Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge offers tranquility, wildlife and miles of scenic water near Cambridge, Md (Peter Gaaserud/For the Washington Post)

A chill ran down my spine and I felt a primal rush of fear. I instinctively stopped paddling and looked at the water beyond the bow of my kayak just as a large fin broke the surface. It skimmed the top of the water in a skidding motion and I could tell the animal was more than six feet long.

I’ve watched enough “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel to immediately know that this was no ordinary fish. It was a shark — a big shark. I felt utterly alone.

As quickly as it came, it dove out of sight.

I was in the Wye East River in Maryland. It’s one of my favorite kayaking spots along the Mid­Atlantic coast and is the site of an annual paddling race around Wye Island.

I met my finned friend near the confluence of the Wye and the Wye East rivers, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. A dozen shark species frequent the bay (most are harmless), but in 20 years of paddling, this was my first encounter. It was also the first of two daunting events I had during 10 weeks of paddling while writing a coastal kayaking guidebook for the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Kayakers don’t have to look far to find stellar paddling in the Mid-Atlantic. I paddled select sites — traveling south to north — starting with the sandy shores of Virginia Beach and ending in the rocky harbors of Long Island.

Exploration of the Virginia coast should include at least part of the 70 miles of barrier islands along its Eastern Shore. The Virginia Seaside Water Trail includes 37 day-trip routes, including my top pick, Chincoteague Island.

You’ll need to purchase a $5 decal from the town office on the island to access the water trail from the floating dock at the landing off East Side Road. The biggest attractions are the wild ponies that have lived in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for more than 400 years. It’s not uncommon to see these furry inspirations for Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s novel “Misty of Chincoteague.”

Moving north, Maryland offers diverse paddling thanks to its vast borders with the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. It has more than 3 percent of the country’s coastline and was a haven for pirates for more than 200 years.

Famous outlaws in the bay included Blackbeard, the Davis trio and captain William Kidd.

Annapolis is the picture-perfect seaport, known for sailing, blue crabs and the U.S. Naval Academy. The capital city’s proximity to waterways such as the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay provide paddlers with countless choices.

Launch at Truxtun Park and paddle into Spa Creek past the famed “Ego Alley,” where a continual line of boats parades by the waterfront. Continue through Annapolis Harbor and past the Naval Academy. Watch for boat traffic, waves rolling off the seawall and “pirate” ships carrying zealous kids with water cannons.

In contrast, a drive across the Bay Bridge and south to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge offers tranquility, wildlife and miles of scenic water near Cambridge, Md. There are three great paddling trails that traverse this 27,000-acre refuge, ranging from about eight to nine miles.

Oyster Bay Harbor is where Theodore Roosevelt built his beloved Sagamore Hill in N.Y. (Peter Gaaserud/For The Washington Post)

About a third of the trails are through marsh; the rest are in open water.

The refuge is a key rest stop for migrating birds. More than 250 species have been identified there. Pick up a trail map at the visitor center off Key Wallace Drive before heading out.

Delaware has only 2,000 square miles, but with 117 miles of coastline, it has much to offer kayakers. In addition to beautiful launches at Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore state parks, there’s a lesser-known gem near south Bethany Beach. The three-mile-long Assawoman Canal, connecting the Indian River Bay (to the north) with the Little Assawoman Bay (to the south) is a charming, serene canal that was originally dug by hand in the 1890s as part of the Intracoastal Waterway. It was dredged in the 1950s but fell into disrepair in the following decades and was removed from the waterway. The canal was revitalized and reopened to boats in 2010.

The canal is a 35-foot-wide no-wake zone. Many sections have a lovely tree canopy that makes a green arch over the canal. It feels remote, offers shade and shelters paddlers from strong wind. There’s a primitive, free launch site by the Jefferson Bridge off Kent Avenue. It is on Guy Street, an unmarked dirt road.

New Jersey has quality paddling near its busy summer retreats, but the true treasures of the Garden State are the wildlife areas such as Island Beach State Park (midway down its coast). The park is one of few undeveloped barrier-island beaches on the Atlantic, with 10 miles of coastal dunes between the ocean and Barnegat Bay. Sandy beaches, tidal marsh, freshwater wetlands and a maritime forest provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife. There are several launches off Shore Road, and a $20 fee keeps the crowds down.

