MOTHER osprey is really screaming at me now. Lost in thought and lulled by the soothing breeze coming off the Chester River, I've paddled closer to her nest than I realized. By the time I pop out of my reverie, my kayak is cruising only a few yards below her shaggy home, which perches on a tilted pole in the middle of Langford Creek like an unlikely palm tree. The Osprey is leaning over the edge, giving me an earful for getting too close to her squealing chicks. I pull a hard left turn to angle away and show I mean no harm, but too late. With muttered indignation, she lifts off the nest and soars in impatient circles,hectoring me from the air until I'm well away from her territory. When I look back, sheepishly, a few minutes later, she has settled back with her brood to resume her morning duties, whatever they might be.
The osprey isn't too pleased to see me out here, but no one else seems to mind. In fact, when we pulled into the work docks this fine June morning with a trailer full of gaudy sea kayaks, the professional watermen and dock hands gathered there did something surprising: nothing at all. In the recent past, yuppie boats like mine were so little-known on the Chesapeake Bay they routinely attracted stares, questions and even outright suspicion from the work, power and sail vessels more common on these waters. (Only two years ago, a crotchety waterside farmer in Reedville, Va., raced down to the shoreline to ask me outright if I had plans to steal anything off his property).
But recent trips around the Chester -- and other corners of the bay -- have shown me that kayaking is finally becoming as unremarkable on the Chesapeake as it long has been on Puget Sound, the Gulf of California and other great paddling waters. Chesapeake watermen here have become downright indifferent to the growing number of kayaks skating around the bay like so many double-bladed waterbugs.
It's been a puzzle to me why the kayaking boom has been so slow to take off here on one of the world's largest estuaries. The endless filigree of Chesapeake shoreline is textbook paddling territory -- lots of woodsy inlets to explore, marshes rich in wildlife, open-water challenges, sunset cocktails and crabs to be had at dockside. In other coastal parts of the country, enterprising outfitters have been elbowing each other out of the way for years to get novices out on the water. But the Chesapeake remained largely empty of professional guides, and a kayaker on the bay -- even on popular tributaries like the Wye, the Severn or the Chester -- could go all day without seeing others of his breed. For those in the know, it was wonderful. But for hundreds of people eager to try kayaking for the first time, the Chesapeake was rich in romantic potential but poor in practical guidance. Where to rent a boat? Where to put in? Where to paddle, and where not?
But now outfitters are cropping up from the Rappahannock to the Elk, from Eastern Shore to Western, and the Chesapeake has never been more accessible to kayakers, even those who have never been in a boat.
Which is what brings me here to the west fork of Langford Creek, a shimmering tributary of the Chester River on the upper reaches of the Eastern Shore. I love this part of the bay, a woodsy tangle of creeks and coves and inlets splattered across Kent County's farmland like a Rorschach blot. I've done solo paddling here, poking around Langford and some open-water paddling off Rock Hall. But I've never found a local who could clue me into to the best public landings and most interesting routes. So during a recent family vacation near Chestertown, I hooked up with Chester River Kayak Adventures, a new outfitter based in Rock Hall.
Jim Gillin, the affable CEO and chief guide of CRKA, invited me to add my boat to his regular half-day tour down Langford. After we put it in at Shipyard Landing, Jim ran a quick clinic for the beginners as I and a few other experienced paddlers took off downstream past a battery of duck blinds and the slalom course of wary osprey. Development here has been kind to the shore; much of Langford is lined with rolling fields of hay or corn, dotted pleasingly with barns and silos. What houses there are tend to be shrouded in forest. We run down the western fork, heading for a beach near Bungay Creek. The morning is dead calm, and after a half-hour I wish for a little chop, some swell, even a rolling powerboat wake -- something to bring the boats alive in the water. But these waters are for mellow exploring.
We poke in and out of the little coves and crags that line the shore. In the shallows, where only kayaks and canoes can sail, blue and green herons stand in stiff-legged sentry. A bald eagle flies up near the sun, a sight that has become delightfully common on the backwaters of the bay.
Gillin catches up, leaving the novices to their learning curve in these safe, cloistered waters. More people are getting introduced to paddling on the Chesapeake every year, he says.
"There's enough variety here, and enough space, to keep a lot of kayakers happy for a long time," he says. Gillin started his company as a seasonal sideline to his full-time job at the University of Maryland, but business is brisk enough to keep him and his staff of guides busy almost year-round. "You know, I didn't pay anything for this great resource. I'm just so pleased and privileged to be able to use it."
We pull up on a red, sandy beach across from Whale Point. No sooner are we out of our boats and soaking our feet than a group of cownose rays swims over, cruising back and forth with their wing tips breaking the surface like a squadron of stealth submarines. A few of Gillin's customers step back out of the water. But this is a benign reach of the bay, still free of sea nettles and more fresh than brackish even after the long drought. The swimming is ambrosial on this hot morning.
We saddle up and head down for our next stop, Cacaway Island, a private wildlife preserve that squats at the fork of the Langford. The creek begins to flare wide here to meet the Chester, and the more open water brings some of the chop I had hoped for. Nothing too steep, but a few waves big enough to bury my bow and let me feel like I'm nearing big water. Gillin briefs his students on lowering and using their kayak rudders. He does offer some longer tours that feature open-water paddling on the river proper or the bay, including a circumnavigation of the beautiful Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
Finally, we head around Drum Point, past the grandly named Rock Hall Yacht Club -- where I see more crab boats than yachts -- and into Long Cove and the working marina that is our take out. Gillin's truck is waiting for us, and we load up, some of us eager to head out in time for a crab lunch in Rock Hall.
The watermen working on their lines and cleaning their boats don't even look up as we bustle around, draining our colorful boats, peeling off our vests and outlandish spray skirts. Around the Chesapeake these days, a kayak is just another boat on the Bay.
CHESTER RIVER KAYAK ADVENTURES -- P.O. Box 189, 5758 Main St., Rock Hall, Md. 21661; 410/639-2001. Web site: www.rockhallmd.com/crkayak/ . Offers a range of full- and half-day tours around the Chester and its tributaries, including guide service and equipment rental. Also, Kent County's Web site offers a wealth of information on paddling, including a list -- with directions -- of kayak-suitable public boat landings in the area: www.kentcounty.com/paddling/.