There’s perhaps no better way to enjoy autumn than from the cockpit of a kayak, as the mirror-like surface of calm water transforms the fireworks of fall foliage into an impressionistic painting for you to glide across. Your quiet reverie will be disturbed only by flocks of honking geese heading south for the winter — that is, if you’ve been wise enough to rent a single kayak. If you’ve made the mistake of sharing a double kayak with someone, your peace will be constantly disturbed by the honking complaints of your co-paddler.
“Kayaking guides call them divorce boats for a reason. When couples get in them, I swear, they fight the entire time,” says Rachel Cooper, author of the new Mid-Atlantic edition of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “Quiet Water” paddling guidebook series. “When you get into a kayak by yourself, you get much more power and you can go wherever you want to. It’s a totally different experience.”
Tippy and tough to maneuver, double kayaks are best reserved for times when you’re toting along a child or a dog, Cooper says. If you’re kayaking with another adult, for the sake of your sanity and perhaps your marriage, spring for your own boats, she says.
“I do like kayaking with my husband — it’s fun to explore together — but we each have our own kayaks,” Cooper says.
Cooper must enjoy kayaking with her husband, Brian, because she brought him along on every one the 60 waterways she explored for her book. The two of them are advanced kayakers, but they found opportunities for all kinds of paddlers, regardless of skill level or particular interests, Cooper says. “The Mid-Atlantic has a lot of variety. There are marshes, rivers, ponds, lakes — everything you can imagine,” Cooper says.
If this variety inspires you to go paddling on multiple weekends, Cooper has another important tip. “You cannot leave your smelly, gross, wet things in the car between trips,” she says. “We did that at first, and our car started to reek like you wouldn’t believe.”
To get you started on your fall adventures, we asked Cooper for a few of her favorite mid-Atlantic paddling spots.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater Adventures, 2524 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, Md.; open year-round by reservation; boat rentals are $25-$45 per hour or $75-$110 per day; 410-901-9255.
This massive, 27,000-acre patch of tidal wetlands on Maryland’s Eastern Shore teems with wildlife. In the fall, look in the loblolly pines around the marsh for bald eagles — about 150 of the massive birds gather there after summer breeding season. You’re also likely to see flybys of migrating raptors, including the occasional golden eagle, as well as rafts of ducks like the northern pintail and green-winged teal.
“There are so many waterbirds there, especially in the fall,” Cooper says. If mammals are more your thing, keep your eyes peeled for the no longer endangered but still elusive Delmarva fox squirrel. (Hint: It looks a lot like a regular gray squirrel, but bigger and paler.) If the wildlife is feeling shy, there’s still plenty to see as you thread your way through an endless maze of tall grass, which turns yellow-orange in the fall and looks especially gorgeous in golden late-afternoon light.
Navigating through the refuge’s dense network of waterways and handling the occasional fast-moving current can be tricky for newer kayakers, so be sure to stop by the visitor center, get a map and ask for recommendations. Or, you can always take a guided tour with an pro. “Blackwater is huge. It’s easy to get lost,” Cooper says.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Surf & Adventure and Ocean Rentals, 577 Sandbridge Road, Virginia Beach, Va.; open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (last rental at 2 p.m.), through Oct. 31; $27-$30 per day; 757-721-6210.
Kayak Nature Tours, 89th Street, Virginia Beach, Va.; $53 for Back Bay tour, offered year-round; call or reserve a tour online, 757-480-1999.
At the southern tip of Virginia Beach, Back Bay is ideal for experienced paddlers who don’t mind some waves or even enjoy a little seated surfing. Depending on where you paddle in the 8,000-acre refuge, you might not see another person for hours, so be sure to bring everything you need, including plenty of water to drink, Cooper says.
“Back Bay is a really large wildlife refuge. There are all kinds of birds and it’s a really pretty place with all kinds of habitat. You could kayak it endlessly and never get bored,” she says.
If you’re not an advanced paddler, stick to protected coves and narrow waterways, especially those that thread through cypress forest on the eastern side of the bay. Don’t be surprised if you see deer pawing their way across the channels there — they are surprisingly adept swimmers, Cooper says.
