To Cedar Island and...the Atlantic Ocean!

June 18 --  It's hard to believe that this was the last day of my trip.  When you break down a 400-some mile hike into little chunks of eight to fifteen mile walks, some days of paddling, a few lazy days here and's really not bad at all (especially when your shoes fit correctly).  I felt like I could just keep going, if there weren't an ocean ahead of me. 

Greg (left) and Ryan headed down Folly Creek.
My ultimate finish line for this trek across Virginia was to get out to one of the barrier islands that buffer the Shore from the sea and set foot in the open Atlantic. I had originally hoped to end on Hog Island where I spent a summer as a UVA undergraduate helping with salt marsh research. But after a little more asking around, that prospect didn't sound feasible for getting out and back in kayaks within a morning - we would have needed to hire a motorboat to get across the seven miles of open water to the island.

Mom and Dad's first foray in sea kayaking.
So I set my sights on Cedar Island which sits only a three mile kayak trip out from a public pier on Folly Creek near Accomac.  My friend and co-worker, Greg Hoffmann, drove in from his home in Maryland late the night before so that he could be part of the grand finale with us.  He, my parents, Ryan, and I put in at Folly Creek in some really nice rented sea kayaks.  We headed on down the flat water creek with the outgoing tide and just a slight breeze.  Again, couldn't have asked for better weather.

My eyes set on the sliver of Cedar Island ahead of us.

We meet Cedar Island...and the Atlantic!
Landmarks are few and far between in a labyrinth of salt marsh grass and snaking creeks - it would be easy to get lost.  But thanks to numbered navigation markers in the channel and a map that Bill Burnham put together for us, we managed to find our way out to the mainland side of Cedar Island, near its northern tip.  We beached our kayaks and pulled our stiff legs out of the cockpits.  Much of Cedar and thirteen other barrier islands along this side of the Eastern Shore are part of the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve.  We had read that shore birds would be nesting on the dune portion of the island above the high tide level, and sure enough once I started walking, a pair of terns zoomed at my head, squawking.  We made sure to keep our distance and skirt along the water's edge as we walked around the narrow tip of the island.  And there it was, the foamy surf of the Atlantic lapping up on to the beach.  To the east, not one more speck of Virginia to the only thing left to do was to jump in.  The water was perfect.

Hello, Atlantic...The mountains send a message: "Long time no sea."

After a small picnic and watching Ryan kayak in the waves, we decided not to linger too long in the birds' territory.  I'm sure they were happy to see us go. We worked a little harder going back against the tide, but our timing was impeccable.  Just as Ryan and I raced Greg to the boat launch, another CWP co-worker, Lori Lilly, and her family zoomed into the parking lot and spilled out of their car to cheer us on.  We had our very own cheering section at the finish line (nice win, Greg).  And best of all, ladies and gentlemen...a surprise champagne and fried chicken feast awaiting us!

A proper champagne and fried chicken celebration!
Champagne cork fireworks

Cheers Virginia, from your friends at the Center for Watershed Protection!

Eastern Shore of Virginia

June 17 -- The first thing we did when we got off the ferry at the town wharf in Onancock is walk next door to Southeast Expeditions, an outfitter for folks who want to explore creeks and bays on the Eastern Shore by kayak.  A tan guy named Bill Burnham was out front cleaning off boats when we arrived.  As we chatted about my trek across the state, he mentioned that he and his wife, Mary, have also been doing a lot of hiking across the state.  They have been updating their travel book, Hiking Virginia. Heck, that was one of the books I checked out of the library as I prepared for this trip!  You just never know who you'll walk into next.
Colonial Manor Inn
We got some good advice from Bill about where and how to kayak out to one of the barrier islands after we walk across the mainland of the Eastern Shore (more about that later). Without knowing any good options for camping within walking distance, we treated ourselves to a stay at Colonial Manor Inn.  Roughing it, I know.  In the evening, my parents drove in to join us for the last leg of the adventure (and to give us a ride back home at the end).  Breakfast the next morning was an expedition in itself! A bountiful spread of sausage, and pastries, and bread pudding.  I tell you what - a welcome break from half-cooked oatmeal.

We rolled ourselves out of the inn and onto the road for a fifteen mile walk ahead of us from Onancock on the bay side to the little town of Quinby on the sea side.  Once I digested a little, I felt footloose and fancy free without a full backpack (the benefit of having a car to leave stuff in).  Mom, Dad, Ryan, and I rambled out of Onancock on a gorgeous day.  Back in March when we'd had unseasonably hot weather at home,  I had often pictured this part of the trip in late June as an unbearable sweat-fest on hot asphalt.  And here we were in the mid-70s, dry air, gentle breeze, and blue sky.  I couldn't have wished for better (although Ryan still would have liked more clouds to block that pesky sun).

