|Last June, a hardy band from Key School kayaked Chesapeake Bay. All of Chesapeake Bay. On this, the one-year anniversary of that voyage, we recount their adventures.
By the Kakayers of The Key School, as told to Christy Grimes
Trip Photos by Lisa Stevens
Under gloomy skies, the Susquehanna was gray and choppy. I shivered to think my daughter was going out there in a kayak. Way out there.
As Donna Jefferson shivered on land, the nine kids and five adults from Key School pushed off.
Their mission: To kayak the entire 181-mile length of Chesapeake Bay from Havre de Grace, where the Susquehanna opens to the Chesapeake, to the south shores of Virginia, where the Chesapeake opens to the Atlantic.
Their plan: To reach the ocean, or as near as possible, in two weeks and two days. The voyageurs would be on their own. Aside from two food drops, they carried all supplies food, tents and drinking water in their kayaks.
Lee Curry, the man behind the mission, has for years conducted his own brand of outdoor experience for Key School students, from backpacking in Alaska to canoeing the Susquehanna. Curry downplays the derring-do of such adventures in favor of what he values most: the social aspect.
I take the kids through the process of creating a community that begins the day we meet and ends the day we put our equipment away. Its a process I love, said Curry. So do the kids. Most who signed on were veterans of Currys earlier trips. Janet Jefferson, 16, and her friend Lisa Stevens, also 16, for example, had hiked two weeks in Alaska with Curry. Theres always pride in finishing one of his trips, said Lisa.
Though not part of the Alaska trip, Thomas Powers, then 15, spent his childhood in Juneau, where he and his fellow Boy Scouts had scaled sheer walls of ice. They did their hiking in snowshoes. Paddling the entire Chesapeake was for Powers no big deal though he wanted it enough to spend months odd-jobbing after school to pay for it.
To make this epic trip smooth, Curry enlisted experienced help. One of the paddlers was Donna Schlegel, who has spent her entire life on the water and is manager of Chalk Point Marina. Schlegel called her six days with the Key schoolers the most grueling trip she had ever made.
These kids are real adventurers, said Schlegel. Theyre not just looking for an ordinary campout.
Schlegel joined son Sterling, then 13 (and one of the trips youngest members), and his friend Jake Kames, 14. A year earlier Kames sister canoed 200 miles as part of Currys conquest of the Susquehanna.
Jakes father told me that canoe trip was a life-changing experience for his daughter, Schlegel said. Coming from an adult, that really said something to me.
Rounding out the group of nine students were Key School upperclasspeople Emily Resnick, 16, Wes Marshall, 15 and Ben Tuck, 16, plus Currys 13-year-old granddaughter Meg Vaughan, the only non-Key schooler.
You come away realizing youre stronger than you ever thought, said Janet Jefferson.
Then there were the grownups who, along with Donna Schlegel, helped Curry shepherd the group. Key School Latin teacher Dan Schoos pitched in wherever needed. Currys wife Sandy, a retired Key School biology teacher and walking wildlife encyclopedia, proved a handy reference. Sandy Curry could identify every feathered friend flying over us, said Schlegel.
Meanwhile, as on many of the previous trips, Key School alum Michael Coleman was Currys right hand. Curry had plotted the trips course, lined up the supplies and equipment and arranged the camping sites. But he charged Coleman with the toughest task of all: leading the voyage. It was up to Coleman to keep all eight kayaks on course and out of trouble. The group was soon to witness the breadth of his talents.
What follows comes from Lee Currys trip log.
Day 1: The Red Devil Tamale
Put-in: Havre de Grace, Maryland
Take-out: Elk Neck State Park
Miles today: 10.5
Curry had plied the Susquehanna in a canoe, but for this trip he chose kayaks. They sit lower in the water, so theyre less likely to tip in a stiff wind. He says theyre easier to paddle, too. Sea kayaks include more storage space in their long, thin hulls than other kayaks. On this trip, they held three days worth of food and water for 16 people.
