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Paddle Fatigue on Va.'s Eastern Shore

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The mid-Atlantic version of a monsoon was not a good beginning. Then came that untimely dip in the frigid bay. Then the grief over a ruined camera. Oh, let's not forget the winds that drove all those promised migrant birds deep into cover.

So how did I manage to enjoy this eco-tourism weekend? I thank the hospitality. And the wine. Definitely, the wine.

The May excursion to Virginia's Eastern Shore looked iffy as I watched the Weather Channel from a condo in Ocean City. Sustained winds of 39 mph, gusts to 58 mph, coastal flood warnings, high wind warnings, wind chill of 40 degrees, gale warnings for coastal waters . . . and did I mention the thunder and lightning?

All I wanted to do was drive to Cape Charles, Va., and start my long-planned trip exploring the state's largely undeveloped coastal shore. But things weren't looking good.

Dave Burden, owner of Southeast Expeditions, an outfitter headquartered in Cape Charles, was optimistic in an e-mail, promising "a nice, if slightly adventurous, trip." Dubious, I got in the car, put the windshield wipers on high and headed south on U.S. Route 13, down the 70-mile-long peninsula that adjoins Maryland's Eastern Shore.

* * *

Carol Evans, co-innkeeper at Cape Charles House, a nearly 100-year-old restored Colonial Revival, greeted me with a glass of Holly Grove chardonnay. After a second glass of this locally grown wine, my drive-induced white knuckles had regained their color. Suddenly, things were looking up.

Evans, who also chairs the Eastern Shore Tourism Commission, is a "come-here," not a "been-here," meaning she wasn't born on the Eastern Shore. But she and her husband, Bruce, like most of the area's civic leaders, are tireless promoters of preserving the ecology of the rural waters and countryside who also try to attract eco-friendly tourism.

"We were immediately captivated with the town and the stunning architecture," said Evans, who first vacationed in Cape Charles in 1991 and opened the inn in 1994. "It was like Mayberry."

Most of the barrier islands on the Atlantic side of the peninsula are owned by the Nature Conservancy and protected from development. Large tracts of the mainland on the southern tip are preserved as state parks and national refuges.

It's an eco-tourist's mecca. Kayakers paddle along the shore's 100-mile-long Virginia Seaside Water Trail. Birders flock to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge and to Kiptopeke State Park. Anglers come to catch drumfish. The tourism commission's new motto sums it up nicely: "You'll love our nature."

* * *

I awakened the next day to sunny skies and a good omen, a singing orchard oriole. Perhaps my weather wimpiness had been misplaced. I headed south to the wildlife refuge for a kayaking tour led by Burden, who, when he's not leading nature enthusiasts, is a Northampton County supervisor.

The wind was whipping around the narrow waterways in the coastal marsh as Burden asked if anyone had kayaked before. I half-raised my hand, having kayaked about two dozen times, but on calm, open-bay waters. He matched me with a sleek kayak that was definitely jazzier than the fatter, less-agile model I own.

We paddled out, watching great egrets and great blue herons flying low as the wind and the current rushed through the narrow channel. A gust (or maybe it was my lack of skills) turned my boat sideways, hanging it up on a mud flat. Before I could paddle out, boom, my kayak was hit broadside by another boat, flipping me into the 58-degree water. Cold and soaking wet but with only my ego bruised, I would live.

My camera, with dozens of pictures I hadn't transferred to my computer, wasn't so lucky.

After a change into dry clothes, it was time to bird. Down the road at Kiptopeke State Park, the warblers that would typically be moving through were hunkered down to escape the wind. Birding by ear, I managed to identify prairie and yellow warblers, but the only birds in view were starlings, crows and seagulls. The reward came, however, in a field in front of the park's new cabins: A dickcissel and a flock of bobolinks, both life birds for me (I'd never seen them before), were easy to spot in the wind-whipped weeds. To top it off, my new binoculars appeared to have survived the dunking.

I was ready to get out of the wind by the time I pulled up to Chatham Vineyards, a boutique winery in Machipongo that offers free tastings. Owners Jon and Mills Wehner took a group of tasters through five wines, ranging from a delightfully tart steel chardonnay to a robust yet mellow vintner's blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.

The winds had died as I began the drive north, turning off Route 13 to the even more rural Seaside Road. I passed dilapidated barns and homes, signs of the poverty that lingers here; the two counties that cover the peninsula are among the poorest in the state. But there's also ample evidence of the region's fight to prosper without allowing itself to be paved over. New developments are being built, albeit with much lower densities than in Virginia Beach to the south and Ocean City to the north. Wineries, restaurants, eco-tour outfitters, bed-and-breakfasts and gift shops now dot the farm-dominated landscape.

The best sell, however, is the area's true believers, folks like Evans, the Wehners, Burden and other locals who greet visitors with warm smiles and friendly words. And the occasional glass of good wine never hurts.

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