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 ( 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 (, 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 (, 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 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 ( serves as a gathering point for local paddlers and hosts outings. And the newly hatched SeaKayak Web site ( 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.

Party Out of Bounds: Even next to a Wal-Mart drainage pond, the Powwow must go on

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 8, 2002

It’s Sunday morning, April 28, and it’s raining hard. A brown Bronco sloshes through puddles as it rambles down Insulator Drive in Port Covington. After passing a newly opened Wal-Mart, the Bronco comes to rest at the end of the road, where tiny Ferry Bar Park juts out into the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch, providing those in the know with the only beach access in the city. It may be a beach covered with urban flotsam – countless plastic bottles and crack-vial caps, a few syringes and dead fish, the carcass of a redwing blackbird – but it’s a beach nonetheless: no bulkhead, no pier, just rocks and sand and shallow tidal water.

An old-timer in a baseball cap gets out of the vehicle and surveys the view: a fresh cement walkway leading past a small runoff retaining pond down to the trash-strewn beach. The Hanover Street Bridge and Harbor Hospital loom across the water.

“Been coming here all my life,” he remarks as he strolls down to the waterfront. “People always trashed it up. But this looks good,” he adds, taking note of the newly planted saplings and shrubs all around. “You know, there’s good fishin’ down here.” He’s caught a few casting off of Ferry Bar Park in his time, and he rattles off some quick tales.

Fishing, swimming, rowing boats, cooking out, drinking beer, lounging by the water – regular fare at Ferry Bar Park for generations. Back at the turn of the 20th century it was the site of George Kahl’s Ferry Bar Resort, a destination for city dwellers who wanted to play on the water. And every year since 1988, on a Sunday in late April or early May, hundreds of people have gathered here for all of those things – plus live music – at the Intertribal Powwow, an outdoor festival inspired by the Kickapoo nation’s “all tribes welcome” powwows.

In a few short hours, the Powwow hordes are scheduled to arrive. “Well, I hope they have fun, and I hope they don’t mess the place up too much,” the old-timer says.

The forecast is calling for violent weather – a tornado watch has been announced – and even when the rain ceases and the sun comes out, high winds buffet the point as storm systems roll across the region. Around noontime, festival organizer Dan Van Allen postpones the Powwow until the following Sunday, May 5. But it’s too late. Enough devotees have arrived by early afternoon to make it a party.

“Powwow anyhow! Powwow anyhow!” some chant. Arabbers pull up at around 3:30, hawking paper cups of beer from a van (the event benefits the Arabber Preservation Society) instead of their traditional fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts. As the hours pass until darkness, more revelers – ultimately numbering around 300 – arrive and play in and around the water.

“It’s strange, strange, strange,” says one new arrival, “to come around that corner and see a Wal-Mart.” The store had its grand opening the weekend before and is part of a larger redevelopment project for Port Covington, formerly a long-abandoned railroad yard, by Starwood Ceruzzi, a Fairfield, Conn.-based real-estate development group. Veteran Powwowers are used to having the forsaken, vacant point all to themselves.

Adjusting to the sudden proximity of the megastore – seen by many as an icon of cultural homogenization and a killer of neighborhood and small-town economies – isn’t easy for some. The counterculturalists attracted to the Powwow don’t want the event to become just another thing that happens at a Wal-Mart parking lot, akin to the impromptu trailer parks that spring up outside the chain stores, or the “Rosser Rendezvous” of all-terrain vehicles held each year at a Wal-Mart in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Anarchistic tendencies start to manifest among some of the partyers. “It’d be great to have a party on the ruins of a Wal-Mart,” remarks a shaggy-haired kid in baggy, tattered clothes who mockingly advocates “the destruction of civilization.” Others express resentment at what they view as private encroachment on public land. A woman named Josie is calling friends on her cell phone, urging them to come down to the ad hoc gathering. The party’s great, she says, but the park “sucks. There’s a Wal-Mart drainage ditch in the middle of it.”

That drainage ditch is the subject of mixed feelings among those with a stake in the future of Ferry Bar Park. The formerly federally owned spot was given to Baltimore in 1979, “with the requirement that we are going to keep it as a park forever and never sell it,” explains Mary Porter of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department’s Office of Capital Development. Many of the proto-Powwowers gathered there April 28 say they believe the runoff pond improperly lies on park property, and survey maps suggest they may be right. But several conclude nonetheless that the developer’s work improves the park overall.

“I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that the Wal-Mart is ruining the park,” says Van Allen, who also heads a recently formed group called Friends of Ferry Bar Park. “But I think they improved the park by expanding it and planting trees, even if they maybe did go a little overboard with that ‘sunken garden.'”

Van Allen’s “sunken garden” is actually called a “bio-retention area,” according to city planner Duncan Stuart, who says Starwood Ceruzzi’s efforts to control runoff from the site is “the best example I’ve seen of how to do it right.” The company’s development director for the project, Dan Waguespack, explains that the pond “catches water and allows it to infiltrate into the ground, cleansing it before it enters the bay, rather than letting it run straight down the storm drains.”

Thus, if the ditch encroaches into parkland, at least it’s for a good cause. No one at the festival had time to complain about it much anyhow. They were too busy having fun.

On May 5, the day of the rescheduled Powwow, hundreds gather again at Ferry Bar Park. High-school crew teams compete on Middle Branch early in the cloudless day, their races finishing right where the park meets the water. As the party gathers steam, children swim in the shallows of Middle Branch and kayaks and rowboats ply the nearby shoreline. A sailing yacht and a powerboat or two anchor off the point to enjoy the music in the waning sun.

Back when Ferry Bar was a resort, George Kahl billed it as “the coolest spot in Maryland.” Once a year, the Intertribal Powwow aims to keep it that way.

Something in the Water: Mallows Bay


To paddle safely in the waters of Mallows Bay, where a ghost fleet of ships have long been decaying into the Potomac River near Nanjemoy, MD, it is best to view it as one big navigational hazard. I brought my Kevlar kayak for my maiden visit on Nov. 18, a placid chilly day, and my newly gel-coated beauty emerged unscathed. Next time, though, I’ll bring a heavy-duty plastic kayak just to be safe.


The issue is all the rusty metal poking up out of the water. About the only remains left of the many decayed ships littering the river bottom here are the large rusty fasteners that used to hold them together. Many are pretty visible today, jutting up out of the water’s surface. But many more are submerged, poised to impale or gouge a passing vessel’s hull.


Turns out, you’re supposed to kayak around the fleet, not through their watery graveyard, as I did. It’s all there in the handy map and guide that I neglected to pick up at the visitor’s shed and peruse before embarking: the whole area inside the 2.5-mile self-guided loop is shaded and labeled with a “warning” symbol. “Dangerous metal objects lie below the surface of the water,” the guide explains, “may not be visible.”


So on the first outing I broke the rules. I’d never have done it if the day had been windy and the waters rough. In the calm, though, water-borne photography was possible, so now I have a whole slew of images of what’s left of the burned-out fleet of World War I-era wooden steamships, and the uniquely protected ecology their presence has created at Mallows Bay, creating opportunities for flora, fauna, and errant paddlers.