Fall Paddling On Delmarva

by Jim Rapp

Labor Day Weekend may signal the end of the summer season for Delmarva's resort towns, but it kicks off the beginning of the autumn paddling season around our waterfront Trail Towns.

As the beach traffic slows down and the hot, humid days fade away, Delmarva's bays, rivers, creeks and ponds become paradise for paddlers. The warm water, cooler air, and relatively few insect pests combine to make late September and early October the best time of year to paddle some of the finest flat water on the East Coast.

Paddling Delmarva's waterways is, in my opinion, the best way to explore our nature and history. We have thousands of miles of shoreline that can be experienced by kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard. The ecosystems and scenery change every few miles, as swampy and marshy creeks and historic millponds transition into mighty rivers that meander and widen towards our more salty estuaries. Experienced paddlers can explore even further into the Atlantic Ocean by touring the eastern edges of our barrier islands.

The people of Delmarva have paddled the waters here for centuries, from the first Native Americans thousands of years ago to the European explorers of the early 17th century.

Between 1607 and 1609, Captain John Smith and a small crew of English adventurers set out in an open boat to explore the Chesapeake Bay. Smith and his crew paddled and sailed nearly 3,000 miles of Chesapeake country. They mapped the land and water and documented indigenous people and landscapes before the European invasion that followed.

Smith’s map and journals are a remarkable record of the 17th-century Chesapeake, and can be experienced by paddlers in the 21st century by exploring the nation's first federally-authorized water trail. 2016 marks the tenth year of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The trail connects paddlers to the nature and heritage of the Chesapeake, as witnessed by Smith and his crew more than 400 years ago.

While the Captain John Smith Water Trail may be Delmarva's version of a water-based Appalachian Trail for paddlers, many smaller, more intimate water trails exist in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

Most of our public boat ramps are suitable for launching your human-powered vessel, and many of our parks and Trail Towns are installing special launches designed just for kayaks, canoes and SUPs. Check out our website for links to Delmarva water trails and launches from the Virginia seaside to Smith Island to the Nanticoke River.

One of our great Delmarva paddling experiences is touring the Mispillion River near Milford, Delaware. The river is about 15 miles long and defines the boundary between Sussex and Kent Counties. The Mispillion begins in Northern Sussex County and flows east through the ponds west of historic Milford, before turning north and then east again towards its mouth at the Delaware Bay just north of Slaughter Beach.

The canoe and kayak launch at Abbott's Mill, located just three miles southwest of Milford, is a great place to begin your Mispillion paddle. The historic gristmill at Abbott's started milling in 1795 and ceased operations in 1960. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and is now managed by the Delaware Nature Society as part of the 313-acre Milford Millponds Nature Preserve.

More than 160 species of birds have been recorded in the forests of the nature preserve. You are likely to see Wild Turkeys and Pileated Woodpeckers year-round, and migratory songbirds in the fall.

There are three other Mispillion River kayak and canoe launches east of Abbott's Mill. You can explore the Milford Riverfront from a launch located at the Northeast Front Street Recreation Area in Milford. East of town, you can put in at the Milford Neck Wildlife Area on Greenhouse Road, or the Cedar Creek Boat Ramp located on Lighthouse Road in Slaughter Beach. On this section of the Mispillion, you'll be paddling through forested riverbanks and open marshes as the river flows towards its finish at the Delaware Bayshore.

In addition to promoting paddling experiences with detailed water trail maps and websites, many of Delmarva's Water Trail Towns are hosting special events to boost their nature and heritage-based tourism economies.

One such event is the inaugural Delmarva Paddling Weekend, which will be held September 30 through October 2 on the wild, scenic waters around Laurel, Delaware, and Snow Hill, Maryland.

Participants can choose from an à la carte menu of clinics and guided paddling trips to remote and rarely paddled locations. Interpretive paddling tours guided by local naturalists will focus on the birds and wildlife of the Bald Cypress swamps of the Nanticoke and Pocomoke Rivers and the coastal marshes of Chincoteague Bay.

Historians will lead trips that connect local rivers to historical luminaries such as Harriet Tubman and Captain John Smith. Some may choose to experience a twilight ghost tour paddle in Snow Hill. New paddlers can learn basic kayaking and SUP skills, and try their luck at kayak fishing.

Evening social events in Snow Hill and Laurel are planned for Friday and Saturday, and special accommodations can be arranged at local bed and breakfasts, Trap Pond State Park and Pocomoke River State Park.

This new outdoor event is designed to celebrate the paddling experiences around Laurel and Snow Hill, and showcase both as paddling “Trail Towns” -- central locations to stay, play, dine and drink before and after your water-based adventures. Laurel and Snow Hill both have historic waterfronts, and are situated with easy access to amazing outdoor recreation opportunities. The natural beauty and rich history of both towns make them prime destinations for nature and heritage tourists.

Participants may bring their own human-powered boats or boards, or local outfitters will provide kayaks, canoes and SUPs for those in need. Participating outfitters include DelMarVa Board Sport Adventures, the Pocomoke River Canoe Company, Quest Kayak, Coastal Kayak, Delaware Paddlesports, Trap Pond State Park, and Walk on Water.

Event sponsors include the University of Delaware's Sustainable Coastal Communities Initiative, Delaware Sea Grant, the Delaware Office of Tourism, the Town of Snow Hill, Worcester County Tourism, Delmarva Almanac, the Greater Laurel Chamber of Commerce, and DelMarVa Board Sport Adventures.

The Delmarva Paddling Weekend is organized by Conservation Community Consulting, LLC along with a host of other partners. To register and learn more, please visit

We hope to see you on the water this fall, exploring in the paddling strokes of Captain John Smith, meandering through the Mispillion, or touring the waters around Laurel and Snow Hill during the Delmarva Paddling Weekend. Until next time, I hope this story inspires you to explore and learn more about Delmarva’s many natural wonders.