Paddling the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore

by Bill & Mary Burnham

Paddling toward Smith Island Light

The bows of our kayaks clear the muddy banks of a marsh creek awash in the autumn gold of spartina antiflora, AKA saltmarsh cordgrass.

Quiet shelter afforded by this tall grass gives way to rushing wind that churns the open water into a frothy chop off the seaside of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

We scan a far-off island framed by tall pines and fringed with a sandy shoreline. The question is: Can we make it that far in our small boats?

Paddling underneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel

Well, Captain John Smith did. Way back in 1608, with 14 men in an open boat called a shallop. When he reached it, he named it Smith Island. That name stands today, the island marked by the Cape Charles light.

Our gaze swings southward toward brown pelicans flying in V-formation over a low-slung mass of dark marsh of Fisherman Island. What's out there, we wonder? Shorebirds and solitary wading birds for certain. And the ruins of an old 19th century quarantine station, and the buried bunkers of the U.S. Coastal Artillery which, once-upon-a-time, defended the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay in tandem with Fort Story of Virginia Beach.

Paddling through the marsh

Here, within the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, the DelMarVA peninsula funnels to a narrow tip. Marsh and maritime forest provide cover and critical sustenance to migrating birds every fall and spring.

The Nature Conservancy owns many of the islands and boaters can explore them from the water, but not land. For a thrill, paddle into Fishermans Inlet and beneath the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel as traffic hurtles above you.

Put in at the refuge on the ocean side near the southern tip of the peninsula. The trip starts on Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-TunnelRaccoon Creek and leads through salt marsh before entering the open and shallow waters that surround Fishermans Island.

Getting there: Heading north on Route 13, the refuge entrance is located on the right, just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bride-Tunnel.

Book a kayak tour or rental with SouthEast Expeditions, located directly across Route 13 from the refuge entrance.

Read about an overnight adventure on Mockhorn Island accessible from this launch.