Melfa's Town Hall
Down the road through Savageville, then Little Hell, Melfa, and Wachapreague, we walked through the land of memorable place names.  It would have been nice to have someone along who knew stories behind them.  Unfortunately, I had trouble connecting with those who I had hoped to meet on the Shore, perhaps in part because we were coming through on a weekend.  But we still were able to take in the scenery - scattered houses along straight, flat roads and then across bustling Rt. 13, the main thoroughfare for traveling up and down the peninsula.  Cars zipping down the highway, gas stations, and chain stores were a far cry from the rest of our route that day.  We rested and ate lunch under a towering oak tree at Oak Grove Methodist Church, with only three or four cars passing by during that time.  The church's claim to fame is that is has the oldest continuously running Sunday school in the nation (though clearly not the largest).  We went inside just to look, since the door was open, and saw beautiful curved wooden pews and stained glass and fans hanging down from the ceiling.  I've since learned that the church was built in 1871 and the average age of the small congregation is 74.

Oak Grove Methodist Church near Melfa
New lab at VIMS in Wachapreague
Town wharf in Wachapreague.
We walked through Wachapreague, which is among other things the home of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science's Eastern Shore Laboratory.  I had visited VIMS once before when my friend, Rachel Michaels, was doing  her PhD research on the relationships between fiddler crabs, plant growth, marsh elevation, and sea level rise.  VIMS not only does an incredible amount of research in the Chesapeake Bay and in the coastal bays of the Shore, but is also very active in helping to restore oyster beds and other fisheries that have diminished over decades in these waters. 

Technically speaking, my first glimpse of the Atlantic waters was there in Wachapreague.  But the salt marshes, coastal bays, and barrier islands all buffer this mainland and the view to the open ocean.   I was closing in on the end of the trek, but not quite there yet.  One more day before I will have really gone from mountain to sea.

Seaside marsh in Wachapreague with barrier islands beyond.

Atlantic Ave, but not the open ocean yet!
Dad, pondering the disappearing pier.
It was another five miles south down a skinny neck of land to get to the little town of Quinby where we found a place to spend the night at the Fisherman's Lodge.  The house sits right next to the town's wharf, so we walked down to see the sun set and the tide come in.  A weird thing happened. In the fifteen minutes or so that we stood there, the tide had come up covering several piers and partly inundated the last one.  We couldn't tell if the pier had been built too low, or if the sea was rising higher than expected.  From what I've heard, it's not unlikely that it is the latter.  Virginia is getting a little smaller than it was...and the Atlantic is getting a little closer.

Dipping my toe into Upshur Bay at Quinby.

Across the Chesapeake Bay to Tangier

June 15 -- The Chesapeake Bay.  Those of us in the mid-Atlantic involved in watershed protection hear and talk about this place all the time.  It is the crown jewel that we ultimately seek to protect, or at least the end by which we often justify our work to reduce pollution in discrete parts of its watershed.  Yet, although I have crossed narrower portions of the Bay on bridges, the physical extent and significance of this ecosystem have still felt somewhat nebulous to this western Virginian.  Today I got a better grasp of what it's all about.

Entrance to marina near Reedville, where we caught the ferry.
Ryan and I got up at sunrise, packed up our tent, and said goodbye to Trish Geeson who was already up.  We had to make it the seven miles to Reedville before the 10:00 a.m. ferry to Tangier Island.  We treated ourselves to a hot sausage biscuit at an old roadside convenience store and after sitting for just a couple minutes decided we better keep moving.  A group of older gentlemen were sitting around chatting and asked if we were walking or hitching.  I explained that we'd been hiking across Virginia and headed for the ferry to get over to the Eastern Shore.  A couple miles down the road, one of the gentlemen saw us walking along the highway and called over to say something.  He just wanted to make sure we knew that the ferry goes to Tangier Island and not all the way to the Eastern Shore.  Some people, he said, even pull up to the marina expecting to be able to drive right up onto the ferry and be delivered all the way onto the Delmarva Peninsula, car and all. We thanked him for checking on us and explained that we had done our homework and made arrangements to take the other ferry from Tangier Island to Onancock later that afternoon.
Vertical boat storage building at the marina
Our greeter at the marina, hoping for a tip.
It turns out we got to Buzzard Point Marina in plenty of time.  Our fifty or so co-passengers gradually boarded the Chesapeake Breeze, most of us making ourselves comfortable on the open top deck.  As we cruised out of the harbor toward the Bay, the captain gave us tidbits of information about the area.  In the late 1800s, for example, Reedville was claimed to be the richest town in the country as a result of the burgeoning menhaden fishing industry there.  That wealth apparently shows its mark on the town where extravagant Victorian-era homes line some streets.  It was evident from the strong fertilizer-like smell as we passed the Omega Protein plant that the fishing industry is still very much alive there.  According to the Omega Protein website, the company reduces Atlantic menhaden from the Bay and the ocean into fish oil, protein additives for poultry feed, and fertilizer.  It's big business in Reedville.

