DELMARVA ALMANAC

Cycling In Kent County, Delaware

by Jim Rapp

Jim Rapp takes us cycling through central Delaware to see beautiful farm country and wildlife.

Dover is becoming quite famous for Delmarva travelers seeking experiences you just can't find anywhere else on the Peninsula or, for that matter, on the East Coast. Later this month, Nascar fans will motor to the Dover International Speedway for three intense days of Race Weekend. In June, thousands of live music fans will flock to the Woodlands in Dover for the big names performing at the Firefly Music Festival and the Big Barrel Country Music Festival. Year-round, the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino offers 24-hour gaming, fine dining, and live entertainment.

But there's more to Delaware's State Capital than Nascar, music festivals and the casino. Just a few miles outside of Dover, you can find rolling country roads perfect for long bike rides, ponds and rivers for leisurely treks in a kayak, and protected areas along the Delaware Bayshore teeming with birds and wildlife. Cyclists, paddlers and birders have endless opportunities to launch from Dover and explore some of the wildest and most scenic areas on Delmarva.

Dover and Kent County are fast becoming a destination for cyclists. Part of the reason for the attraction is the annual Amish Country Bike Tour, held this year on September 12. Delaware's largest cycling event attracts more than 2,000 riders, and starts and stops at the historic Legislative Mall. Cyclists can choose routes between 15 and 100 miles long that wind through Amish farm country, complete with horse-drawn buggies. Delaware's working Amish community lies just west of Dover. Homes and schools are not open to the public, but you'll be welcome at the Amish shops and stores found along the scenic and peaceful countryside.

Exploring the Dover region by bicycle can also provide connections to Delaware's history and natural heritage. The 72-mile trek I'll describe over the next 5 minutes will circle the City of Dover, and showcase some of Delaware's rich historical sites and wildest natural areas.

You can start pedaling at First State Heritage Park, located in Dover's historic district. This "park without boundaries" is bicycle-friendly, and features nearly two dozen historic sites. Several surround the 300-year-old Dover Green, where Delaware became the First State to ratify the U.S. Constitution on December 7, 1787.

From here, take the 15-mile rural route to Killens Pond State Park near Felton. The park features a 66-acre millpond, with kayak, canoe and boat rentals available during the summer months. A 3-mile footpath through the forest encircles the millpond, which drains into the Murderkill River. The Murderkill Canoe Trail provides a challenge for the more adventurous paddler.

The legend of the unusual name "Murderkill" involves the bloody massacre of a Dutch trading party by a local Native American tribe near the river in the 1600s. This quote is attributed to the 1945 book "Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States," by George R. Stewart:

"...they went some ten or twelve miles higher, where they landed again and traded with the Indians, trusting the Indians to come onto their stores ashore, and likewise aboard their sloop drinking and debauching with the Indians until they were at last barbarously murdered, and so that place was christened with their blood and to this day is called the Murderer-Kill, that is, Murderers Creek."

While this quote may be appropriate for telling ghost stories around the campfire at Killens Pond, Mr. Stewart's tale is folklore. While the river's name does harken back to Delaware's Dutch heritage, it's origin is much less dramatic. "Murderkill" is Dutch for "Mother River."

For the next leg of your adventure, bike 20 miles from Killens Pond State Park to Port Mahon Road and the Little Creek Wildlife Area east of Dover. Along this route, you'll notice the transition from rolling farmland to the vast coastal marshes of the Delaware Bay.

Port Mahon Road is one of Delaware's best locations for observing the world-famous horseshoe crab spawning and shorebird migration in late May. The marshes along Port Mahon Road are also good for finding elusive rails and Seaside Sparrows.

The Little Creek Wildlife Area is managed by the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife. At Little Creek in May, you can find sparrows in the fields and hedgerows, migrating warblers in the wet woods, and shorebirds and wading birds in the shallow-water impoundment. The impoundment is best observed from an observation tower located at the end of a boardwalk through the swampy woods.

One bird you're likely to find feeding in the impoundment in May is the Black-necked Stilt. The first thing you're likely to notice about this beautiful black-and-white shorebird is it's incredibly long, slender red legs. Of all the birds found around the world, stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to their body size, surpassed only by flamingos. Black-necked Stilts forage in the shallow water impoundment at Little Creek by probing the mud for aquatic invertebrates, small fish, and tadpoles.

After exploring Little Creek, hop back on your bike for another 13 miles north on Route 9 to tour one of Delaware's most famous birding sites, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Leipsic. Another throwback to Delaware's settlement era, Bombay Hook is derived from the Dutch words for "Little-Tree Point."

Bombay Hook protects one of the largest tracts of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic. The refuge is mostly marsh, but also includes freshwater impoundments and forests that are managed for wildlife. Bombay Hook was established in 1937 as a critical link in the chain of wildlife refuges extending from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. It is a critical feeding stop and breeding ground for birds that migrate along the Atlantic Flyway.

Here, you can add another 12 miles to your bike tour by cycling the round-trip wildlife drive. Along the route, you can stop to explore nature trails and observation towers overlooking the four fresh water impoundments, known as Raymond Pool, Shearness Pool, Bear Swamp Pool, and Finis Pool. Water levels in the pools are lowered in the spring to provide mudflats for migrating shorebirds, then flooded in the fall to give waterfowl access to plant seeds that germinated over the summer.

Now that you've biked 60 miles through Amish Country farmland and coastal forests and marshes, you have only another 12 miles of cycling back to First State Heritage Park. As you pedal by Dover International Speedway and the casino, you'll be amazed at the history and nature you've experienced on your bike tour around one of Delmarva's most interesting and exciting cities.

Find out more:
http://amishcountrybiketour.com
http://www.destateparks.com/park/killens-pond/
http://www.visitdelaware.com/listings/Little-Creek-Wildlife-Area/2410/922/?msid=1
http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bombay_hook/