Getting that Sinking Feeling: Kayaking in the Nation’s Largest Sunken Ship Graveyard


So it’s bad enough when Terri and I get in a car together, especially if she wants to drive. She considers my need to have hold of the steering wheel at all times the sign of a true control freak; I see it more as the need to not spend my last moments on earth dying in a fiery inferno caused by her inattention to small details—like which side of the road she’s supposed to be on.

So I was a little hesitant when we went on a trip to southern Maryland and were paired together in a two-person kayak to explore Mallows Bay Park in Charles County, home to the largest sunken ship graveyard in North America. There were a few things that made me balk, like the fact that Terri literally had no experience kayaking. And that a kayak has no brakes. Not to mention that we would be weaving through the rust-covered ribs of centuries-old boats in water that was over our heads.

And did you see the part about how this was a SUNKEN ship graveyard? I wasn’t looking forward to its claiming another victim.

Common sense aside, we decided to check out this part of the Potomac River Water Trail, so we put on our life vests and got into the boat.

Terri: Should I sit in the front or back?

Vanessa: That depends. Do you want to run us into things, or do you want to try to stop us from running into things, probably unsuccessfully?

Terri: The first?

Vanessa: Sit in front.

So with Terri as the navigator (two words that should never be together in a sentence), we launched our craft and started paddling through an eerie, spectral landscape. The waters of the bay cover more than 100 sunken or scuttled ships, including an 18th century schooner, a Confederate blockade runner and a Revolutionary-era longboat. Almost 100 wooden ships, part of the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet, also met their end here, and you can still wind through their rust and barnacle-encrusted ribs that rise out of the water as if signaling their surrender.

Terri: This is unbelievable!

Vanessa: The fact that we’re paddling over an entire underwater fleet, or that we haven’t dumped the kayak yet?

Terri: Actually both.

There was something surreal about coming up alongside the Accomac, a massive, steel-hulled ferry that served in World War II before finding its way to the bay. More surprising was realizing that what looked like a bunch of tangled branches on the bow was actually a huge osprey nest… with a very vocal and protective bird inside.

Terri (paddling forward): Look at that ! Let’s get closer!

Vanessa (paddling backward): Not a good plan.

Terri: (continuing to paddle forward) Why aren’t we moving?

Vanessa: (continuing to paddle backward) Because I don’t have a death wish.

Terri: (continuing to paddle forward) I just want to see the nest.

Vanessa: (continuing to paddle backward) And I just want to see tomorrow. Did you seriously never see the movie, The Birds?

Realizing that we were not going to go either forward or backward, we called a truce and just floated, which gave us the opportunity to check out more of the area’s wildlife. Despite being a ‘graveyard,’ the bay is teeming with life, from tiny little turtles smaller than the palm of your hand to elegant herons and even bald eagles that thrive in this area nominated as a Natural Marine Sanctuary.

Despite my initial misgivings, Terri and I did survive our first kayak excursion together, and we’ve since been on a few more. The secret, I’ve discovered, is easy—make sure to wear a life jacket.

And ask for your own kayak.

If You Go

Unlike a lot of areas where it’s difficult to get into the water, Mallows Bay Park has a boat ramp that provides easy access to the Potomac River. You can rent a kayak and paddle through the area on your own, but hiring a local guide is a great way to learn more about the history of the fleet, as well as the landscape that was once a fishing and hunting ground for the Piscataway Indians.

We greatly enjoyed our time with Judy Lathrop of Atlantic Kayak Company, who is a wealth of knowledge: www.atlantickayak.com, 301-292-6455.

If you want to learn more about the area’s maritime history or take part in even more outdoor adventures, visit www.charlescountymd.gov/tourism or www.visitmaryland.org.

They Gave Us Guns: Learning to Shoot in Lajitas


I’ve written before about the fact that both Terri and I are fairly uncoordinated, which is why we were surprised—in fact, dumbfounded—when our hosts at the Lajitas Golf Resort & Spa in Lajitas, TX, agreed to let us sign up for shooting activities. In other words, they gave us loaded guns.

Now far be it for me to judge, but when we said that we thought it would be a howl to try the course, I expected someone to adult; to say that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea—that maybe we should try something more our speed, like, say, a museum tour or sitting on bar stools. And a few saner voices did try to convince us to try their new zip line over Quiet Canyon or to go trail riding across Comanche Creek, but it was a losing battle.

Because we were in Texas. And in Texas, you gotta have a gun.

We were joined in our folly by another travel writer, Deb from New Mexico, who was as familiar with weapons as we were—which is to say not at all. Our guide, a 20-something good ole’ boy who probably grew up shooting baby bottles instead of drinking them, thought it was hysterical that we were so inexperienced until my excitement at taking my first shot made me wheel around, gun still in hand, to exclaim my joy. I have never seen people hit the dirt that fast.

After everyone got back up, dusted themselves off, and moved warily out of range, I saw a new look of respect, or perhaps it was fear, in our guide’s eyes. No doubt he now took my lack of experience—and murderous enthusiasm—a little more seriously.

We took part in the Cowboy Action Shoot, which involves walking through the ghost town of Stargazer Springs, taking turns shooting targets with a single-action pistol, a side-by-side shotgun, and a lever-action rifle. It didn’t go so well.

Guide: All you do is look through the sight and…

BAM!

Did I mention that I was kind of excited? Deb was far more cautious, and Terri, surprisingly, took this gun stuff pretty seriously. That’s not saying that any of us were very good at it.

Terri: Did I hit it?

Guide: No.

Terri: Did I come close?

Guide: No.

Terri: Am I doing this right?

Guide: No.

Terri: I think I’m getting better.

Guide: No.

I personally couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a pistol, not that I’ve ever tried to hit a barn (or for that fact, any unprovoked building) with anything. But then our guide handed me the rifle…and things improved dramatically.

BAM!

Guide: I’ll be damned.

BAM!

Guide: Seriously? Again?

BAM!

Guide: This is kind of terrifying.

I proceeded to hit every single target on the rest of the course, channeling my inner Annie Oakley and perhaps some unresolved frustrations that even a therapist can’t decipher. It was so much fun that I didn’t want it to end, though I didn’t go so far as to say that they’d have to pry the gun from my cold, dead hands….I just pouted a little (okay, a lot) when he (with much relief) took the weapon away.

The three of us posed for photos, armed to the teeth, though we agreed that we would not try to take selfies while holding guns. If you’ve seen how bad our selfies already are, you realize the odds of pulling a trigger instead of pushing a button were very real.

While Deb and Terri enjoyed the experience, I was all about going back again to try their Combat Course, which involves an AR-15, 9mm pistol and pump-action shotgun.

Vanessa: Seriously, Terri. It would be so much fun! Think of me with an assault rifle!

Do I even need to mention that I got vetoed?

If You Go

The Lajitas Golf Resort & Spa is a fantastic place to stay, even if you don’t go for shooting sports. Their list of activities is impressive, and includes everything from zip lining and horseback riding to world-class golf on a Lanny Wadkins-designed course and massages at Agave Spa. There’s also birding, mountain biking, and opportunities to dine under the stars, and you can even rent one of their Jeeps to check out the area on your own.

We were only there overnight, but you could easily stay a week and not run out of things to do. I highly recommend staying in the Cavalry Post section of the resort; built on the historic site of a remote U.S. military outpost commanded by General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, this section offers 26 rooms that are individually decorated in an Old West theme—first time I’ve ever stayed in a room where handcuffs were actually part of the décor.

To learn more, check out www.lajitasgolfresort.com, 1-877-Lajitas.