Sentinel of Sellman Creek

A common sight to those who work or play on the water are herons wading in the shallows. They stride the creeks and tidal marshes dignified and aloof, silently, not calling attention to themselves but still very visible. Like the Chesapeake Bay watermen who take their living from our country’s largest estuary they are symbols of a real feet-in-the-mud, hunter-gathering aspect of life. I am an infrequent visitor to their world, afloat in my temporary house traveling in search of rest from my own day to day labors. As I cruise the bay herons are like signposts in my peripheral vision, marking the shallows in the absence of man-made aids to navigation. One could not find a more fitting guide to the bay’s serene backwaters.

For over a decade I had been a merely occasional visitor to the Chesapeake Bay. I was more enamored of the rocky coast of New England. Maine offered sailing on cruise schooners, pigging out on lobster and the rich maritime culture of the Down East coast. However I lived in central Pennsylvania which put me closer to the bay than to those rock-bound coasts. In the fall of 1989 I bought a 23 foot sloop with week long and overnight cruising in mind . The bay was a more practical cruising ground. Picturesque, bustling Annapolis, Maryland was to be the home port for Dragonsong that first summer. From there I ventured out on the bay’s broad waters where I gained a new appreciation for the bay with the help of one of its often encountered denizens, the great blue heron, in a quiet backwater called Sellman Creek.

On a chilly morning in early May I sat in the cockpit of Dragonsong, anxious to leave, while waiting out a thick fog. By ten o’clock I knew that it was time to leave if I was going to get anywhere at all that day. With carefully plotted course I swept down the fog-wrapped bay from Annapolis to Thomas Point Shoal lighthouse, where I broke out into the clear and set my course for the Rhode River. I was now sailing under blue skies and cottonball clouds. The marine weather forecasters on the VHF revised their previously rosy prognostication to an ominous litany of severe thunderstorm activity, expected in early evening. I took a close look at the chart with an eye toward safety and comfort. It offered Sellman Creek, emptying into the Rhode River as the most hospitable choice.

I sailed slowly up the Rhode River on a dying breeze, under lowering skies, searching for the entrance to the creek. Dark clouds gathered to hide the setting sun as the barometer began its inevitable decline. Finding the creek was no great feat of navigation. I followed the well-marked river channel. On a point of land ahead I could see the buildings and docks of Camp Letts a YMCA summer camp. I sailed between the camp to starboard and several small islands to port. Following the shore of Bear Neck to starboard brought me near to the mouth of the creek formed by two overlapping points of low-lying land.

The wind had exhausted itself. With furled sails and the 9 horsepower outboard hanging on the transom I moved ahead slowly keeping a watchful eye on the depthsounder. In the shallows to port stood a great blue heron standing erect like a wary sentinel. He interrupted his fishing to cock his head and train a baleful eye on me. He seemed to warn me to be on my best behavior as I insisted on encroaching on his territory. As the boat drew abreast of the sentinel’s position he took sudden offense at my noisy little motor and ran awkwardly flapping his wings for the shelter of the tall reeds with considerable cost to his dignity.

Rounding the inner point I was pleased to see the depth sounder reading six feet and getting deeper as I steered for the mid-point of a lovely tree-lined cove opening up on the port side. The cove was a snug and secure anchorage. It formed a pool about 12 feet deep at dead center. Two vessels similar to my own would be a crowd. It was serene and private. On the eastern shore of the creek the land was heavily wooded with only a few of the camp’s buildings visible. The western shore rose steeply from the water’s edge forming a high tree covered embankment in a protective half-circle. Fortunate is the vessel lying here when the normally benign spring weather suddenly turns inhospitable.

The sentinel reappeared as the motor ceased its disturbing noise. For a while I was the object of his curiosity, but soon he went about his business and left me to go about mine. It was peaceful in the sentinel’s domain, if not truly silent. The sounds of nature were a living presence. Westerly breezes lifted by the high ground sang in the trees and the rigging, roughhousing with the wind vane at the masthead while remaining barely felt near the water’s surface. An osprey cried out frequently as it soared above the river in search of fish to feed its hungry young ones. Deer splashed noisily across the creek farther upstream. Ducks cruised by in close formation, family flotillas quacking companionably as they wound their way home.

