Chesapeake Bay (Upper end)
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest natural estuary in this country, sporting a whopping 2,500 sq. miles of a boaters playground. This estuary begins where the Susquehanna River dumps into the top of the bay at Havre de Grace MD., and travels southeast nearly 200 miles before meeting the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to Norfolk Va. It is literally impossible to travel the entire area in one day, and most people tend to hang in one specific area or another. Being a tidal estuary, the point where the fresh water from the Susquehanna River gives way to the salt water from the Atlantic Ocean varies but is normally located in and around the Baltimore Maryland area. For that reason, and the more basic issue of proximity, I usually hang out in the northern most area of the Bay encompassing the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and extending counterclockwise down the Elk River, into the town of North East, Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, the Sassafras and Bohemia Rivers, and as far south as the Baltimore Inner Harbor. This map pretty much covers the area where I am most likely to be found. This is still a much larger area, for a water soaked playground, than any of my other more recent boating destinations. Last year (Boating 2003) I recorded a single round trip total of 90 miles, and that was only the length of the C&D canal, down the Elk River, and a loop through the Bohemia and Sassafras rivers. This is more than enough space for even the most rabid cruiser. You can spend the whole day running and not have to see the same area twice (until you make the return trip). After getting used to this vast water playground, it's no wonder that some of my old haunts like the Schuylkill River, seem bathtub small by comparison. One of the things I needed to get used to though, was the size of the boats and the occasional commercial ships which share much of the waterway. On inland lakes and rivers, the largest boat that you're likely to see is 30'. On the Chesapeake, it's not uncommon to see 80', 90' or larger yachts, and several hundred foot commercial ships. The wakes thrown from them can be quite large, along with the wind blown chop which can run up to 2 feet or more on a normal day if the wind is stiff enough. That's one of the reasons why I purchased my 24' Checkmate. The bay is not the place to be if you have a small open boat with limited freeboard.
With this much total area to play in, it should not be surprising to find that there are many little places to go, for which you will find unique opportunities to enjoy a wide variety of activities. I've been visiting the Chesapeake fairly regularly for the last 9 years now, and I still haven't explored every little nook and cranny, even in my northern-most section. There is a lot of beautiful natural scenery to take in, as well as some historical places to visit as well. The Chesapeake is also home to several lighthouses, many of which are in excess of 100 years old. One of my favorites is the Turkey Point Lighthouse which sits on a high bluff overlooking the point where the Elk River meets the bay proper. The Turkey Point Lighthouse is also accessible via a long hiking trail at the end of Turkey Point road in the Elk Neck State Park. I've made the hike and it's well worth it as the panoramic view of the bay from the lighthouse is absolutely breathtaking (And I could kick myself for not having a camera handy to take a picture of it).
There are so many places on the bay to have fun that I can't even begin to list them all, and the internet is already chock full of sites which cater to the bay and the many wonders associated with it. So with this in mind, I'll limit my comments specifically to the places which I have had personal experience with and those which have a unique appeal.
One of my favorite areas for skiing and tubing is in the Bohemia River. The Bohemia River drains into the Elk River, and has a channel with an average depth of 5-10 feet. There is no commercial traffic on the Bohemia, but there are a few marinas, and there are also some good places to anchor. At the eastern end of the river, through the 6 MPH zone and past the RT-213 bridge, is a fairly sheltered area which makes for a nice place to whip a tube around. Keep your eye on the depth during low tide, but otherwise, it's fairly safe. The bottom is made up of mostly soft mud, so a minor grounding should not cause much in the way of damage.
My favorite "away from it all" sheltered anchorage is Still Pond, located just below the Sassafras River. It's a fairly decent sized cove that is entered by a tricky little narrow inlet. When the tide is running, the current going either in or out can be quite swift through the narrow and heavily shoaled inlet. In fact, it is often next to impossible to make forward headway against the tide and still maintain the posted no-wake running attitude. But once inside, the area opens up to a nice quiet and calm place to hang out. If you venture further upstream, you will find people skiing and tubing as well.
My favorite day picnic area is a place known as Ordinary Point, located on the Sassafras River. Situated at a point where the river bends nearly 90 degrees to the left as you proceed upstream, Ordinary Point is formed by a peninsula, which provides a semi-sheltered place to anchor, and a sandy beach to picnic and to let the kids play on. The depth in the inner cove is a fairly constant 3 to 5 feet and the bottom is fairly smooth and solid, which is great for standing around and gabbing on those hot days. An aerial picture of the area can be found here.
My favorite marina "neighborhood" is located further upstream on the Sassafras. There are a bunch of decent sized and diverse marinas right before you reach the drawbridge over RT-213. There are some really expensive and beautiful yachts there, as well as a host of more modest boats. At least one of the old "River Rats" crew still hangs out at Duffy Creek Marina, and another hangs his captain's hat at Skipjack Marina.
I also enjoy running the C&D canal, as it is fairly narrow, which prevents the formation of excessive windblown chop. The only downside is that it's somewhat bland in the scenery department. But if the name of the game is just cruising, you can do so in relative comfort. Unless, of course, a large commercial ship approaches, and you have to temporarily deal with his bow surge and wake.