Sag Harbor in Long Island, N.Y., has a protected harbor and access to creeks, coves and open water. . (Michaela Riva Gaaserud/For The Washington Post)

New York is surprisingly kayak­-friendly, given the large population on its short coast. Although there are terrific launch sites on the 160-square mile New York City Water Trail, I’m partial to the scenic harbors of Long Island.

My favorite port might have been Oyster Bay Harbor, where Theodore Roosevelt built his beloved Sagamore Hill, had it not been the site of my second daunting event.

It was a total rookie mistake. I was tired from a long drive and paddle in the Bronx, but couldn’t resist a spin around the pretty harbor at sunset. What I failed to note was the growing westerly wind. So what started as a calm paddle on the west side morphed into a rough, hideous ride on the east side, with high waves swamping my cockpit from every direction (I left my spray skirt in the car). The details omitted from the guidebook find the author clinging to someone’s floating dock, exhausted and soaked, with blood streaming down her thumbs and tears down her face. Somehow, I found the will to continue (the only option) and painfully stroked my way back to the launch, after which I did what any expert would do: I called my mom.

Consequently, Sag Harbor is my favorite port on Long Island. It’s a sunny, happy place with a protected harbor and access to creeks, coves and open water. There’s a public beach launch at the end of Bay Street, next to the windmill, and fresh lobster rolls are served right on Long Wharf. There’s also the chance of seeing celebs such as Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Joel. It sweetened the deal and made this the perfect port to end my journey.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly captioned a photo as Wye East River. It is a photo of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The story has been updated.

Gaaserud is a travel writer whose books include “AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in the Mid-Atlantic.

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If you go
Where to kayak

Chincoteague Island

East Side Rd., Chincoteague Island, Va.

Town of Chincoteague, Accomack County: 757-336-6519

East Side Landing is the preferred launch site for exploring the waterways around Chincoteague Island, because powerboat traffic is generally lighter near the landing. A weekly ramp decal is required to launch and can be purchased from the town office or police station (both are located at 6150 Community Dr.). Decals are $5. There is a floating dock for kayaks, and the ramp is open 24 hours.

Truxtun Park

Truxtun Park Rd. (off Hilltop Ln.), Annapolis

Annapolis Department of Recreation and Parks: 410-263-7958

Truxtun Park is the most convenient place to launch for a paddle around Annapolis. It provides easy access to Spa Creek and Annapolis Harbor. The launch is open sunrise to sunset. $8 launch/parking fee.

Wye Island

Wye Landing Ln., Wye Mills, Md.

Talbot County Parks and Recreation: 410-770-8050

A circumnavigation of Wye Island (via the Wye Narrows, Wye River and Wye East River) can be accessed from the Wye Mills Public Landing in Wye Mills. A permit is required to use the ramp, but car-top boats can launch for free from a tiny beach to the right of the ramp. The ramp is open daily from 4:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge, Md.


There are two launch sites in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. One is on Golden Hill Road (Maryland Route 335) and the other is on Maple Dam Road (Shorter’s Wharf). There is no fee to launch, but water trail maps can be purchased at the visitor center on Key Wallace Drive. The water trails are open 24 hours, but the Purple Trail is closed from October to March each year to avoid interference with migratory waterfowl on the refuge.

Assawoman Canal

Guy St. (off Kent Ave.) South Bethany Beach, Del.

This hidden launch site is located by the Jefferson Bridge on Kent Avenue off a small, unmarked dirt road (Guy Street). The launch is primitive and sandy with a small parking area. There is no fee to launch.

Island Beach State Park

Route 35, Seaside Park, N.J.


There are two beautiful launch sites located along the main road through the park (Shore Road). Both provide access to the open bay. Take Route 37 east to Route 35 south, and continue to the park entrance. The park is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. There is a $20 entrance fee on weekends for visitors who are not New Jersey residents.

Oyster Bay Harbor

Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park, West End Ave., Oyster Bay, N.Y.


There is a lovely sandy launch in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park that provides access to Oyster Bay Harbor. Daily use fees ($20) are charged from Memorial Day through Labor Day. There is no fee at other times of the year.

Sag Harbor

7 Bay St., Sag Harbor, N.Y.


There is a small, clean, sandy beach at the base of a cute windmill at the end of Bay Street (where it intersects Main Street) by Long Wharf. Kayaks can launch right into Sag Harbor Bay.

— M.G.