Hill, is the easiest there is, a nice current for most of the run to carry you along and the Pocomoke River Canoe Company labors to keep the strainers to a manageable few.
This is also a good section for native flora and fauna, with wild turkeys in the trees, resurrection fern in woody cracks and crevices and water snakes on every limb and branch. As we paused for lunch at the usual hillside stopping point (pee break - boys to the left, girls to the right) the Weichold clan appeared in their Champion, having paddled up from Snow Hill to again meet us halfway. Maybe that's what I like about Frank, he's always willing to meet you halfway and he paddles that Champion like he was born to it.
Oh, yeah, it rained. What else is new?
Back at camp we decided to tough it out and cook dinner. Well, not really tough it out since Jane and the girls had departed and we had a cabin. And not really cook dinner, since Chef Vic had already prepared Dutch oven chili and gumbo all we had to do was fire up a stove and reheat it. Mary and Vitas drove by, going to Don's for dinner. Joe and Pam swung by, going to Don's for dinner. Jim and Chris waved as they passed, going to Don's for dinner.
Oh what the hell, lets go to Don's for dinner. Good choice because, guess what, it rained…poured…deluged…all night long and into the morning. By sunrise the campground was flooded and we could paddle from site to site, using the picnic tables as slalom gates. And so, of course, breakfast was at the same old place. Or the old same place…Don's. "My regular table and I'll have the usual".
Nassawango Creek/Pocomoke River (5.5 miles)
OC1 Mike McCrea, Tom Wilhelm, Jim Hepner, Chris Hepner, Joe Steiner>
K1 Vic Chenowith, Pam Gunter
As we emerged from the familiar ambiance of Don's the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine reflected off our water pruned bodies, promising the best day on the water yet - a promise that was kept.
Scouting the Red House Road crossing on Nassawango Creek we quickly decided to leave the upper section between Old Furnace and Red House for another day; the creek looked thickly strained, flowing fast and the high water made the Red House Bridge impassible in boats.
Even the first few hundred yards of Nassawano below Red House was tricky. Chris, paddling solo for the first time executed an interesting three-point turn through a strainer section, fortunately all three points were upright. Vic plied a brace only to discover that his paddled had been hastily connected for left hand control and nearly took the first swim of the trip.
But the first swim, and the only swim, of the entire 5 day outing belonged to Joe, who somehow found a way to roll his canoe over at the placid launch from the Nature Conservancy lunch spot half way down the creek. Joe had just received a Duckhead citation for his previous failure to properly restrain his canoe on the truck, for failing to keep the shuttle convoy in sight and for failing to boff the shuttle bunny. Lets recap - stuck on a cypress knee, canoe flew off the truck, swam. I think it is a safe bet that there will be an Average Joe Award at this year's Christmas Ceremony.
Out to the mouth of the creek we floated, under sunny skies at last, and thence up to the livery dock in Snow Hill.
Almost up to the livery dock. It seems that the combination of high tide and high water would present us with one last challenge the Rte 12 bridge. Tom approached the bridge only to find that his bow lacked two inches of clearance. I approached in the lower stemmed Penobscot and the bow cleared by ¼ inch.
"Nanny, nanny, boo, boo" I thought as I lay in the bottom of my canoe pulling myself through. "Nanny, nanny, boo, boo on you," thought Tom, as the strands of road tar became tangled in my hair. Only Vic and I had sufficient clearance to pass below the bridge, and the rest of our party turned about to head for a downstream take out. I hopped in the van and went to fetch them there, and in return Coiffeur Tom, the Tonsorial Terror, gave me a de-tarring trim using a Swiss Army knife (I'm wearing a hat while I write this so that I don't scare the neighborhood children).
This last day's take out saw a few Duckhead bumper stickers awarded for sheer perseverance. Friend NT hooked me up with a supply of Duckhead logo stickers and I figure I have several years' worth of paddling companion totchkes available if I dole them out on special occasions. Not just anyone gets one you know.
Racking boats and observing suspicious behavior- why two people would cram into a spot-a-pot that foul and overflowing is beyond me - our weekend of river drew to a close. The Blue Skies crowd was staying another night wonder if they got in another paddle?
It's a pity Don's wasn't on our route home.
Acknowledgements and Special Thanks:
If it didn't float we didn't find it, but the following left-behind items came home with me:
Bent Shaft Canoe Paddles