Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Changes slow & seasonal

VA's Northern Neck reminiscent of landscapes past

Visitors find the Northern Neck of Virginia full of intimate landscapes with quiet coves and two-lane roads linking the histories of those who came before: American Indians, founding fathers (and mothers), enslaved peoples and watermen and farmers who, for the last four centuries, have harvested its bounties.

The four counties most often included in the definition of the Northern Neck — Westmoreland, Northumberland, Lancaster and Richmond — bear the place names assigned by English colonists. But the Northern Neck's major rivers and bays – Nomini, Yeocomico, Wicomico, Corrotoman, and Tutosky — retain the names they received from the Virginia Indians who lived here for centuries before the English arrived.

Bound by the Potomac River to the north and the Rappahannock River to the south, the Northern Neck is 760 square miles of gentle, rolling terrain covered by forests and fields that meet the Chesapeake Bay 60 miles to the east, at the peninsula's tip. There's plenty to see and do.

Westmoreland State Park is situated on the Potomac River, between Robert E. Lee's home at Stratford Hall and Pope's Creek, where George Washington spent his early years. Westmoreland was one of the first six Virginia state parks that opened in June 1936.

Ken Benson, Westmoreland's Park Manager, describes how Williams E. Carson, chairman of the Virginia State Commission on Conservation and Recreation, was working with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the Civilian Conservation Corps was created as part of the nation's recovery from the Great Depression.

"When Roosevelt asked Carson what he thought of the CCC," Benson said, "Carson told him that the boys were doing fine working in the forests, but what about using the corps to build state parks?"

According to Virginia state park historian, Arthur Davidson, Roosevelt said, "I will give you the men and the money for your state parks if you will demonstrate in Virginia what such a system of parks would mean to a state." Carson met the challenge, and to this day, Virginia state parks are considered among the best in the country.

At Westmoreland, the cobble retaining walls lining the steep bank of the road to the boat launch are one reminder of how this challenge was met. Some of the cabins, though modernized and refurbished, retain their original log and mortar walls. Many of the roads in the park were dug by hand.

Set back from a cliff that draws fossil hunters hoping to snag a prehistoric shark or whale tooth, the LEED-certified visitor's center commands a view across the Potomac to Cobb Island, MD.

Visitors can rent rowboats, canoes and kayaks, and new this year: stand-up paddleboards. Westmoreland offers respite from the home and job and provides a base for family activities on the water, in the woods or at nearby historic homes.

The Northern Neck's 1,200-mile coastline is a filigree of protected harbors, salt marshes and hidden creeks. Many come in the summer to get to the water, their boats or waterfront homes.

But inland, in hamlets at the crossroads of country roads, change is slow and seasonal. Bright green winter rye gives way in the spring to soybeans and sorghum that poke through the stubble of last year's cornfield. Country roads make multiple right angle turns to accommodate farm fields. Pickup trucks are abundant. Crab pots are stacked next to woodpiles. Hunting dogs wait for their season. Plenty of the people living here have been "locals" for many generations, often bound to the land and water in the same way as their ancestors.

Archeological studies show the Neck's continuous use by Indians for more than 10,000 years ago. The region is still considered the homeland of the Rappahannock, one of eight Virginia Indian tribes established on this tidewater peninsula when Capt. John Smith first arrived in the Chesapeake Bay.

Two Indian king towns were on Cat Point Creek, a 20-mile river that flows across the peninsula into the Rappahannock from its headwaters only 0.8 miles from the Potomac near Westmoreland State Park. The Nature Conservancy named the Cat Point Creek watershed one of the last great places in Virginia's coastal plain.

Entering the creek from Taylors Landing in late March, golden green hues emerge from the marsh grass that fringes the channel. From a kayak or canoe, paddlers headed up the creek find vistas that seem nearly pristine. Returning osprey join bald eagles circling overhead. An assembly of black and turkey vultures negotiate over a fresh catfish carcass in a matted bed of saltmeadow hay.

