In Dorchester County, where only 270,000 of the county’s 630,000 acres are dry land, there are many more waterways than roadways.
Two years ago, this fundamental Evergladesian nature of Dorchester’s water-lands, abetted by rising sea level and worsening erosion, led to our first kayak transit through the county’s broad heart. In four days of paddling we encountered only three roads, cruising beneath all but one.
This April photographer David Harp launched our new drone aloft along the remote road that winds through the Elliott Island marshes. He was recording for the film, High Tide in Dorchester, our re-creation of that kayak trip, the first of many “TransDorchester” paddles. This time, we took our hulls out of the water only once, now the sole portage in some 50 miles of paddling through the county’s vast tidal wetlands.
The natural forces of rising sea level and erosion, now being pushed by climate change and sinking land to unnatural levels, are operating worldwide now; but in few places are the impacts more evident than in low-lying Dorchester county. Aerial photos of Dorchester from 80 years ago confirm that until recently our voyages would have involved a good deal more hauling out of kayaks.
We usually paddled the TransDorchester east to west, beginning around Tyaskin on the Wicomico county shore of the Nanticoke River, passing through Elliott Island and on up Fishing Bay to Guinea Island, our first night’s camp.
Guinea, owned by the state, is rarer than roads in lower Dorchester with several hundred acres rising a dozen feet or more above sea level. You can see its forests from the moment you launch on the Nanticoke, and for most of the following three days.
From Guinea we’d head down the Transquaking River and spend much of the second day picking our way through the fractured and labyrinthine marshes between there and the Blackwater River. We came to dub that day and the next as ‘the search for high ground’; really it was more a search for ANY ground. For meal and snack breaks, we usually stayed in the kayaks. Breaks to pee…well let’s just say we were usually ankle to thigh deep in water, tougher for the ladies.
The second night’s campsite, up Coles Creek off the Blackwater was never a good one, just a sunbaked lump of silt dredged up to berm off some ponds in the marsh. But it was rare dry land on which to pitch a tent above the tide.
The third day, after crossing thousands of open acres of ‘Lake Blackwater’, which as recently as the 1950’s was a defined river channel, we’d hit maybe the prettiest part of the voyage. Above the Route 335 bridge – from Church Creek to Golden Hill – the Blackwater returns to riverine and forested, and freshwater lilies dot the surface, their sinuous, wine-red stems rising through the translucent, dark water that is the river’s namesake. Some mornings their goblet blossoms carpeted the river.
But even when we began the TransDorchester around 1997 the lilies were doomed by erosion upstream, spurred by rising seas. Land that once separated the upper Blackwater from the lower Little Choptank River had been submerging, dissolving, allowing salty water to contaminate the freshwater ecosystem that harbored the lilies. Hastening this was an old canal dug by loggers more than a century ago that cut deeply into the lands between the two rivers.
Recently, engineers have placed an earthen ‘plug’ to stem the salt influx, buying time for a comeback of the upper Blackwater. This plug also forced a second portage just a few hundred yards short of our journey’s end at the Taylor Island road.
Phil Hesser, one of the county residents we’ve filmed, used a term, “landscape mortality”, that made me realize that it is the dying of the high ground, the intricate mixing of water and marsh and pine islands as the seas rise and erosion proceeds, that actually attracts people to these low landscapes.
Just so with our TransDorchester voyages: Some of the most memorable paddling I’ve ever done, was enabled by a deteriorating ecosystem that is just beautiful.