A Hidden World

The Susquehanna Flats is an area of relatively shallow water that occupies roughly 25 square miles between Havre de Grace, Aberdeen, and Elk Neck.  A delta of sorts, the Flats is where the mighty Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay.  Along its western edge, the Susquehanna continues its push south.  The Northeast River forms the eastern border, and what we call “The North East Passage” – an unmarked deep water channel – runs along the northern shore from Perryville to Carpenters Point.

Excerpt from NOAA Chart 12274

Excerpt from NOAA Chart 12274

It’s common for sailors on the Northeast River to extend a reach a half-mile out into the Flats, and for fishermen to explore the grassy beds, but for the most part, more than a mile in from any edge and you’re entering a different world.

Around 11am on July 7th 2019, on a mid-tide rising, my husband Dobbs and I launched our kayaks from our community beach at Red Point.  The temperature was around 80-degrees and climbing, and the cicadas were chattering in the trees; the wind N at 0-5kts.  We paddled due west toward a waypoint I’d selected at the southeast edge of the first bare shallow indicated on the chart, about two and a quarter nautical miles distant. 

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Fifteen years ago, sailing our Venture 22, we took a chance on the shallow water and cut across the Flats from Fishing Battery Island to Furnace Bay and discovered that at a certain point in, while still ample in depth, the water became so clear we could see straight to the bottom.  It was like flying over an underwater grassy meadow.  I’ve wanted to go back with snorkeling gear ever since.

I didn’t think we needed to find that exact place again, just far enough from disturbance that the water remained settled.  As we paddled across the Northeast River toward my waypoint, my heart was anxious with hope and concern.  Visibility on the river runs about six inches to a little over a foot.  Would the precious clear water and vibrant greenery still be there?  In the twenty years Dobbs and I have been sailing the East Coast together, we’ve witnessed changes in local ecosystems – some have improved and others have deteriorated.  I wanted to see our Flats healthy.  Clear water is a rare thing on the Northern Chesapeake, as is the opportunity to peer into the world that exists beneath our keels.  You can imagine, then, the joy I felt when, at around 2nm in, I could suddenly see my paddle blade clearly…and then the tops of the grass, still several feet down…and then sandy bottom, and little shells! 

We continued for another ¼ mile, coasting over beds of grass and sand in 4-5’ of water.

Just shy of noon, Dobbs came alongside, anchored, and we rafted our kayaks together.  We ate a lunch of pb&j’s and water and then donned our fins and masks and slipped over the side. 

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I saw primarily wild celery interspersed every ten feet or so with columns of watermilfoil.  The bottom consisted of firmly packed sand accented sparsely with little white clam shells and dusted with a thin layer of sediment. 

I spied a catfish and admired its smooth blue-gray skin, streamlined shape, and whiskers. 

The one that got away…

The one that got away…

At separate times, I happened upon largemouth bass and chased them for photos. 

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I also saw several juvenile yellow perch, though they darted quickly away into hiding.  We went on like this – bobbing up and down, sometimes floating still and gazing, other times kicking along at a pace, and occasionally swooshing underwater through open cuts in the beds – for an hour.  By then we were feeling chilly.  We clambered back into our boats and just sat for a few moments, appreciating the quiet isolation.  An osprey flew over, carrying a fish.  The wind had shifted to be out of the west-southwest, which offered a nice little push for paddling home.

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The Chesapeake Bay is one changing ecosystem that Dobbs and I have noticed improving every year. Though we sail away, we are proud to call Maryland home. Let’s keep up the good work restoring and protecting our Bay!

https://www.epa.gov/pa/underwater-grass-comeback-helps-chesapeake-bay

https://www.mdsg.umd.edu/onthebay-blog/lowering-nutrients-susquehanna-flats-sav-bed-enhanced-its-own-recovery

https://www.chesapeakequarterly.net/V11N4/main1/

Jay Fleming’s book “Working the Water” is not to be missed. If you appreciate candid photography of maritime Chesapeake Bay, visit his website http://www.jayflemingphotography.com/