Somewhere in the world there is a place uglier than Langley Park a week before Christmas. I have not seen it, nor do I care to.

Someone once remarked that you could read War and Peace while waiting for traffic light at University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. I did not have War and Peace handy a week before Christmas, and all I could do was stare out at the gray gloomy miasma and wonder if I could live through another hour at the K-Mart.

I decided not.

"We are not turning here," I told my rider. "We are going straight to the Beltway, which we will follow to U.S. 50, which will take us across the Bay Bridge. We'll continue on to the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge near Rock Hall, which is where we will see that gloomy days are beautiful in places where people haven't been around to make them awful."

Actually, we didn't have to go that far. Things started getting beautiful near Centreville, which is a 1 1/2-hour drive from Langley Park. It was there that we saw our first Candada geese circling over the stubble of a soybean field. We slowed the car and watched them land, then parked and sneaked across the field behind some brush.

When we were a hundred yards away we popped our heads up and saw the sentry goose the instant it saw us. In a flash all 25 geese were airborne, lifting off in fright, making frenzied cries and beating the breeze with their huge wings. Wow.

Eastern Neck is only a few miles from the Eastern Shore end of the Bay Bridge, but it is a neck, as its name says, and to get there by road one makes a huge circle up through the rustic old city of Chestertown and then across to the waterman's twon of Rock Hall.

Along the way are corn nd soybean fields, all of them cut now, and the observant travler can catch sight of literally thousands of geese and blackbirds plus incidental numbers of mourning doves, sparrow hawks, buzzards, swans, crows and other feathered creatures.

Eastern Neck itself is a 2,300-acre federal wildlife refuge with a steady population of geese plus a few thousand whistling swans, which migrate here from Alaska, and a good number of ducks, particularly black ducks. It is also a refuge for the Delmarva fox squirrel, an oversized gray squirrel that once thrived hereabouts but now is an endangered species.

But most of all, Eastern Neck and Black-water, its sister refuge near Cambridge, are marshes. And marshes are as pleasant to look at and wander about in during the dead of winter as they are in spring, summer and fall.

"The clors are so beautiful," said my rider as we surveyed the vista of gold and gray marsh grasses and the steely gray of the water from Eastern Neck's observation tower. We walked the beach and found hundreds of tracks from deer that had stopped for a drink a short while before.

We stopped at the refuge headquarters, too, where manager Phil Feiger told us his troubles, "We hope you don't write a nice story about us and send the hordes from Washington down here. This is a widlife refuge, after all, and our principal aim is to provide a sanctuary for wildlife, not a play-ground for people."

One presumes that playground folks have other things to do with their time than to drive 2 1/2 hours to a place whose only amentities are two paths and an observation tower.

Still, Eastern Neck andBlackwater are great goals for a day's drive in these wintry times. An added incentive is the fact that it's high season for shellfish on the Eastern Shore, and no trip to either place would be proper without a stop along the way for fresh raw oysters.

My favorite oyster stop is the H&G Restaurant in Easton, which is on the way to Blackwater. It's a somewhat tired old place, but the oysters are huge and cheap and served with a respectable cocktail sauce.

In Rock Hall on the way to Eastern Neck one can stop at Hubbards. The oysters there are fresh (you can watch them loading them on the docks right outside the restaurant window). But Hubbards for some reson discards the shells, so the oysters come in a bowl -- just 10 lumps of oyster meat, for $2. Nicer to get the shells, too, at the H&G.

Blackwater, at 15,000 acres, is much bigger than Eastern Neck and better organized for visitors. It offers a visitors center, a scenic drive and two lengthy walks. But the ride to Eastern Neck is prettier. So take your pick.

At either place the great triumph is to spot an eagle. The giant birds roost on both marshes and sightingss are not uncommon.

That's true, too, of Washington's own federal marsh, Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge near Lorton. But Mason Neck is closed from December 1 through March 31 so that no one will be around to disturb the eagles during nesting season.


To get to Eastern Neck (639-7056) from the Bay Bridge, take Route 18 then 213 north to Chestertown; then Route 20 south to Rock Hall, where you pick up 445 to the refuge. For Blackwater (228-2677), take Route 50 soth through Cambridge, pick up Route 16 to Church Creek, left on Route 335 four miles to entrance.