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Chessie, otters, herons, the IRS; Kayaking: It's the perfect way to get close to the inhabitants of the Chesapeake and its endless, intimate shoreline.


IT'S MIDNIGHT, mid-January, cold and clear and calm. The river's a clean slate, mine alone to essay upon.

The kayak comes alive as it slips from a little beach in the shadow of trucks whizzing over the U.S. 50 bridge in downtown Salisbury.

Soon the city's sodium vapor lights and industrial waterfront give way to starlight, and the homes of the Wicomico's wealthy, unaware they are being watched tonight.

I couldn't sleep. This is better than Letterman. I'm heading downriver. Tide's starting to flood up from the bay. When I turn back in an hour or so, it will boost me home.

Paddling with the double blade is rhythmic, lulling, the long, slender hull gliding along at an easy 4 mph.

The waterfront homes get fewer, and larger. Now one bank rises in a dark sweep of forested swamp. Not even the rich can build in tidal wetlands anymore.

A barred owl howls. The night life is in full swing. Something big, more sensed than heard, hurries overhead, blotting out stars as it goes -- maybe a great horned owl on the hunt for something that will never know what hit it.

Startled from the shadows, a great blue heron cusses gratingly as it flaps off. You get so close in kayaks. I could hear the heron's indignant defecation patter down on the water.

The kayak noses across a sand-bottomed shallows. The water furrows with the wakes of big fish scattering in all directions. One thumps the hull, showering water onto my deck.

I have learned not to jerk suddenly at such eruptions, which happen frequently at night. Swimming in January would be too exciting.

There is some moon on the paddle back, revealing geese lining the banks and shallow edges almost everywhere there is room to stand. They are mostly the nonmigratory birds. A few years ago I counted dozens on the river. Tonight, it's at least 500.

A couple of prostitutes watch as I haul the kayak out in Salisbury. It was a routine paddle, which is to say captivating, energizing, wonderful and always something new.

Each year, when I look back over the high points, a lot seem to have occurred in the cockpit of that kayak. Seaworthy enough to manage high winds and seas, efficient enough to cover several miles at an outing, stealthy enough to scare the poop out of a heron, the kayak seems an instrument perfectly attuned to the Chesapeake's mix of big water and endless, intimate shoreline.

From the kayak in November, I spied Chessie, the fabled monster of the bay. The creature's dorsal fin, a mass of tangled spines, burst from a wave top, silhouetted starkly against the setting sun.

It was moving fast across the mile-wide lower Nanticoke River. The fantastic fin sloped back to a huge, dark body. My first instinct was to paddle in the other direction. It was big enough to sink my boat, and it was like no fish I'd ever seen.

Indeed, it was no fish -- rather the head and back of a magnificently antlered deer, probably crossing to escape hunters who were afield that week.

April has treats for those who paddle bay creeks. In Florida, they brag on swimming with the dolphins, but here you can paddle with the otters. They live here all year, but spring seems to put them in a sporty mood.

I've had them circle me, race me, surf along my bow wave, leap virtually over my stern and rear up half out of the water and "whuuf," looking me in the eye.

The delightful "feel" of the water's every nuance one gets in a kayak may hint about 1 percent at the fun an otter has. If reincarnation turns out to be an option, I know how I'm coming back.

Twice last year, my kayaks -- the single seater and a new two-seater -- took me to dinner in style. On a brilliant autumn afternoon, we had paddled all day to a seaside campsite. At the last bend in the marsh, my friend saw a swirl.

"There," he pointed. One cast; and before the lure even broke the surface, a fat rockfish was dancing with it in his jaw. We went ashore and ate him, the freshest of fish.

Another memorable meal came from what I think to be the last dead duck of 1998. With a partner in the front of the double kayak, we crossed a mile of rough water an hour before sunset New Year's Eve.

Reaching an isolated marsh island, my bow man stowed his paddle and got out his shotgun. Just as day ended, we jumped and shot a black duck from a creek almost too narrow to paddle.

There were so many other gifts: big rockfish spurting, all aglow, from beneath our hulls in water full of bioluminescent algae last summer; eagles perched in tall pines and cypresses, soaking up the rich, early rays of morning light.

Also paddling into an upscale marina near Annapolis, where a woman in evening dress, with cocktail in hand came out on the fantail of a yacht and looked down peevishly: "Ohhh, we're being attacked by wild Indians."

From the foregoing, you might conclude kayaks are fun, but I need to correct that impression.

It goes back to my most recent Internal Revenue Service audit (there is something about people who write off boats on their taxes, even little ones, that makes their day).

Before the audit, I consulted a tax accountant to see what I might be up against. Was I overreaching, writing off 60 percent of the kayak as business use?

"What's a kayak?" he said.

There's one on top of my car, I told him. Take a look.

After a few minutes he came back in. "Write that sucker off a 100 percent, business, is my advice.

"No way in hell something that narrow and tippy could be used for pleasure."

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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