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Paddling Through History On The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

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It's possible that Captain John Smith followed this creek, Cat Point, to the Rappahannock River in 1608/Kurt Repanshek

We knew we were being watched. We skimmed across the water, with our paddle blades rising and falling in a quick cadence. From its tall perch atop a pine, a bald eagle slowly rotated its white-feathered head and kept its eyes on us as we paddled further across Menokin Bay towards Cat Point Creek.

Though this bay is said to be the Rappahannock River'™s largest tributary, with several holes plunging more than 30 feet deep, our five kayaks were alone on the water. Only the birds watched us, though there could have been an otter or beaver looking on from the understory along the shores. Moments earlier we had slipped into the bay'™s tea-colored water and now, having crossed the Menokin with its numerous duck blinds and rimming marshes, our small flotilla of red, blue, yellow, and cedar-strip kayaks threaded the creek'™s narrow channel that cuts across Virginia'™s Northern Neck and ties back into the Rappahannock.

The banks were overgrown. There were Loblolly pines, Sweet gums, oaks, cedars, and sycamores. Nodding waves of wild rice, cattails, Marshmallow, Switch grass, Great bulrush, wild iris, grew along the shore. This marshy tangle forms a thick veil along the two shores, and hemmed us in as the channel thinned. It was home to great blue herons, belted kingfishers, osprey, tiger swallowtails, and marsh crabs.

Captain John Smith presumably encountered a similar scene sometime between 1607 and 1609 (one historian puts it at July 1608) during his explorations of the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries. The Englishman was searching for the mythical Northwest Passage that would provide a quick route to the Orient, but three years of exploration failed to find it, because it didn'™t exist. But the captain did discover a place where, as he wrote in his Description of Virginia in 1612, 'œthe mildnesse of the aire, the fertilitie of the soil and the situation of the rivers are so propitious to the nature and use of man as no place is more convenient for pleasure, profif and man'™s sustanence.'

The Chesapeake Bay is the nation'™s largest estuary. It, or its tributaries, borders parts of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, reaches into New York and Pennsylvania, and even to West Virginia. Many rivers drain into the Chesapeake, and America'™s earliest colonial-era cities were situated at or above the fall line of these rivers, including Richmond, Virginia, on the James River, Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock, Washington, D.C., on the Potomac, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna. Other streams and rivers'”the York, Patuxent, Nanticoke, Choptank, and Elk, to name a few'”drain more than 64,000 square miles of land.

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Captain John Smith'™s map of the Chesapeake region was published in England in 1612. It locates more than 200 Indian towns, and carries an illustration of Chief Powhatan.

The Chesapeake, with its waterscape and surrounding countryside, offers one of the most enticing trail networks in the entire National Park System. Along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, more than 2,000 miles of shoreline, counting all of the backwaters, coves, bays, rivers, and streams, await paddlers. It was here that the Park Service launched the nation'™s first national water trail in 2006. It'™s perfect for a canoe, kayak, and even a Stand Up Paddleboard in places. Occasionally visitors will even watch a 60-foot trawler pass by.

The trail blends our country'™s foundational history with current events. Charming towns are home to the working watermen who harvest blue crab, oysters, and shad (which author John McPhee called the 'œfounding fish'). And there are seemingly endless miles of water-supported recreation. You can boat, fish, or simply cool off in a river or bay.

What'™s the best way to approach this watery treasure? That'™s almost beside the point. There are well-known areas, and not-so-well-known areas. There are places where you must count your strokes. There are places of solitude, where the heavily vegetated shorelines close in on you, and practically embrace you. There are places where you can close your eyes, and feel the rise and fall of your boat with the currents. You'™ll wish the day was longer.

I found myself on Cat Point Creek on a drizzly, late-May day when the air temperature was struggling to reach 65 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun wasn'™t going to shine. The creek ties Menokin Bay, on the north side of the neck, with the Rappahannock River on the south. Four centuries ago, Smith and his crew took their 28-foot 'œshallop' up the Rappahannock. They made it as far as present-day Fredericksburg, where the Great Falls on the river forced them to turn back.

When Smith explored these waters, he counted more than 200 Indian villages, and mapped the coastal areas that supported agriculture. At one point the captain feared for his life after being stung in the arm by a stingray. Another time, he was reportedly held captive by Indians.

There'™s a possibility that Smith even followed this route up Cat Point Creek across the Neck, though on this day I wasn'™t searching for evidence of that. Rather, with Suzanne Copping of the National Park Service and Richard Moncure of Friends of the Rappahannock, I simply wanted to gain a sense of the vast possibilities of paddling the Captain John Smith Trail.