Upstream is Heritage Park's rustic tent campground on a bluff overlooking Menokin Bay with not a house in sight on the far shore; perhaps reminiscent of the way it might have looked 400 years ago.

Deanna Beacham, American Indian specialist with the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Office, is quick stress that it "might have looked this way." Beacham calls these landscapes "evocative" of former landscapes, which is the basis of Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail program for which she is an adviser. "We really don't know what it looked like, and depictions by the English colonists were colored by the landscapes and societies that they came from."

The Virginian Indians, she said, lived a mobile lifestyle, with settlements along creeks and rivers that were more densely inhabited during some seasons. Settlements that looked to the early colonial visitors as if they were abandoned or sparsely settled may actually have been permanent homes to larger Indian populations that were away hunting or fishing.

Stuart McKenzie, environmental planner with the Rappahannock Regional Planning District, said that he believes that Cat Point Creek has remained relatively pristine because the bridges that span it clear the water by only a few feet, thus reducing access by larger boats. McKenzie also attributes the minimal development to landowners leasing waterfront parcels to hunt clubs to pay the taxes. The Northern Neck Land Conservancy has also been active in encouraging protective easements, especially along Cat Point Creek.

In the 1700s, Menokin Bay and the creek's channel to the river may have been as deep as 14 feet. Francis Lightfoot Lee, an early Virginia statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, built his home and plantation, Menokin, on the high ground above the creek.

Sarah Pope, executive director of the Menokin Foundation, explains that it is possible to see in the woods at least two "rolling roads," sluice-like channels cut into the hillside for rolling hogsheads of tobacco from field to wharf. "Menokin," she said, "wouldn't be here if it weren't for the creek."

Richard Moncure, river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock, explained that where Cat Point Creek enters the larger river, fresh water from the Piedmont meets the saltier water from the Bay. This interface between fresh and salt is what makes for aquatic vitality and diversity and the fishing that draws many to "the Rivah."

A Northern Neck native and former waterman, Moncure is now a river ambassador and liaison to the other watermen on the neck whose livelihoods have been impacted by lower stocks of fish and shellfish. He is happy to take anyone out on his boat if it will help them understand the value of a healthy river and Bay, and he hopes to encourage other watermen to take passengers out on their fishing boats to show them the Bay that they know.

Down the Rappahannock from Cat Point Creek sits one of Virginia's newest state parks, Belle Isle. With Mulberry Creek to the west and Deep Creek to the east, the park is a secluded peninsula of working farm fields and forests that is as flat as the river that laps at the park's seven miles of shoreline.

Tim Schrader, the park manager who has overseen its development since the property was purchased in 1995, said that for some who visit, it's the first time they see a combine in action or the Bay-friendly conservation practices that are showcased.

Cornfields give way to forest stands of oak, river birch and loblolly pine on Mud Creek at the cartop boat launch. A boardwalk over the wetlands provides vistas of the broad marsh and a close look at the creek bottom in any tide. There is a primitive, overnight campground reserved for kayakers. At the eastern end of the park, a modern boat ramp accommodates multiple boats just minutes from the river.

Belle Isle draws visitors to its weekly outdoor summer concerts on the river. Schrader said that local residents, too, are starting to use the park. Like many places on the Northern Neck, the birding is excellent, and it's not hard to spot a bald eagle.

The press of a growing population and the desire for waterfront property is slowly changing the landscapes of the Northern Neck. But at the same time, the eagle population continues to grow, watermen are reinventing themselves, and farm stands still offer produce fresh from the fields. And the Neck's own brand, Northern Neck Ginger Ale, still has its unique and satisfying taste.