Heading to Tangier Island!
Girl looking out on bow.
Tall ship from Nova Scotia.
The eighteen miles to Tangier Island took about an hour and a half.  As we crossed, we never lost sight of land in one direction or the other.  With that realization, my impression of the Chesapeake Bay changed slightly.  Now, the Bay seemed to me less like a vast swashing sea way out there on its own, impossible to grasp, and more like a giant farm pond cupped in the hands of the land.  No doubt the Chesapeake is huge, but I hadn't fully recognized how land is so much part of the water here.
Chatting it up with the Captain.
Coming into Tangier.
Space is precious on Tangier Island, even for the departed.
Water has been winning out on Tangier, though.  As we pulled into the Island's harbor, the Captain explained over the PA system that the height of the island is four feet, and its western and eastern edges have experienced massive erosion.  We learned later that residents of the island want the federal government to build a seawall to help protect the side of the island that is eroding the fastest, though one was already installed in the 1980s on the other side.  The water in the Bay is rising, the land is sinking, and the island is shrinking.  I'm not sure exactly where I stand on the issue.  On one hand it seems like a losing battle to spend millions of tax dollars on a seawall that delays the inevitable; on the other hand it seems the community and culture of Tangier wouldn't be the same if it had to relocate to the mainland. 

Walking down Main Ridge Rd.
I don't know, it looked flat as a pancake to me.
Either way, at this point in history, Tangier, VA is still very much alive and fascinating.  The harbor is still lined with crab boats and soft shell crab "farms" - shallow open tanks with lights overhead for seeing when the blue crabs in the tanks molt and become "soft."  In the three hours we had on the island, we just had time to walk down a couple of its narrow streets, reading historical signs and trying to keep out of the way of golf carts zipping by.  It seems that every other building on Main Ridge Road has a historical marker.  Oh, and of course we also made time for a crab cake and to briefly visit the museum.  For a town of only about 500, the museum is extensive and really well done.  It is understandable though, because so much is unique to Tangier - such as the old Cockney-like accent unlike any I've heard, and sayings unlike any I could decipher.  High schoolers don their duds and ride over to the mainland for their prom party. Certainly not what I remember growing up in my part of Virginia!

Our second, much smaller, ferry arrived at the dock to take twelve of us to Onancock on the Eastern Shore.  This time the waves were much more apparent and the drone of the engine drowned out much conversation.  Ryan and I just sat mesmerized by the salt water dumping onto the stern of the boat as Tangier Island became smaller and smaller in the distance.
Bridges tie the island together.

Not much use for a car on Tangier.

Kids hitching a ride.

Man, what a fun place to grow up.

Crab pots in front yard.

Tangier Talk

The Rappahannock and Northern Neck

Oyster shells as mulch?
June 14 -- All of a sudden I felt like I was finally getting close to the Chesapeake Bay when I walked out of the wheat and corn fields and into downtown Urbanna.  Marinas, crab cakes, plant beds mulched with oyster shells...I had made it to the Rivah - the great broad expanse of the Rappahannock River!  After a couple weeks back home, Ryan drove out to meet me there in Urbanna so we could finish the trip together.  These mountain kids both needed some lessons on Tidewater ways.

Leaving Urbanna (before full throttle).

To get from the Middle Peninsula to the Northern Neck across the wide salty Rappahannock River would have been a challenge on foot.  Lucky for us, our friends Rob and Linda live across the river on a side inlet of the Corrotoman River and were willing to come pick us up in a boat.  It would have been 40 miles of walking instead of a twenty-minute boat ride to get to their house.

Rob picked us up in a motor boat (though he called a skiff).  He said that it was a little rough coming over, because of the breeze. Sure enough once we got out of the harbor a ways, there were some small waves.  Well, apparently the best way to not get tossed around too much is to go on top of the waves as much as possible.  "I'm going to pick it up here now," Rob informed us calmly.  Within a minute, Ryan and I were soaked and gripping our seats and Rob was surprisingly still standing up behind the wheel.  It was exhilarating!
Tidewater Lesson #1:  Toss the car and get a boat.

That evening, Rob and Linda treated us to a washing machine, a shower, steamed crabs for dinner, AND a boat ride to their neighbors' house to swim in the pool at sunset. First class accommodations!  We had a great time spying on the osprey family nested in a pine tree in their front yard.  Rob and Linda are adventurers themselves.  This summer they will deliver a sail boat up to Maine - one of many sailing trips they have taken. over the years.  And Rob biked across the country when he was seventeen, during the "Bikecentennial" of 1976, the inaugural year of the Route 76 TransAmerica Bike Trail.  Before my trip, it was comforting hearing Rob's stories about the kindness of people he encountered along the way during that trek. And here he was with Linda, helping us in turn.