At the last minute, Curry saw a double-seater sea kayak for rent in Havre de Grace and snapped it up. The red devil hot tamale would prove a disaster.
The Hot Tamale fulfilled Currys wish for tandem kayaks for all the students. That way, he said, if someone is tired or not well, they could be paired with someone feeling stronger that day. Its nice to have that flexibility. Muscles get sore, stomachs get upset, fatigue sets in, and theres just always someone who needs a little tlc.
But the Hot Tamale had no rudder. None of us were aware how instrumental a rudder would be, said Donna Schlegel. The kayak handled like a real demon. We got a couple of the males to use up some of their excess testosterone to bring that kayak under control a little bit.
Six days into the trip, we got rid of that albatross, said Curry.
By 6pm, it was raining. The novices had finished their first 10.5 miles wet, cold and hungry and they still had to lug their kayaks and all their gear far up a hill to their campsite at Elk Neck State Park.
Day 2: Behemoth Ships
Put-in: Elk Neck State Park
Take-out: Andelot Farm
Miles today: 15
We got up at 6am, wrote Curry. And it took three hours to get packed: an indication of how much we have to learn.
Its tough to break down a soggy, dripping campsite, pack sopping tents and damp sleeping bags, then have to carry it all down the hill to cram into kayaks.
On the Elk River, the group met their first big boating challenge: commercial carriers headed for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
They can come down on you quickly, said Donna Schlegel. Crossing a channel with behemoth ships bearing down on your tiny kayak, theres only one thing to do: Paddle very fast, said Janet Jefferson.
Curry and Coleman intended to travel the Bay by cleaving to shore. But theres little in the way of a continuous shoreline. Almost daily, the group was faced with a major crossing over the vast mouth of a tributary or strait: first the Elk, then the stretch from Kent Island to the Eastern Shore and on across the Choptank.
Coleman skillfully orchestrated these crossings. We came to appreciate what a good job Mike was doing, said Lisa Stevens. It was tricky to keep the group moving fast to navigate through this.
Day 3: Ruffled Feathers
Put-in: Andelot Farm
Take-out: Bay Country Campground, just south of Rock Hall
Miles today: 15
A tranquil dawn came too soon, wrote Curry. Another sunscreen day. Lots of eagles. However, our camping experience that evening was not so idyllic.
Most of the Bay is now privately owned. From the serene privacy and welcome of Andelot Farm, the RV set of Bay Country Campground was a big change. Many of the RV owners rent the same lots year after year. The prospect of 14 scruffy kayakers lugging their boats and gear between their trailers ruffled a few feathers, according to Curry.
They dragged their burdens up a steep bank and on a quarter-mile to find a campsite. It put a bad residue in our minds for that kind of campsite, said Donna Schlegel.
Day 4: Bottoming Out
Put-in: Bay Country Campground
Take-out: Romancoke Community Center
Miles today: 16.5
Not everyone is a sourpuss: leaving Bay Country, an old man on a tractor helped haul the load to the boat ramp.
As the fleet paddled south to the tip of Eastern Neck Island, a drizzling fog rolled in, prelude to a storm that brought days of heavy rain, high winds, choppy seas and cold weather.
The most annoying thing of all was sitting in a puddle of water all day, said Thomas Powers. His kayak had a slow leak, making him stop every 20 minutes to pump the water out. Even in a leak-free kayak, a soggy bottom was unavoidable, he said: We wore neoprene spray skirts to keep water out, but the skirts have gathered folds. Water would sit in the folds and slowly drip through.
Waves rose to three feet. A three-foot wave looks huge from a kayak. Powers remembers more than once paddling in the curl of a wave, then looking up to see the bottom of a neighboring kayak that rode the crest of that wave. In those perilous conditions, the fleet stayed tightly packed into the Kent Narrows.
