The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary: a body of water where fresh and saltwater mix. It is the largest of more than 100 estuaries in the United States and the third largest in the world. The Piankatank is one of the many rivers that empties into the Chesapeake from Maryland to Virginia. It is a beautiful natural resource with restoration efforts to reduce pollution and restore the ecosystem for the birds, fish, crabs, oysters, and all other species that inhabit the bay. (Chesapeake Bay Program)
It is also essential to know our history by acknowledging that this land and water was home to multiple tribes of indigenous peoples for thousands of years before the first recorded American Indian history in the Chesapeake region. In 1607, when English colonists explored the area with Captain John Smith there were many distinct tribes living by its shores including the well known Algonqian-speaking leader, Chief Wahunsenach “Powhatan” and his daughter Pocahontas. The Powhatan empire covered what is present-day eastern Virginia extending from the Potomac River to the Great Dismal Swamp upon the colonists’ arrival. Tens of thousands of people identify as American Indian today in the Chesapeake region today belonging to eleven recognized tribes by the government. (Indigenous Peoples of the Chesapeake) I highly recommend reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ book, “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” for more information.”Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.” –Northwestern University
On the water, I feel both empowered and vulnerable. With each dip of my oar into the water I am pushing against its resistance with a sense of accomplishment the farther away we paddle. We feast our eyes in awe of the panoramic view where the sky meets the earth and I try to absorb all the nuances of wildlife around us. I also feel small on the water. As if with one giant wake, it will swallow me whole. I get queasy on large boats and I feel anxious now if I allow myself to look down into the deeper, dark blue water. I know how to swim and I am wearing a life jacket but I’ve never paddled on such a large river before. I can feel the energy of the river pulsing beneath me as the kayak rocks a little from side to side. We know where we’re heading but we are cautious not to paddle out too far. My significance is so minute compared to the greatness of this water. I also am connected with the water and think about who has paddled this river before me. “When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us. As you all do.” –Mary Lyons (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe)
I don’t think we would have had the courage to take the canoe or kayaks out on open water by ourselves if it hadn’t been for our first morning at the River House. Uncle Dale arranged for us to have a boat ride on the Piankatank with his friend JD so Ginny drove us to his house where we walked to Dancer’s Creek to launch the boat. As we waited for the boat to lower, jellyfish ballooned in the shallow water and a tiny crab side shuffled across the wooden panels. JD was a thorough tour guide steering us up the river, pausing at times to slow the motor and point out interesting landmarks along the way. We saw fishermen checking crab traps and ospreys frequenting their nests. Many small creeks fed into the Piankatank River and when we crossed the power lines, he showed us the official transition from fresh to saltwater for fishing licenses. On our return trip, Dale showed us the Pointe Anne bend with two creeks where he suggested we kayak on our own before JD safely delivered us back to Dale and Ginny’s River House.
Later that afternoon, Derek and I took the canoe out from the River House dock to row around the bend on the Piankatank. It was a slow start at first alternating sides and steering together but we felt stable on the water while paddling close to the shoreline. It took a little coordination to organize our strokes but it was all in good fun. When entering the creek from the open river, the air felt quiet and we watched bald eagles swoop in and out of the forest. An osprey circled above us and crashed into the water taking its catch with him. A ruby-throated hummingbird also flitted the water’s edge near us. We were on the water for about an hour and a half and felt quite pleased with ourselves for making it on our own together. Upon our arrival, we noticed a flicker of red in the trees at the River House dock, spotting a first-ever sighting of the Summer Tanager for us to add to our birding Life List.
We took one last journey on the Piankatank River on our last day of vacation. We had Einstein bagels and oatmeal with fresh blueberries and peaches for a hearty breakfast before the trip. Derek had skimped on his blueberry portion the day before so Ginny teased him about finishing all his blueberries before we left!
We decided to try taking the kayaks out this time and paddle to the second split in the bend leading to “My Lady’s Swamp.” The kayaks had more speed and fluidity to them than the canoe and we were able to paddle farther out than before. There was some confusion between us about the correct place to turn into when we had gotten out to the bend and just how far we had planned to kayak that caused a disagreement. So after paddling into the larger stretch for a bit, we turned around to repeat the creek we had previously canoed. I must admit that I was a little too stubborn, insisting that we carry on and not communicating well on the water.
It is the kind of real-life scenario that we learn from when experiencing something challenging together. All in all, we had covered 5,440 meters (3.3 miles) in the same amount of time that we had on the canoe. As we got closer to the dock in familiar surroundings we picked up the pace. Light and fast, we raced our kayaks to the dock when we were in the home stretch, free from worry and delighting in the competitive spirit. We had been on a journey and the river had taken us there.