Fast boats make pirate hats.

Rob delivering us to Merry Point on the Corrotoman
Our next mission was to get across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  The original plan of sailing with Rob and Linda across the Bay fell through, because the boat they planned to use was undergoing repairs.  But we had a good Plan B:  we would walk up to Reedville where we could hop on a ferry to Tangier Island and then another ferry to Onancock on the Eastern Shore.  As has been a theme throughout this trip, there was someone down the road who could help us out.  Rob and Linda called up their friends who live only seven miles from the ferry, and got permission for us to camp in their back yard the next evening.  Rob also offered to give us a short boat ride up the Corrotoman to Merry Point so that we could reach their friends' house in a day (15 miles instead of 21).

Linda (right) walking with us on the Northern Neck
In the morning, the four of us got into the motor boat and headed out to Merry Point, with fewer waves this time, but still plenty of speed to make it exciting.  Rob pulled right up to the beach and dropped us off.  Linda gave us some company and walked a good five miles with us. We can't wait to visit  them again when we can sit and stay a little while longer.

Crossing the Great Wicomico River
I'm here to report that not even the Northern Neck is flat as a pancake, contrary to what I had imagined...but it's pretty darn flat.  On our way to Dave and Trish Geeson's house, we crossed over the Great Wicomico River on a bridge with delightfully wide shoulders.  It certainly was a beautiful scene from up there.  On our way down the other side of the bridge, Ian Geeson (their son who'd just returned from several years in New Zealand) drove by and figured that we were probably the backpackers who were coming to his folks house that evening.  He pulled over in his car and asked if we were Ryan and Laurel.  Yeah, we're hard to miss.  He offered a ride, but we decided to walk it all the way.
   Trish got home from work and immediately cooked up a feast in which she insisted we partake, and Dave offered us some cold beers.  We asked Ian lots of questions about New Zealand and shared stories about our Virginia trek.  Later, Dave went down to his dock to check on the crab pots to see what he'd caught.  What looked like a lot of crabs to me apparently wasn't a great catch, but I guess I'm easy to impress. 
Dave Geeson, lifting out one of his crab pots

We spent the evening at the dinner table, among other things, hearing about Dave's work with the Virginia Department of Health.  His job is to go out in a boat throughout the year to test waterways for bacteria to determine if shellfish from the area are safe to eat.  It's an important job that must have profound affects on shellfish harvesting in the Tidewater area.

What a nice surprise to meet the Geesons.

Dragon Run with Teta Kain

June 12 --Over the last few days, when I would mention that I was meeting up with Teta Kain to see Dragon Run, folks would say, "Oh yes, I know Teta - she's a legend!"  Sure enough, she is something is the Dragon.

Teta Kain telling me some of the history of Dragon Run.
I had spoken with Teta over the phone once before when I was working on a small research project about Dragon Run and the Piankatank River, which the water body is named once it becomes tidal open water.  Dragon Run is one of Virginia's most pristine waterways, in large part because of centuries of isolation from development.  Teta is an especially vibrant and active member of Friends of Dragon Run, a group of citizens in the area who have worked for several decades to buy up parcels of land to preserve and promote good stewardship of the Dragon. She joined Dave and I at Mascot, a dot on a map where a road passes over Dragon Run and which serves as one of only a couple places where people can access the river.  A parcel of land there is owned by Friends of Dragon Run and hosts a nature trail and canoe landing open to the public.  

Kayakers quietly fishing on Dragon Run, at Mascot.
I noticed that almost all the photos of flora and fauna on the kiosk at the Mascot property were taken by Teta Kain.  She is out there on the river multiple times every season and sometimes goes out to explore by kayak at night. 
Dragon Run after a rain

But Teta certainly isn't the only one who is curious and cares deeply about Dragon Run.  Teta drove us to the Friends' "Big Island" preserve further up river, to give us a walking tour through the forest there. As we finished up our walk,  another FODR member drove in, with wet legs and muddy shoes.  He was making his rounds to several locations up and down Dragon Run, wading into the swamp to check nesting boxes built for prothonotary warblers to see if they are inhabited.  And he does this every week.

Although Dragon Run is difficult to access, Teta is not. She volunteers her time to lead paddle trips and walks through the woods, for anyone who asks.  This spring, for about thirty days between April and May (the only time that the Dragon is fully navigable), she and other Friends members led daily kayak tours for over 280 people.  This is the group's primary way of raising funds and a wonderful chance for the public to get up close to some plants, birds, insects, and fish that you can rarely see anywhere else.
Mud turtle

Bald cypress "knees"