The bone-cold paddlers put in at Romancoke, where Key School teacher Lee Schreitz arrived with supplies. More importantly, she brought hot pizza, said Curry. She also brought salad, fruit, muffins, real milk and yogurt for breakfast a nice change from dry cereal and instant ramen.
Romancoke was a low point. Everyone was exhausted, cold and soaked, recounted Donna Jefferson. Many had duct tape covering their blistered palms. They had no more dry clothes. I took a big pile of wet clothes home to dry and brought them back at 6am.
Her daughter, Janet, hated it: That was the hardest part of the trip for me, when my parents came down, she said. They were all clean and dry and warm. Never did I want to leave the trip, but I envied my parents that day.
Day 5: Capsized
Take-out: Cooks Point, the Choptank
Miles today: 16.75
The weather service once again broke its promise of fair skies: rather than clear up as forecast, rain fell all night, Curry wrote. Morning was dreary. But though the sky did not clear, the rain did stop, allowing us to pick through soaked life jackets, eat breakfast and prepare to get on the water with our new supplies.
High tide and rough surf made it tough to pack and launch the kayaks. Stiff wind made for a tense day. The Red Devil Hot Tamale was especially hard to keep on course. Donna Schlegel and Sandy Curry paddled it mostly from one side. Halfway across Eastern Bay, it turned over.
The rescue went very smoothly with great focus by the entire group, Curry wrote. There was no panic, and we got Donna and Sandy back into the kayak fairly easily. But all of us were afraid that we would be next.
Currys pre-trip crash course paid off. Kayak instructors had taught us how to deal with flipping and bailing, said Stevens.
Approaching the terra incognito of Cooks Point, the fleet feared going homeless. We were a rag-tag looking bunch, 14 in all with seven kayaks and numerous tents, Curry wrote.
Instead, Cooks Point turned out to be one of the best camps of the trip. We camped on the point itself, in the wind (no insects) and about two feet above the water. We were able to cook over a fire and dry out some clothes. The sun finally broke through the clouds as we were setting up camp, said Powers.
Day 6: Then There Were 13
Put-in: Cooks Point
Take-out: Tidewater Campground, Slaughter Creek,
Miles today: 10.5
From Cooks Point, the fleet paddled across Trippe Bay, taking a break on Hills Point before heading on to Slaughter Creek. Donna Schlegel left to race sailboats in Nova Scotia. I wish I could have done all 16 days, she said. It is such an accomplishment
an extreme sport experience. It is really tough on your body. But what impressed me about these teenagers is nobody complained. And they werent necessarily conditioned for this. They seemed to revel in adversity.
Schlegel took with her the now-loathed Red Devil Hot Tamale. We werent sad to see that go, said Janet Jefferson.
Day 7: Into the Marsh
Put-in: Tidewater Campground
Take-out: Pauls Point
Miles today: 16.5
Key schoolers Stevens and Jefferson led the fleet through the winding Honga River, where they got a taste of what Coleman normally faced. The challenge of the Honga was on the map it looked like a clear course. In fact it was a lot of marsh, explained Stevens. After dealing with it about an hour you orient yourself, but at first it was a shock.
Day 8: Greenhead Flies & Rays
Put-in: Pauls Point
Take-out: South Marsh Island
Miles today: 14
Down the eastern shore of the Honga River, through Hoopers Straits, we had our first serious encounter with greenhead flies, wrote Curry. Many more would visit as the kayakers made their way south.
What does the Bay look like from a kayak? In the narrower, more populated northern Bay, they saw too many dead turtles and fish. As the Bay opened up the view improved. Youd be surprised how large the Bay gets, said Janet Jefferson. Youre just seeing miles and miles of water.
You get a new perspective when your body is just three inches from the water, Donna Schlegel recalled. When youre sailing, youre moving too quickly to digest whats going on around you. But in a kayak, youre propelling yourself, and you become just another aspect of the wildlife.