My normal paddling waters are the big lakes of Yellowstone National Park and the fast, rapid-filled rivers that roar through Dinosaur National Monument. While there would be no rapids this day'”only a subtle tidal shift and a living landscape'” the history held in this countryside is rich and deep. It reaches back to the country'™s birth, and before. To reach our put-in on Menokin Bay, we traversed the plantation once owned by Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Long before Lee there were at least two Indian settlements here along the 19 miles of Cat Point Creek.  

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The Menokin Foundation is Restoring the Past

You don'™t need to paddle to enjoy this trail, as history and beauty runs right down to the waterline. Our group headed to the Cat Point Creek put-in, but before dipping a blade we briefly explored the remains of Francis Lightfoot Lee'™s 18th century mansion. Lee was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and had a particularly generous father-in-law. Upon his marriage in 1769 to Rebecca Tayloe, John Tayloe II gave the couple not only the property along Menokin Bay, but also paid for construction of their Neo-Palladian home. Click here to read the rest of the story.

Heading out across the bay, Moncure pointed out that we were seemingly passing through time, from the 1700s of the Menokin settlement to farther back to the days of Pocahontas. We inched up the creek, and were soon ducking beneath snarls of branches and dodging tree trunks that time, and strong winds, had toppled into the water. The current was sluggish and not a challenge, though the creek banks closed in, and made it tricky to maneuver. While it'™s possible to slowly navigate across the Neck into the Rappahannock, that was not in our plan this day. We were just out to enjoy one small stretch of the water trail.

The creek might seem inconsequential when you consider the more than 2,000 miles to be explored, but its waters are considered to be some of the cleanest in the watershed. Its setting reminded us of what once was found across the Chesapeake landscape. The connection to Menokin, where the Menokin Foundation is working today to preserve the skeletal remains of Lee'™s home, is just one spot where partners'”federal agencies such as the National Park Service, state agencies that operate parks, nonprofit groups such as the Friends of the Rappahannock'”meld their skills and talents to bring significant depth and breadth to the trail, both on the water and on the surrounding lands.

After the morning paddle on Cat Point Creek, Ranger Copping and I headed out with our kayaks for a launch site on the Rappahannock River below Fones Cliffs. This sheer, four-mile-long, 100-foot-tall cliff is studded with fossilized shark teeth and scallop shells. Thanks to the river'™s fish, as well as the healthy geese and duck populations, the cliffs are also home to one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles on the Eastern Seaboard. We spotted a few as we paddled the river'™s warm waters, as well as a few herons. We wished we could linger.

Captain Smith'™s journals describe three American Indian settlements above the cliffs and a skirmish with a few dozen Rappahannock warriors. But today the main threat here is development, which could lead to homes atop the cliffs, though there is an ongoing attempt to purchase the land to add to the adjacent Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Below the cliffs, the current is slow, and the rain continues. But we'™re not about to let these showers drive us to shelter. Captain Smith surely wouldn'™t have, so we paddled on.


A Boater'™s Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

This softcover guide, produced by the National Park Service in partnership with the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is a good resource. It provides a deep overview of the water trail, and offers trip itineraries with notations for the optimal watercraft. Maps pinpoint trailheads, and there is some historical perspective on Capt. Smith. You can download the entire guide, or just portions you are interested in.

Yes, There'™s An App for The Water Trail

Download the free Chesapeake Explorer App for your smartphone; it can help you identify more than 50 units of the National Park System in the region, locate other national trails, find places to hike, bike, fish and paddle, craft cycling or driving tours, or get directions to lighthouses, museums.

Find Freedom to Float

The Freedom to Float campaign put together by the National Parks Conservation Association is a great resource for finding spots to paddle along the trail. The program aims to bring greater awareness to the issue of public water access throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. NPCA, the National Park Service, and dozens of local partners are working to create 300 water access sites by 2025. Over the past year, they'™ve opened 36 public water access sites throughout the Chesapeake watershed. This year, partnerships are forming in towns and cities throughout the region to open another 40 or more access sites in the Chesapeake.

Along the Captain John Smith Trail, NPCA is working to create a true water trail experience with the construction of paddler access points and canoe-in camping along the Potomac River, starting at George Washington'™s Birthplace National Monument. A 30-mile stretch of the trail will feature four paddling/ canoe-in camping access points along the Middle Potomac in Virginia and Maryland. Via the Freedom to Float website, you can quickly figure out a great trip for a day or longer. Check out the 'œPaddling Pirates' of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association and you'™ll be able to join a group for an evening paddle. 

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