In the fall, the woods are also a good place to look for migrating warblers, small, brightly colored birds that fly by night and then hide in the forest to avoid being eaten by birds of prey that fly by day. In the marshes, you’ll find creepy, nearly transparent ghost crabs scuttling among the phragmites grass. If you’re lucky, you might happen upon the real ghost of the swamps, bitterns — brown-dappled waterbirds that seem to disappear into the marsh grass the moment they stand still.
For a fun break from the waves and the currents, head to Blue Petes Restaurant and warm up with a bowl of their famous she-crab soup. “You can paddle right up to the restaurant and tie up at their dock,” Cooper says.
Daugherty Creek: Janes Island State Park
Janes Island State Park boat rental office, 26280 Alfred J. Lawson Drive, Crisfield, Md.; open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., through Oct. 31, weather permitting; all boats cost $10 an hour or $50 for the day; 410-968-1565.
Humans have been enjoying the natural seafood buffet of this Eastern Shore estuary for 13,000 years, Cooper notes. Join the party by bringing fishing gear (and a license) on your kayak trip, and you can nab dinner — maybe flounder, bluefish or sea trout — right from your boat. Or, tie a chicken neck to a string and catch yourself some Chesapeake Bay blue crabs; you can take home up to two dozen males per person without a license. (You may also want to have gloves, tongs and a net on hand, or you’re liable to get pinched.)
If fishing isn’t on your agenda, just paddle around the park’s 30 miles of well-marked water trails. “You can pick up a map at the camp store — it’s printed on a bandana,” Cooper says. It’s a lovely trip — the marshes are full of glasswort grass, which turns red and gold when temperatures drop.
Another perk of Janes Island is the floating dock, which allows you to launch your kayak without stepping into the water. “It’s really easy and it’s great when it’s chillier out and you don’t want to get wet,” she says.
Lums Pond boathouse, 1068 Howell School Road, Bear, Del.; boat rentals available on weekends through Oct. 21, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; $8-$11 per hour or $40-$55 per day; 302-368-6989.
The oak and poplar woods that border Lums Pond turn every shade of orange, yellow and red in the fall, and their beauty multiplies on the glassy surface of the water.
“The calm water is also great for beginner kayakers, and it’s huge — it’s a pond in name only,” Cooper says.
Kids will enjoy paddling around the knees of the bald cypress trees that poke up right out of the middle of the water and watching the turtles that sun themselves on the rocks — or slide off with a resounding “plop” when you kayak by. If you have a camera, try to catch an action shot of the blue herons spearfishing along the shorelines. In need of a little more excitement? Bring fishing gear and try to catch the resident fish, including largemouth bass, carp and crappie. (Fishing licenses are available for purchase in the camp store. Kids under 16 can fish for free.)
“Lums Pond has some of the best freshwater fishing in Delaware,” Cooper says.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Snug Harbor Marina, 7536 East Side Road, Chincoteague Island, Va.; open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., through Oct. 15; $38 for half-day rental, $48 full day, $49 eco tour; 757-336-6176.
Assateague Explorer offers daily guided tours through Oct. 31 and off-season tours by request; $49-$59; 757-336-5956.
This barrier island off of Maryland’s Atlantic shore offers enough beauty to keep a kayaker gawking for days. Herds of wild ponies trot along the beach, their manes blowing romantically in the breeze. Then there’s the historic red- and white-striped Assateague Lighthouse.
“You can kayak right up to it,” Cooper says. Lucky paddlers might even acquire a playful dolphin escort, especially on the ocean side of the island. The refuge is also home to more than 300 different species of birds. If you notice a flock lifting off, keep your eyes peeled for what alarmed them — perhaps a peregrine falcon or a bald eagle is soaring nearby, looking for a feathery lunch.
Since Chincoteague is smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic flyway — a migratory route for birds — you’re also likely to see flocks of ducks, geese and swans, which often alight in these protected wetlands en route to their summer homes. While undeniably gorgeous, Assateague is not the best place for beginner kayakers to explore on their own, Cooper notes. “The tides are tricky and currents can be strong,” she says. “I recommend taking a guided tour.”