I also enjoy the Northeast River. My first ever exposure to the Chesapeake was during a 1991 camping trip to the Ponderosa Pines campground which is situated just north of the Susquehanna mud flats, so this area has some special memories for me.
One interesting afternoon activity is to make a run to the Baltimore inner harbor. We can normally make the journey from the Sassafras River to Baltimore in less than an hour. The chart for the area shows that it is littered with buoys, and with the volume of commercial traffic, it's a far different experience from freshwater lakes. About halfway into the harbor, the speed becomes restricted to 6 MPH, so it will take a while to make it all the way to the end, but once there you will find a bustling revitalized waterfront area waiting to be explored.
Since I own a trailer boat, of particular interest to me are the places where you gain access to the water. The Chesapeake Bay has a ton of boat ramps. Some of them are free, and others charge a nominal fee. Because of the nature of my boat, and the fact that I often go alone, any boat ramp that I use needs to have a dock adjacent to it. This requirement eliminates many of the ramps that I might otherwise use, including some excellently located, even if somewhat poorly maintained, free ones. There are currently 5 ramps that I've used. These are:
1. Richmond's Marina off of the Bohemia River, near the RT-213 bridge. It's a nice, well maintained concrete ramp, which dumps into a calm, sheltered cove. Unfortunately, it's not free, and the last time I was there the fee was $15. The parking lot is normally ample, but try to get there early (before 11:30) on weekends to avoid potential problems.
2. Duffy Creek Marina, on the Sassafras River. This is a great location, as it's close to the most common places that I like to visit. It's also a well maintained concrete ramp, and the fee here is $10. The only bad side is that my trailer scrapes the top of the ramp as the angle is a bit steep where the top of the ramp meets the approach. It's also the longest travel distance by road. So it comes down to a choice between traveling longer by road or by water. Water traveling is more fun, but it takes longer and uses more gas.
3. Delaware City, Delaware. This relatively new ramp is located on the old original section of the C&D canal, which runs through the historic town of Delaware City. The ramp is nice concrete, and the finger docks are first rate. Best of all, the ramp is free. It's also the closest for me to get to by road, and it's been the ramp that I've used most recently. The downside (if you want to call it a downside) is that you have to travel the whole length of the C&D canal to reach the bay, and you'll spend most of your day traveling. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if cruising is the order for the day (which it usually is when I'm solo). But if hanging out with friends for a picnic at Ordinary Point, followed by some tubing, or a quick run to the Baltimore inner harbor is on tap, launching from a location like Duffy's might be a better choice.
4. Elk Neck State Park. This ramp is located just upstream of Turkey Point on the Elk River. Operated and maintained by the Elk Neck State Park, this facility is another well maintained ramp that's wide enough to handle 4 boats launching at the same time. We've used this ramp when camping out at Elk Neck, as it's the most convenient. The last time that I was there (1995), they charged a $5.00 usage fee, but I'm sure it's increased since then. The biggest negative to this ramp is that it dumps you right into the main part of the Elk River and it's fully exposed to all the wakes (including those from commercial ships) and wind blown chop, which can make launching and retrieving an interesting experience on a busy weekend.
5. Port Deposit, Maryland. This ramp, on the western side of the bay, and a little ways up the Susquehanna River, is a bit shabby compared to the others. The parking is limited, and the ramp is a bit steep. On the plus side, it is free. I used this ramp only once when I came down from a camping trip at Lake Aldred, further up the Susquehanna, which had its river access closed down due to a flash flood. Not wanting to forfeit a day of boating, I trucked the boat down to Port Deposit and went out into the Chesapeake instead. But unless there was a compelling reason (like being in the neighborhood) to use this ramp, I'd opt for another one.
6. Chesapeake City, Maryland. This ramp is located just off of the C&D Canal, adjacent to the canal museum, in the town of Chesapeake City. The ramp is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, and is a simple double-wide concrete ramp. Parking is very limited and there is no adjacent finger dock, so it becomes difficult to use if you are single handed. Also, if the gate to the canal museum is closed, it becomes a bit tricky swinging your trailer onto the ramp if you have a boat longer than 20'. On the plus side, the ramp is free, and this ramp puts you in the C&D canal at a point which is much closer to the bay and you will burn less gas in the boat than if you put in in Delaware City.
In recent years, my lifestyle has changed to the point where my visits to the bay have become sporadic at best. It's a tough trip over the road getting there from where I live now. But it's well worth it once there. I had hopes that Art would settle in here, but that still remains to be seen. I'd love to purchase a larger cabin cruiser and keep it there at one of the marinas. But I don't think this will happen any time soon......
Pros: It's big, a cruiser's ultimate wet dream. There is also a great deal of scenery to take in, as well as some historical areas. Did I mention it was big? With so much area, and so much to see, you can never really get bored. And, oh yea, it's big.
Cons: It's a long drive for me to make for a day trip. While I think the actual air mile distance is a little closer now than from where I used to live, it's a "tougher" drive (Meaning less highway, and more stop-and-go-traffic-nonsense). The Bay is also somewhat brackish depending on the tides and the time of year, and how strong the flow from the Susquehanna is. If you're like me and detest the effects of salt water on your boat, you are fairly limited on which parts of the bay you can play in.