Into the water, the paddlers could see crabs and eels. Several times, cow-nosed rays came close enough to the kayaks you could touch them, remembered Powers. Crossing the channel to Bloodsworth Island, they saw great blue heron nests. We also saw about two dozen pelicans put on a show, said Curry. They were dive-bombing the water one after another and coming up with fish.
Heavy winds made the final crossing to South Marsh Island a hard one but with a payoff: an exquisite beach campsite, where they ate fresh steamed mussels as the sun set.
That was my favorite part of the trip, said Thomas. Wed been living on pasta the last week and a half and we found a cove full of these mussels, which we just gathered up and steamed. It was divine.
Usual fare, Curry explained, was a backpacking menu, which is light and nutritious: Cereal for breakfast, dried fruit and trail mix for snacks. For bread we used bagels, which hold up the best. We ate them with cheese or pepperoni, which has a lot of concentrated protein. And of course we had pasta.
Students had to think about food in a new way. Kids think of the fridge as always being there when they want something, he explained. They think in terms of what tastes good more than what they need to put in their bodies to function effectively.
Day 9: The Dry Life
Put-in: South Marsh Island
Take-out: Smith Island (Currys house)
Miles today: 9
From one island to the other was a long crossing. We were sore and winds were high, remembered Stevens. I wore out totally on the crossing, and we had miles yet to go to reach Currys house.
What does day after day of continuous paddling do to a body?
The first couple of days you think your arms will fall off, said Donna Schlegel. But you get used to it and start paddling instinctively. The kids rose to the occasion.
Their reward was a day of rest at Currys Smith Island cottage, where after the group had their first showers plus a bushel of crabs for dinner.
That was nice, said Janet Jefferson. We got to look back at what wed done and look forward to what lay ahead.
Lee Schrietz sent the last new supplies over on the Smith Island Ferry.
Day 10: A Day of Rest
On this well-earned day of rest on Smith Island, the kids called their families. They also dried their clothes.
What does one wear on a kayak adventure?
We spent a lot of time talking about that, said Curry. We left cotton behind. Cotton is useless when wet: Its heavy and wicks away body heat. Dress was a lot of synthetic long underwear and polar fleece.
Day 11: Into the Virginia Bay
Put-in: Smith Island, Maryland
Take-out: Tangier Island, Virginia
Miles today: 12
The rudder sheared off a kayak. Powers knew almost the moment it happened. By luck we found it by forming a line and tapping the bottom with our paddles, wrote Curry.
In Port Isabelle, Coleman trimmed and drilled the remaining piece. It worked, but strong southerly winds made paddling tough. Following a chain of islands, the group saw hundreds of pelicans, cormorants and great black-backed gulls. Powers tried to spear one of the many skate flapping around the kayakers. He failed.
The students voted to continue on the original plan of reaching the ocean, though theyd fallen behind schedule. The shift of power inspired them. They woke at 5am and were underway by 8am.
Day 12: At Risk
Put-in: Tangier Island, Virginia
Take-out: Parkers Marsh Wildlife Refuge
Miles today: 11
We were truly worried for our safety today, wrote Curry. The wind blasted out of the south and the tide rose. The waves were the highest they had been so far, even higher than those that had flipped the kayak back in Eastern Bay. But knowing we could return to Tangier if need be, we braved the crossing to Watts Island.
About 500 yards from the island, disaster struck. A kayak, one that had leaked the entire trip, needed pumping out. Just as Powers finished pumping, the kayak capsized, pitching overboard both him and Janet Jefferson.
This wouldnt have been so bad if wind and tide were not threatening to carry us swiftly north of the island and back out into the vast Pocomoke Sound, wrote Curry. Quick thinking, focus and attention from all in the group finally got the situation under control.
It was horrible conditions, and we just couldnt get their kayak up, said Stevens. We really pulled together. It was just doing it, knowing what the group needed and pitching in.
