Paddling Onancock Creek

by Bill & Mary Burnham

Onancock kayak

Timeless describes Onancock, a Colonial port founded in 1680 at the spot where three streams meet to form Onancock Creek, Algonquian for 'foggy place.'

Onancock Creek's three branches extend like fingers into neighborhoods of stately Colonials and Sears-catalog homes, all with lawns leading to their former "front doors" on the harbor. This is a town best seen from the water.

Watch fishing boats unload, the occasional big barge, and admire the schooners, ketches and other sailing craft tied up at the town wharf.

Bird-watching on Onancock Creek

As you paddle from here, try to imagine long ago days, when sailing schooners came up the creek to pick up the fledgling colony's new export: tobacco. Onancock's sheltered but deep water harbor was made one of 20 official ports of export by the British crown in 1680.

The most prominent historic landmark at the wharf, the Hopkins and Bro. Store, dates to 1842, and was the point of exit for farm goods leaving the shore.

Imagine farmers waiting in line along Market Street, with horse-drawn wagons loaded with strawberries and potatoes.

Onancock Wharf

Later came the steamships, which docked here and took on cargo and passengers for overnight delivery to Baltimore. As the lumbering giants moved out of the creek to open water, they stopped at Finney's Wharf on the creek's south side, and Mears Wharf at Poplar Cove on the north bank.

These once-busy trading centers are now quiet, marked by stately homes and expansive yards. Their stories are in the memories of longtime residents, in the history books and your imagination as you float past.

The creek meanders five miles to the Chesapeake Bay, where Parkers Marsh Natural Area Preserve protects 750Onancock Creek sunset acres of marsh that's critical for bird nesting. It's also habitat for the Northeast beach tiger beetle, a federally threatened species whose range is now restricted to beaches like this in Virginia.

Click to read more about this waterfront town, and find places to stay, eat and shop in Onancock.

Paddle with the Authors

Burnham Guides, aka Bill and Mary Burnham, offer two-hour kayak tours of Onancock Creek from their shop next to Mallards restaurant, as well as kayak, SUP and bike rentals. Call 757-710-5137 to reserve.

Mary and Bill Burnham

To truly understand life on the Eastern Shore, you have to see it from the water. A kayak trip on Historic Onancock Creek is the perfect way to take in the sights of this colonial port.

Two-hour Historic Onancock Creek Tour: $45 per person, all gear and instruction included. Beginners welcome, kid-friendly!

Seaside island, multi-day kayak camping and lodge-based trips also available.