Come fall, the gradual shortening of the days sparks some timeless, relentless instinct that sends waterfowl on the wing, alighting here and there on the Chesapeake Bay to savor the last of the golden days. A similar thing happens to sailboat people, who figure they have to get in one more long weekend of sailing to steel themselves to pay another long winter's slip rent.
For the last cruise of the summer we, like the waterfowl, headed south, across the Bay and into the Little Choptank. For anyone who has really read James Michener's novel about the Bay, Herman Cline's slave farm was on the banks of the Little Choptank. From the boat we couldn't see any sign of it, or of much human habitation at all. The banks are covered with forests of loblolly pine, broken by occasional houses with screen porches - a necessity in these parts.
The broad river divides into smaller creeks, the first of which is called Slaughter Creek and leads you to Taylors Island. We thought about anchoring there for the night, not only to stock up at the general store by also to see the Becky-Phipps cannon. The cannon was captured from a British ship during the War of 1812 by one Lieutenant Phipps with the aid of a slave named Becky, whom the British had unwisely taken prisoner. But we were on a different sort of pilgrimage and continued up the river to Fishing Creek, which leads into Church Creek. We anchored at the head of Church Creek, a dinghy's row from Old Trinity Church, 1675, the oldest Episcopal church still standing in Maryland notwithstanding any previous claims to that honor. We rowed to the shore and climbed through mud and vines and bushes to the clearing where the church stands, only to find it closed. (It's open from about 9 to 5 daily except Tuesday, and Sunday services are at 9).
The tiny church was restored to a jewel-like condition in 1956, and we admired its glazed header-bricks glimmering in the twilight and explored the graveyard. Many of the graves are those of the Carroll family, including Gov. Thomas King Carroll and his daughter Anna Ella, whose headstone claims that she was the eminence grise behind Lincoln's Civil War military tactics.
There were no restaurants within walking distance, but luckily we had caught a blue-fish on the trip across the Bay and cooked it, spread with tarragon-flavored mustard, on a portable charcoal grill.
We did find a restaurant the next day, unfortunately not at any mealtime but when we stopped for gas at Madison Bay on the way down the river to the Chesapeake.
Next to the small marina attached to the restaurant we saw a multilevel cage filled with peeler crabs - those about to shed their shells and become delicious soft-shell crabs. A pump sent water running continually through the large boxes filled with the live crabs. Electric lights over the boxed were lit at night to fool the crabs into thinking it was daylight, thus hastening the process. A waterman was checking the boxes, separating the crabs that had already shed their shells from the rest. "During the season, I sleep in that cinder-block shack over there and set my alarm for every three hours to check the crabs," he said. "I ship most of my soft-shell crabs to New York, but I save some for the restaurant here."
Resisting the temptation to stay for lunch, we sailed out into the Bay and, for lack of wind, motored slowly south along Taylors Island. About midday, when the children were getting restless, we spotted a stretch of deserted white beach, and rowed the kids in for a break on dry land.
Little kids - ours are two and five - can be reasonably good sailing companions if you make frequent shore expeditions and take lots of books and apple juice. It also helps if you give them little jobs to do. Our five-year-old is in charge of collecting the bungies - elastics that keep the mainsail fastened around the boom when you're not sailing - and finding them for us when we need them. And both kids get to know the signal horn when we come to a swing bridge.
The horn-blowing to open the bridge between the mainland and the Hooper Islands proved anticlimactic, as we ran aground right in front of the bridge, in the middle of what the chart said was the channel. There is a lot of silting on the Eastern Shore, and only the local people know where the real channel is. After several attempts to rock us off the bottom failed, my husband and I went overboard and pushed us off. (Luckily, when you run aground you are, by definition, always in water where it's shallow enough to do this.)
Once under the bridge, we entered the Honga River, a wide expanse of water flanked by low, marshy shores. Back Creek led us to Fishing Creek (population 750), the main settlement of the three Hooper Islands. The Cruising Guide to the Chesapeake, the boaters' bible, mentions a crab house in Fishing Creek but we were disappointed to find that it wasn't a restaurant but a commercial crab-picking operation. The island is very narrow at Fishing Creek - just wide enough for one frame Victorian Gothic house with its backyard on the Chespeake and its front door facing the Honga. No stores were in sight, and since we urgently needed to replenish our supply of bug-killer we asked a young waterman whether there was a store in the area.
"Wait a minute, and I'll take you," he offered. He was cleaning his boat to take a fishing party out the next day, which was Sunday. During the crab season, he said as he drove us to a general store about a mile down the road, he worked from about 6 in the morning until 9 at night, checking his crab pots in the Honga River. He waited for us while we bought our supplies, though we said we could walk back. "The skeeters are bad out there tonight," he insisted.
Next morning, after a relatively mosquitoless night, we sailed across the Bay to Solomons Island, at the southern tip of Calvert County on the western shore. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, the island was named for Issac Soloman, who set up an oyster cannery here after the Civil War. Now the town's a bustling sportfishing and boating center. After walking around the pretty town clustered around the harbor, we took a gin-and-tonic break on the terrace of Bowens Inn, overlooking the water.
Bowens, a rambling old hotel that has sheltered sports fishermen for more than 40 years, also serves meals. After a crabcake dinner, we wandered across the road to the Solomons Pier Restaurant, which has an old-fashioned soda fountain, for desert.
Heading north on the Bay next morning, we sailed along the yellow-ochre cliffs of Calvert County to Herring Bay, near Deale, a 32-mile sail. Although the charts say Herring Bay and Rockhold Creek are quite shallow, we encountered no difficulty with a keel boat drawing four feet. Still, we didn't want to go too far up the creek so we tied up at the dock of the Oysterman's Inn. During a delicious but time-consuming meal of hard crabs and beer, the children fell asleep under the table.
Since we were an easy sail from our home port on the South River, we made the last day a leisurely one. As we crossed the middle of the Bay, a formation of geese flew overhead, heading south. The geese honked as they passed over us, perhaps trying to tell us that the sailing season was over.