Dragonsong was soon securely anchored with all sails, and loose gear snugged down in anticipation of the foreordained blow. I set about putting a meal together on my one burner alcohol stove to the accompaniment of thunder echoing between the forested banks of the creek. The sky darkened and was intermittently illuminated by flashes of lightning. My stir-fried chicken and vegetables was on the table as the first raindrops fell and I closed the sliding hatch to keep out the wet and increasing chill.

Thunder, lightning and strong winds passing harmlessly overhead were the perfect accompaniment to Mozart on the tape player. I settled in to an evening of journal writing at the cabin table with a steaming mug of tea improved by generous portions of honey, lemon juice and rum. By midnight the storm was over and a chill breeze followed on the heels of the cold front. The clearing sky revealed a brilliant display of winking stars. Snuggling into double blankets in the starboard bunk I hoped that the morning would bring fine sailing weather to usher me home as I left this secure haven.

I am not usually an early riser but I was eager to rise with the sun. To miss a minute of daylight while on a Chesapeake cruise seems an unpardonable sin. Sitting quietly in the cockpit I soon became aware that I was not the only one awake and stirring. The sentinel emerged silently from the tall grass along the shore, an apparition appearing before me in the early morning light. The gray strata of ground fog swirled around his long stilt-like legs, his gunmetal gray body and sinuous neck seemed poised in lethal concentration. A movement as silent as it was swift produced the heron’s first breakfast entrée. The morsel was ingested quickly with little time wasted before the hunt continued. The superb reflexes of this practiced survivor were concentrated on the highest priority of his existence: finding food. Daily life for this stately shorebird is intimately connected to the resources available in his environment and inherent in his own abilities.

At home I work at my day to day round of priorities. When convenient I remove myself from the cycle of labor to spend time in the watery hinterlands. It’s a continual round of draining and refilling my spirit like the battery in a frequently used flashlight.  The sentinel’s life is seamless. He does not punch a time clock. His hours on the water, unlike many of mine are not billable. He does not need to take a vacation on a small sailboat, in search of solitude. He is already in harmony with nature. It is his living room, bedroom, office and grocery store. Who would be an escapist if they were already free?

I come here to unwind so many human tensions. Letting go of excess ounces of emotion, they slide overboard to run with the tide. They wash up on the shore crusted with salt, bleached clean-white in the healing sun. All too human is the intruding mind, linked inexplicably to all the timekeepers of the world. Thus, alarm clocks ring and time cards beg to be punched. This interlude is coming to a close. I can not sustain my escape any longer. The anchor must be rescued from the deep and sails awakened from their slumber. After all, I have promises to keep.

The big heron went about his business among the grassy shallows while I went about mine on board Dragonsong. A bracing wind appeared along with the warm sun. By the time breakfast was done I could tell that it would be an exhilarating run back to Annapolis. With a fair wind and tide I had an opportunity to make amends to the sentinel for having disturbed the peace and ruffling his dignity the day before. I have always preferred to sail off the hook when leaving an anchorage. Without cranking up the outboard I simply raised the jib and mainsail. My anchor was unwilling to part with the comforts of the muddy creek bottom immediately. With some extra effort and help from the sails a seamanlike departure was made. Gathering way slowly, Dragonsong ran for the shallow channel. The sentinel paused in his activities to see me on my way, observing my now silent progress, standing his ground, not deserting his post this time. His imperious image is fixed in my memory, a model of dignity and cool reserve.

On the open river I got a taste of the full strength of an early morning chance-along and dawdled long enough to tuck in a cautious reef. This would be an active sail, a good testing day. It gave me an opportunity to establish a working relationship with the new boat as I made my way north. Later as I huddled in foul weather gear, lashed by cold spray, a picture of the sentinel in his sheltered creek came to mind. Surely he would not be as foolish as I to leave so peaceful a haven simply for the sake of a work schedule. But this is why people like me choose to go sailing. It is why I come to the broad waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It is to share the creeks with regal herons and to adopt their priorities for a little while. Renewal is in the wind and the spirit thrives on each small dose of living on heron-time. Having made my personal discovery of the Chesapeake I knew I would exercise my privilege to visit the sentinel’s domain as a respectful guest. Many times we would share the fellowship of the breakfast hour: two disparate creatures communing in peace and partaking of the nourishment of the Chesapeake morning light.

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