Working Skiffs: Overlooked as a kayaking destination, Baltimore and the Bay make for excellent native paddling

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 22, 2002

When it comes to sea kayaking, Monterey has nothing on Baltimore. A tourism industry focused on the waterfront? Check. Tidal wetlands to explore? Hey, we live on the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, with thousands of miles of tidal shoreline. About the only sea-kayaking attraction we don’t have that the Northern California coast does is sea otters–and sea kayaks.

In Monterey, throngs lounging in the hotels, bars, and cafés stretched along the water’s edge survey the Pacific coast as flotillas of kayaks bob by in the swell, many of them en route to Elkhorn Slough, a small estuary whose tidal wetlands are the area’s paddling gem. In Baltimore, the Inner Harbor promenade attracts constant crowds to the waterfront, yet rarely do they see a kayak gunk-holing around the harbor basin. And except for a few select areas, sea kayaks–portable, sleek paddle craft with closed decks–remain maritime oddities along Chesapeake estuarine shores.

The sparse popularity of a sport to which this area is so perfectly suited is inexplicable to Joel Beckwith, manager of the sports-equipment company Springriver Corp.’s local store. Since 2000, Beckwith, at work on a paddling guide to the Chesapeake, has been making a sea-kayak study of the Delmarva Peninsula, starting in Havre de Grace and heading south to Cape Charles, Va., then north on the Atlantic Ocean side to Lewes, Del. Along the way, he’s seen “very, very, very few kayaks. A lot of places we didn’t see anybody other than work boats. It’s amazing.”

Maybe it’s the water. Around Baltimore, it’s downright nasty. Trash, runoff, and the city’s now-famous sewage-system problems (requiring $900 million in repairs over the next 14 years) taint much of the Patapsco, as does industrial pollution, much of it embedded in the river’s sediments. And the Chesapeake as a whole isn’t exactly pristine, what with Pfiesteria and mycobacteriosis eating away at the fish and the declining numbers of crabs and oysters. But that’s the nice thing about a sea kayak–you get in the water, but you don’t have to get wet (except maybe a few splashes here and there, or in the unlikely event of a capsize).

Or maybe it’s Baltimore’s tendency to resist new things. Although kayaks have been around for eons–ancient Eskimo vessels inspired today’s varied designs–the market for kayaks in the United States has been booming. Just as Baltimore never really caught on to the dot-com revolution before it ended, the kayak craze has been passing us by.

No big deal. For those who do kayak in Baltimore and the bay–including yours truly–the local lack of interest leaves more territory to explore without fellow paddlers intruding on our adventures. Whether it’s barhopping from Locust Point to Fells Point, nosing up dark tunnels under the city’s streets, surfing with the breeze off Fort McHenry, or poking around wetlands that used to be shipping terminals, Baltimore offers kayaking possibilities that are nothing if not varied. And if cityscapes don’t float your boat, a short drive takes you and your vessel to the natural environs off Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Cross the Bay Bridge and the paddling options are virtually limitless.

In the city proper, there are precious few decent put-in spots: the low dock next to the Korean War Memorial in Canton, Ferry Bar Park in Port Covington, and the boat ramp next to Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill. Further down the Patapsco, Fort Armistead and Fort Smallwood–both city-owned parks with boat ramps–provide additional water access. If you don’t own your own boat, city dwellers can join the Canton Kayak Club (www.cantonkayakclub.com) and use its kayaks and equipment, which are kept on docks at Tide Point in Locust Point and Tindeco Wharf in Canton.

For kayaking on somewhat cleaner waters, head out to one of three nearby state parks: Sandy Point (by the Bay Bridge near Annapolis), Rocky Point (where the Back River enters the bay near Essex), and Gunpowder Falls’ Hammerman Area. The latter, at the end of Eastern Avenue near Chase, is also home to Ultimate Watersports (www.ultimatewatersports.com), which rents boats and helps new paddlers learn the ropes. Regular paddlers who use these parks can save on entrance fees by purchasing a yearly pass, which costs $60 and provides access to all Maryland state parks.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Eastern Shore by kayak is to plan your own trip. DeLorme’s Maryland Delaware Atlas & Gazetteer (www.delorme.com), which combines road-map information with topographic detail, can get you where you want to go. After locating your destination, pay a visit to the Maryland Geological Survey (either at 2300 St. Paul St. or at www.mgs.md.gov) and procure more detailed maps. The quantity of Eastern Shore territory that is navigable by sea kayak is astounding, especially between St. Michaels and Crisfield, where much of the coastline is untouched by development.

Despite the smallness of Baltimore’s community of sea kayakers, there are plenty of ways to get involved and to keep abreast of activities. Springriver Corp. (6434 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, [410] 788-3377) and REI (63 W. Aylesbury Road, Timonium, [410] 252-5920) both sell kayaks and boast knowledgeable staff who can help get you on the local waters. The Greater Baltimore Canoe Club (www.baltimorecanoeclub.org) serves as a gathering point for local paddlers and hosts outings. And the newly hatched SeaKayak Web site (www.seakayak.ws) gives in-depth information about kayaking on bay waters. (One of SeaKayak’s hosts, Stephen Rohrs, taught me to roll in a sea kayak–after many unsuccessful attempts.)

Still, Baltimore is no Monterey, no sea-kayaking mecca. And it’s not likely to become one. As Springriver’s Beckwith says, “I’ve been promoting the sport in the Baltimore area for 20 years and I’ll be damned if it’s made a bit of difference.” Even in a place as eccentric as Baltimore, a kayak remains an enigma on the water. And that’s fine with me.

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