From trails to tours, wines to warblers, Northern Neck has it all

The Northern Neck of Virginia offers timeless natural beauty, history and heritage. Here are places to explore:

  • The Northern Neck Tourism Commission, in Warsaw, provides an online event calendar, maps and information about dining, lodging, wineries, services and recreation. Contact: 804-333-1919 or www.northernneck.org.
  • Heritage Park, in Warsaw, offers 78 wooded campsites on Cat Point Creek and five year-round cottages for nightly or weekly rental, a pool, hiking trails and canoe rentals. A winery and vineyards with tours and tastings are also at the site. Contact: 804-333-4038 or heritagepark.com.
  • The Northern Neck Birding Trail features 21 sites on saltwater and freshwater marshes, croplands and open fields to view songbirds, wading birds, waterfowl, bald eagles and butterflies. For details on birding events offered by the Northern Neck Chapter of the National Audubon Society visit www.northernneckaudubon.org/Welcome.html.
  • The Northern Neck Heritage Trail Bicycling Route is part of the Potomac Heritage Scenic Trails and provides four relatively easy bicycle trails that represent the essence of the Northern Neck. Contact: www.nps.gov/pohe/planyourvisit/maps.htm.
  • The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, in Montross, collects, preserves and disseminates information and materials relating to the history, antiquities and literature of Northumberland, Lancaster, Westmoreland, Stafford, Richmond and King George counties. Contact: 804-493-1862, nnvhs@live.com, or www.nnvhs.org.
  • Westmoreland State Park, in Montross, includes a boat ramp, hiking trails, sandy beach, pool, cabins, retreat lodge, campsites, cabins, and day and evening programs. Contact: 804-493-8821 or 800-933-PARK or virginiastateparks.gov.
  • Belle Isle State Park, in Lancaster, is 733 acres with 7 miles of Rappahannock River shoreline. Canoe, kayak and powerboat rentals are available. Contact: virginiastateparks.gov, 804-462-5030 or 800-933-PARK.
  • Menokin, in Warsaw, is the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee and the annual Menokin Music Festival (3–7 p.m. May 11. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the gate). The visitors center highlights architectural conservation. There is no fee to visit the property or a self-guided tour. Hike trails to Cat Point Creek through 325-acre wildlife refuge. Access hours vary by season. A staff-led tour of the visitors center and house site must be arranged by appointment 48 hours in advance and is subject to availability. Contact: 804-333-1776 or menokin.org.

Explore your wild side & nature's at Virginia's Northern Neck state parks

Upcoming events at state parks on Virginia's Northern Neck include:

  • Mother's Day Kayak & Breakfast: 7, 8 & 10 a.m. May 11. Caledon State Park in King George. Ages 6+ Explore the marsh and tidal Potomac, view the wreck of a WWI transport ship, then return for a light breakfast. Fee of $20 benefits Friends of Caledon's education programs. Reservations required; call 540-663-3861
  • Kids to Parks Day: May 18. Westmoreland State Park in Montross. All ages. Events include Become a Naturalist (11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.) Learn to identify animals by fur, tracks, scat & how native plants help the environment. Take a track cast home. Fee: $3. – Fossil Hike (1:30–3 p.m.) Hike 1.5 miles to fossil beach, learn about the park's ancient history, fossils & how to find them. Sieves provided. Fee: $3/person or $8/family. – Make a Shark Tooth Necklace (4–5 p.m.) Beading supplies provided. Fee: $5/buy a tooth or $3/bring a tooth. – Campfire Program (6–7 p.m.) Eat s'mores while learning about park's animals, wildlife and history. Bring a roasting stick if possible. Free. For details, call 804-493-8821.
  • Earth Day Celebration - One Man's Trash is Another Man's Art Contest: 10 a.m.–3 p.m. May 20. Caledon State Park in King George. All ages. Clean up the beach 10 a.m. to noon. Create art from the trash noon till 2:30, when judges award prizes for the top three masterpieces. Free. Pre-registration is recommended; call 540-663-3861.
  • Full Dragon Moon Kayak Trip: 8-10 p.m. May 24. Belle Isle in Lancaster. Ages 6+ Learn how the moon affects tides, folklore and moods. Equipment and instruction included. Fee: $8/ solo kayak, $12 / tandem kayak. Reservations recommended; call 804-462-5030.
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Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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