"Look around you," says Capt. Rick Kellam, waving an arm from the cockpit of his Carolina skiff. "What don't you see?"
It's not often a tour guide points out the lack of something, so you ponder the trees and marsh near the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore and try to avoid the obvious answers. Um . . . houses? Boats? Anyone else ? Correct on all counts. Kellam smiles. A former waterman and marine law enforcement officer, he worked for the Nature Conservancy before starting his own ecotourism business. Now he spreads the gospel of Virginia's forgotten coast in a voice that combines the authority of a cop with the zeal of an evangelist.
Virginia's Eastern Shore backwaters include this marsh near Hog Island Bay and some morning boat traffic.
(Photo Mary Porter)
The southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula dangles like a fang in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Detached from the rest of the state, it is 75 miles of flat farmland, salt breezes and tiny fishing towns with names like Accomac and Oyster. Just over 50,000 people live here, fewer than in Frederick, Md. Chincoteague, at the northern end, is famous for its wild ponies, but keep going south and things seem to slow down, the pickups get rustier and the buildings become more vine-covered with every mile. Driving down tree-lined Route 13, the peninsula's backbone, feels like stumbling onto a secret. Where are the Starbucks? Where are the people?
One of Virginia's least-developed corners, the Eastern Shore has always slid beneath the tourist radar, a chicken-and-egg situation that more or less explains itself. Historically isolated, both culturally and geographically, it has escaped the boardwalks and high-rises that mar (and enliven) places like Atlantic City and Ocean City. What's left is winding estuaries, miles of marshes and historic architecture left standing because nobody wanted to replace it with something new.
Today the signs along Route 13 speak volumes. "Just seafood," reads one. "Junk and good stuff," says another. Local produce and "peelers" (crabs ready to molt and become soft-shells) are advertised every few miles. A number of signs say "Turn around -- you missed us!" and it is easy to overlook the Eastern Shore's subtle enticements if you're in a hurry.
Kellam won't let that happen when you're on one of his tours, though. He points out great blue herons and red-beaked oystercatchers, and pulls a dripping clump of clams from the rich black mud. Each one can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a day, making them essential to the health of the ecosystem.
He sets course for Hog Island, one of 14 barrier islands the Nature Conservancy guards as part of the 38,000-acre Virginia Coastal Reserve. Free of vacation homes and personal watercraft, this Atlantic coastline was declared an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1979. Five generations of Kellams lived in the town of Broadwater on Hog Island, but the great hurricane of 1933 persuaded them to pack up.
"They say the ocean met the bay," says Kellam, throttling back a bit. "People had to open their doors and windows to let the water through so the houses wouldn't be washed away."
When the clouds cleared, the homes that were still standing were lifted onto barges and ferried to the mainland. In some, the stove fires were kept burning the whole way.
Kellam pulls up near the rotting pilings that once held up Broadwater's dock. Sparrows wheel around a rusting Coast Guard tower built to spot German subs and ships in distress. Now it supports a Webcam, part of a long-term ecological research project. The shore's unspoiled character makes it ideal for study -- and birdwatching. An important rest stop along the route from North to South America, it teems with birds year-round; more so now that they are protected from hunters.
As the sound of breakers rolls in from the east, Kellam shows old photographs in a book he wrote about the island, pointing out relatives and familiar faces. Residents collected rainwater in cisterns and didn't seem to mind the mosquitoes too much. ("I guess we had thick skin," said Kellam, quoting his grandmother.)
You wish you did, too, as you sprint across the island, a quarter mile at most, beneath a biblical onslaught that feels like you're being peppered with sand. Luckily this is only a midsummer problem, and even then the buzzing fades as you reach the Atlantic. The beach stretches featurelessly in both directions, and the ocean leads to Africa.
If you're up to it, and the weather is calm, bring a kayak to paddle back across the bay. A sea turtle pokes its head above water, and then another, and another. Cownose rays flap their fins above the surface as if waving, and if you put down your paddle, the silence is complete.
Back on shore, a good place to satisfy a paddle-fueled appetite waits just down the road in, of all places, a truck stop. Affectionately nicknamed "Chez Exxon," Sting-Ray's Restaurant occupies the back half of a convenience store, but it's consistently called the best on the Eastern Shore.