Paddle through Somerset County’s three water trails

Reed Hellman

The launching ramp at Janes Island State Park makes it easy to get on the water.

They came in low: two Canada geese, in echelon, beating their way in from Tangier Sound.

These were not half-domesticated residents of some suburban park or golf course. Rather, they were wild migrators, heading north toward their arctic nesting grounds. For the pair of kayakers paddling the Monie Bay Water Trail, the powerful birds passed right at eye level, close enough to hear the wind through their pinions.

The Monie Water Trail is one of three established water trail complexes that make Maryland’s Somerset County a singular destination for flatwater paddlers and wilderness explorers.

The launching ramp at Janes Island State Park makes it easy to get on the water.
The launching ramp at Janes Island State Park makes it easy to get on the water.

For discovering the Chesapeake Bay’s treasured wetlands, people-powered craft offer an opportunity for close encounters. Somerset’s water trails carry beginners and experts alike past mounded muskrat hutches, legions of periwinkles climbing the spartina grass, foxes hunting the high ground, and flights of birds, both native and migrators. Fish break the calm surface of winding “guts” and “leads,” and diamondback terrapins, back from near extinction, lay their eggs in the mudbanks and bask on half-submerged logs.

Monie is Somerset’s newest water trail system. The three trails launch into Dames Quarter Creek near Deal, and enter a stretching expanse of wetlands. The 2.3-mile Fanney’s Gut Trail and the 2.7-mile Dames Quarter Creek Trail are suitable for all skill levels, while the 8.64-mile Marsh Gut and Bay Point Trail can challenge intermediate and advanced paddlers, particularly when the wind picks up along the bay front.

Around Janes Island

Janes Island State Park, near Crisfield, has two distinct areas: a developed mainland section and an island section accessible only by boat. Paddlers visiting Janes Island have more than 2,900 acres of saltmarsh, more than 30 miles of water trails, and miles of isolated, pristine beaches to explore.

The American Canoe Association has named the six paddle trails around and through Janes Island to their inaugural list of North America’s best paddle trails. All park trails have established GPS waypoints and aluminum trail marker signs covered with a highly reflective film.

All routes begin at the park’s boat launching area where two launching platforms ease entries and exits. “This is a place for beginners,” said park ranger Sarah Richwine. “The Yellow Trail is a 45-minute paddle to a sandy beach on Tangier Sound. There are no unsafe conditions, and there are not many places where you will feel that secluded.”

Janes Island State Park offers water trails that are mostly protected from wind and currents.
Janes Island State Park offers water trails that are mostly protected from wind and currents.

Most of the park’s water trails are protected from wind and current, and provide model conditions for both experienced and novice paddlers. Three primitive backcountry campsites, located along the trails, enable paddlers to experience an overnight expedition into a world still ruled by the weather, the tides, and the wildlife. The park also rents solo and tandem kayaks and canoes from late April through October, weather permitting.

Nine miles out into Tangier Sound, Smith Island preserves a traditional watermen’s community and more than 8,000 acres of tidal marshlands, punctuated by myriad creeks and passages ideal for paddling. Seven marked trails connect the three villages and penetrate into some of the island’s most pristine marshes. Though the island currently does not have any rental canoes or kayaks, the island freight boats will carry private craft for an additional cost.

Newcomers to Somerset’s water trails can benefit from paddling with a local guide service. Eileen Cross’ Rockcreek Kayak Tours can outfit paddlers with boats and gear and lead the way into the wild marshes of Dames Quarter Creek or the Monie Bay Component of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Cross tailors her tours to the guests’ interests and abilities. From half-day beginners’ trips to extended adventures, Rockcreek can provide lunches and, on the proper tides, a stop at an isolated sandy beach. 

The Dames Quarter wetlands are as rich in history as they are in wildlife. The winding waterways skirt the ghosts of the long-gone skipjack fleets, gathered to dredge oysters, and pass the tumble-down ruins of onetime thriving settlements. Using the human-powered craft adds a unique dimension to visiting one of the Chesapeake’s wildest regions.

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