Paddling around Mills Island
Only an hour from the beach still buzzing with post-Labor Day vacationers, the boat ramp at the end of George Island Landing Road seemed eerily vacant. The ample asphalt parking area surrounded by rip-rap hovered barely a foot above the calm surface of the bay. If too many vehicles were to park on one side, it looked like the whole thing would tip into the water. To the north of the area, one empty, newish-looking house perched on its spindly pilings over the bay. To the south, an abandoned commercial fishing operation sat rusting on its bulkhead. The word that immediately came to mind as I surveyed the scene was “lonesome.” Perfect.
George Island Landing is the southern terminus of the EA Vaughn Kayak Trail. A placard by the water showed all the options and distances for paddling routes. Usually when I paddle I like to look at a map the entire time – I’m always fascinated by the map features coming to life in front of me. But it also makes it more of a mission – I want to see this creek and this pond and this ridge, etc. This was my first day off since May though. It’d been a long, hot summer of dealing with the public for ten hours per day, seven days a week. I didn’t want an agenda. I didn’t want to feel like I had to make it to anything in particular. So I snapped a picture of the map, just in case, and then unloaded my kayak and paddled off into the bay.
Mills Island is only a couple hundred yards from the boat ramp. My only route plan was to circumnavigate the island and stop for lunch on it at some point. After looking at the wind forecast, I decided to paddle around the south side first. It was hot, almost 90 degrees with 99 percent humidity, so I wadded my skirt in a ball and shoved it behind my seat. On the water I didn’t really notice the heat. A light south-east breeze kept me comfortable. But a few annoying biting flies had discovered that my legs, inside the cockpit, were easy pickings. So it was slow going at first: Paddle, paddle, cuss, swat. Paddle, paddle, cuss, swat. After about 15 minutes though, they mercifully disappeared.
I stayed close to the shore, admiring the pickleweed just starting to change into its hot-pink fall fashion as well as the subtle blush of the sea lavender. I paddled up a few creeks and watched the gulls and the LBBs (little brown birds) picking at the low-tide mud flats. Several black-bellied plovers and a lone oyster catcher scurried along the edge of the marsh grass. No phones ringing, no car doors slamming, no voices or engines or radios or whistles or sirens or airplanes or… I heard only the occasional chirp of an osprey, the squawk of a blue heron, and the sound of the small waves breaking into the mussel-covered banks. I didn’t realize how quiet it was until my perfect silence was interrupted by a huge military airplane flying high overhead.
After about an hour of slowly poking along, I rounded the curve of the island so that I was now paddling along the eastern side. About 4.5 miles across open water, the tree-tops of Assateague shimmered mirage-like on the horizon. A tangle of vines and loblollies along this side signaled higher ground. As I continued to paddle, I thought I recognized a line of phragmites. Phragmites are the tall feathery-looking grasses that grow in ditches and along many salt marsh areas at the beach. They are invasive and non-native and take hold where ever the soil has been disturbed. So seeing phragmites meant that, at some point, someone had screwed around with Mill Island. And then I saw it. Way back in the trees, an abandoned house. I paddled closer. That abandoned house seemed to have a well-kept lawn. Closer. And is that a purple-martin birdhouse in the yard? Closer. Definitely not an abandoned house. It was a beautiful home with a wall of windows facing east to watch the sunrise over Assateague.
I couldn’t figure out how the owners accessed their home until I came around the other side of the island and saw a large breakwater along with bulkheads protecting the entrance to a small lagoon as well as a line of pilings clustered in groups of three stretching into the distance. I still have no idea what these pilings were for. They actually curved around the island and eventually led right back to the boat ramp. It appeared as if someone was going to build a bridge but had only completed one side of supports.
Mills Island was no longer My Island – disappointing but not surprising. Thankfully, no one seemed to be home so at least my solitude was still intact. A narrow beach stretched to the west of the house. It looked like a perfect lunch spot. I aimed for the far western edge of it, away from the trees and the flies. The nose of my kayak made a satisfying “swoosh” as it slid up on the sand and my legs, dripping in sweat, gleefully escaped the cockpit. I’d only been in my boat for a couple of hours but it felt very, very good to stand up and stretch.
I looked at my watch – 1:30 pm. I had a couple of errands I needed to do on my way home but no particular time schedule. From where I thought I was on the map, I probably had an hour of paddling to get back to the ramp. Along with my sandwich I’d packed a crazy creek chair, Leslie Pietrzyk’s Silver Girl which I’d started in May but hadn’t even cracked open since, my journal, and two bottles of water. I’d prepared for a long, beachy afternoon.
But as I nibbled on my sandwich, I studied the clouds. A chance of thunderstorms today – were they building? I looked at the map again. Was I really where I thought I was? Suddenly my inner grasshopper took over. I needed to get moving. Back into my dry bag went Silver Girl, my journal, and an untouched bottle of water. Back into my hatch went the crazy creek chair. I shook the sand off my PFD and stuffed my legs back into the cockpit before they even had a chance to protest.
The sky remained a gorgeous blue for my entire return trip and it turns out I was where I thought I was. In a little under an hour, I was loading my kayak back on the Jeep.