Pocomoke River

River of the month #104

author: Pat Reilly

It can be a moving experience returning to a former put-in or take-out and setting up for a subsequent trip as your mind floods with memories of the past run and the sights, sounds and smells lull you into recalling your previous adventure on the river. On top of all this reminiscing is the anticipation and excitement of exploring a new section of the stream. Such was the case last October when a friend joined my son Tony and I at Porters Crossing on Maryland's Pocomoke River to put in and explore the water downstream. The big bald cypress trees and smell of the swamp immediately had my mind drifting back to a fateful trip exactly 10 years previous when a crew of 14 of us paddled into this access spot after spending an October night in the swamp with no camping gear! The story of that fiasco, written by Kris Wolpert, can be read about on the Blue Mountain Outfitters web site. For now, suffice to say that it was quite an experience that wasn't all bad.

Porters Crossing is only 15 minutes from Assateague Island. The river and extensive surrounding cypress swamp makes a neat diversion from the beach and salt marsh of the popular National Seashore. The five miles from Porters Crossing to the town of Snow Hill has all strainers cut out and is popular with canoeists but is far less crowded than the popular paddling areas on Assateague. This section is all tidal so you needn't worry about sufficient rainfall. There is a creekside outfitter in Snow Hill that has boats, info, shuttles and can be used as a takeout.

The beginning of this section looks just like the upper creek with the water winding through a beautiful swamp filled with mature cypress trees. Many folks don't realize that cypress will survive this far north, but this swamp and the river actually begin a bit further north in Delaware! As the 3 of us shoved off in an open canoe I began recalling the infamous trip 10 years ago. The big difference between this section and the 5 mile upper trip from Whiton Crossing is strainers. When our party left our comfortable camp at Assateague 10 years ago to launch at Whiton, we began encountering an unbelievable number of strainers that gobbled up our available time and before we knew it, it was too dark to proceed. Having only 1 light in the whole group, we hunkered down for the night sitting in the mud around a fire leaning our backs against the swamp's numerous cypress 'knees'. But not before two separate parties, one walking and one in boats, attempted to make it out in the dark. In a bizarre twist that Kris describes as a scene from the 'Twilight Zone', both parties somehow managed to get turned around and ended up at the same spot where they started! A cypress swamp is an easy place to get lost in.

This time we paddled under a lovely clear fall sky and soaked up the beauty of the forested wetlands as I related the weird details of that first trip to my 9-year old son. He listened wide-eyed wondering how his trusty Dad managed to do something so stupid as to circle back and return to where he started. After a mile or 2 the river begins to slowly open up. The width gradually widens from its original 25 feet. This allows better views of the tall cypress and soon I stopped to take a picture of a magnificent streamside specimen. As the creek slowly widens it still twists and turns and the increased width allows for islands to form. This makes for a labyrinth of water and land that can make it difficult to find the correct passage downstream, especially at high tide with no current. I was leaving the navigation up to the bowman, Dan, who began to express some concern as to whether or not he was making the correct choices. Just then another spectacular cypress came into view that I just had to get a photo of. As I aimed the camera Dan mentioned that it looked a lot like the first one. Suddenly Tony cried out is disbelief as he pointed to a woodpecker carved tree trunk that all 3 of us immediately recognized as clearly having passed before. I was, in fact, taking a photo of the same tree, now on the opposite side of the river! We had somehow gotten turned around and circled back, going a good half mile out of our way! It really was, like Yogi Berra says, 'deja vu all over again!'

Now Tony, with the camp story fresh in his mind, was on the verge of freaking out as Dan and I couldn't help but laugh out loud about the whole thing. We backed track, found our missed turn and kept a close eye on the sun to assure that our general progression was south after I couldn't find my compass amongst all the junk in my dry bag. We got Tony calmed down assuring him that we weren't spending another night in the swamp.

The river continues to open up and forms some pretty big lakes on the way to Snow Hill. We were pleasantly surprised to find no development on all this open water, just continuous swamp and lots and lots of cypress trees. Only twice do you glimpse homes until you reach the actual town of Snow Hill.

It can be a bit of a problem to figure which way to turn. A good map is strongly recommended. I have since read that the outfitter marks the route from Porters Crossing to Snow Hill but we saw only one small directional sign.

I've not paddled past Snow Hill but I understand that plenty of good tide water paddling remains for 35 more miles on out to the Chesapeake Bay. Normally I wait until I've finished a river to write it up, but I just wanted to relay this story and don't know if I'll ever venture beyond Snow Hill. If you want more info on the tidal Pocomoke, the blog, http://www.seakayak.ws has a good report on it as well as lots of useful and interesting info on all of the Chesapeake Bay area. I'd just like to get out the message that if you're ever paddling down in Assateague and get a bit dreary of the sand and crowds, a side trip to the big cypress swamp can be a welcome treat. Just stick to below Porters Crossing unless you're equipped for an expedition!

Pat Reilly

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