Still, by 9:30am, all were safe on Watts Island, exhausted but smiling in their safety.
Wind fought the fleet the rest of the day.
Day 13: So Near
Put-in: Parkers Marsh Wildlife Refuge
Take-out: Cove south of Butchers Creek
Miles today: 9
Toward the end of the Bay, sandy shoals prevail. Wed hit another shoal and have to get out and pull the kayaks through, said Stevens.
Now the fleet turned its attention onshore, and people called out to them from their porches. That was really encouraging, Stevens said. A visitor even rowed out to the campsite.
But strong winds discouraged progress. After lunch, the voyagers took a nap, hoping to paddle later in the day after winds had died down. We still hoped, with a little help from the weather, to make it to the ocean, wrote Curry. Exhausted and exasperated by the lack of progress and threatened by an oncoming thunderstorm, we reluctantly chose a crummy campsite for the evening.
The take-out, or pulling into shore, is hardly as simple as parking a car. Its a drill: After sitting with your knees up for hours, your lower body is frozen into position. As Donna Schlegel said, Youre almost atrophied from the waist down.
Once you paddle close enough ashore to where the waves break, you have to jump right out and start pulling that big heavy kayak out of the water, said Stevens. Its like a racecourse.
Launching requires the same swift sequence of strenuous and closely timed moves.
Day 14: The Kindness of Strangers
Put-in: Cove south of Butchers Creek
Take-out: Rudy Caswells, Eastville
Miles today: 16.75
Rough winds and water had cost the fleet. They were unlikely to see the ocean by day 16. Curry would have spent a few extra days on the Bay. Trouble was, the kayaks were due back at the rental office for the July 4 weekend. That was a pretty thick wall to deal with, he lamented.
Paddling at night when the surf was calm was one of the strategies the group considered for making up lost time. We had to nix that one, said Curry. It was hard enough finding campsites in broad daylight, let alone in the dark.
That afternoon, knowing they were headed for a stretch of shoreline that, by the map, was almost all privately owned, the fleet trolled early for a campsite. Talk abounds of a kayak trail with marked stopovers, but, Donna Schlegel said, I think any novice considering a trip like this should get camping advice from Curry or Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Coleman and Curry asked a man out working in his yard if he had any ideas on where they might be welcome. The man was Rudy Caswell, who welcomed the Key School kayakers to a night on his small strip of beach.
Caswell went even further: He and his wife treated the whole gang to hot dogs, iced tea and lemonade. The round of hot dogs disappeared so fast that the Caswells quickly brought us another round, Curry wrote. You just cant plan episodes like that, he later said.
Day 15: The End of the Bay
Put in: Caswells beach
Take out: Cape Charles City
Miles today: 8.5
As if that werent enough, as the fleet launched their kayaks who should appear over the hill but Rudy, his wife and a neighbor carrying scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, freshly baked cinnamon buns, milk, juice and coffee. Thats one of the great surprises you get on these trips bumping into people who open themselves up to you like this, Curry said.
Curry and Coleman determined that, short of reaching the ocean, they could at least make it to the town of Cape Charles, the last gaps of Virginias Eastern Shore.
OK, so we didnt quite reach the Atlantic, said Jefferson. Thats all right. Cape Charles is basically the end of the Bay anyway.
On this final day, Lee Schreitz was alerted to bring a van to load the group and their kayaks. The group spent their last night in the backyard of a Key School alum in Cape Charles.
Day 16: Triumph
Total kayaked miles: 181
Excited parents applauded as their kayakers emerged tan and fit at the Key School. They had had the experience of a lifetime.
For Sterling, it was the toughest thing hed ever done, said Donna Schlegel, who likened the trip to her trek through Nepal. Its a soul-searching experience, she said. You have a lot of time to think when youre paddling
The bottom line is, at the end of 16 days, none of the kids were ready to quit, Curry said. Having paddled 181 miles, we shared an incredible sense of accomplishment and a real family feeling.