Turning kayakers into happy campers
Potomac Passagemakers put kayak tours on the map
Ralph Heimlich is a kayaker and Chesapeake Bay enthusiast who hates to put down his paddle. So when the cold days of the new year stall his watery sojourns, Heimlich does the next best thing: He plans paddle trips for spring.
“We call it armchair paddling,” Heimlich said.
As coordinator of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association, Heimlich has volumes of experience and advice to share. So do many of his cohorts, members of the paddling association who are organized into smaller paddling groups — called “paddling pirates” — in locations spread around the Bay region. They offer classes, organize day paddles for beginners, and plan longer, more-challenging trips for those who just can’t get enough.
Last year, Heimlich was busy making maps as well as paddling. He was charting a series of 10 trips on the Potomac River aimed at creating paddle-and-camp itineraries between the District of Columbia and Point Lookout, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay. He calls them the Potomac Passagemaker Tours.
“Our dream is to launch in DC and then in six or seven days end up at Point Lookout, without ever having to get back in the car,” Heimlich said.
It’s still a dream, for now. Paddle-and-camp experiences, called kayak touring, depend on approved campsites that are kayak friendly: They should be separated by a reasonable distance on the water, located close to the shoreline, have a safe landing area and ideally offer potable water and a portable toilet. Such sites do exist along the Potomac, but not at intervals that allow for a seamless journey between DC and Point Lookout.
In the meantime, Passagemaker Tours can provide a taste of what such an adventure might be like. The 10 trips range from one to three nights of camping, as well as a few day excursions in areas where camping isn’t feasible.
Because the logistics of kayak touring can be complicated, these preplanned routes offer a helpful start. Winter is a perfect time to scope out your options and plan ahead for a safe, successful trip on warmer days.
The Chesapeake Paddlers Association rates the Passagemaker routes as suitable for advanced beginners, who are comfortable with a minimum of 10- to 12-mile paddles, some open water and rougher conditions.
If you feel up to the challenge, Heimlich recommends trying the route between Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria, VA, and Virginia’s Leesylvania State Park. You’ll spend one night camping at Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton, VA, just north of Mason Neck State Park and the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
This section of the river is steeped in heritage and scenery. You’ll travel a portion of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail — which traces interactions between American Indians and English explorers in the early 1600s — as well as pass land-based portions of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and Potomac Heritage Trail.
Heimlich and fellow paddlers Ed Cooper, Dick Rock, Greg Welker, Marla Aron, Bob Maynes and Al Larsen field-tested the route last spring. It started, as most paddle trips do, with a car trip. On a Friday morning in May, they joined local commuters on Virginia Route 1 to leave a few cars at the car-top boat launch at Pohick Bay. (The cars would be needed later that day to transport their kayaks to the campground.) After returning to Belle Haven Marina, which is owned by the National Park Service, they took to the water for a paddle of just a little more than 12 miles.
Along the way, they were treated to a waterfront view of important Potomac landmarks. The dramatic high walls of Fort Washington stand along the Maryland shore. The fort was targeted by the British fleet as it sailed toward Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. After passing Piscataway Creek and the National Colonial Farm, including lands of great significance to modern Piscataway people, they paddled past a tour boat at the dock of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and coasted onto a nearby beach for lunch.
The next leg of the trip took the paddlers across the mouth of Dogue Creek, past Whitestone Point and Fort Belvoir. They reached Pohick Bay by way of Gunston Cove and pulled their kayaks onto the shore.
Pohick Bay Regional Park has approximately 100 campsites available by reservation, but they are part of the traditional campground, about 1.5 miles away from the boat ramp. The Heimlich crew loaded their kayaks onto their cars and drove to the campsites.
“Pohick Bay Regional Park is a wonderful facility,” Heimlich later wrote in his trip report. “We couldn’t help thinking, however, how nice it would have been if a small part of the shoreline of the park just up Gunston Cove from the car-top boat launch were set aside for a paddle-in campsite.”
The next morning, they were back in the car, this time to shuttle their vehicles to the end point at Leesylvania State Park. The round trip of roughly one hour still allowed for an early morning launch.
Scenic Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, renowned for its eagle habitat, provided a shoreline stop for lunch before a 2.5-mile crossing at the mouth of Occoquan Creek. If you paddle here, be careful. Winds, wakes and power boats can make this stretch a challenge. Heimlich said his group was ushered toward the shallows of the Leesylvania State Park Marina by a sizable wave.
Just past the marina, they paddled into Powell’s Creek and landed their kayaks by the park’s group camping area at Brushy Point. The second day’s trip logged in at barely more than 13 miles.
Today, the kayakers would be pleased to find something new at their Leesylvania take-out point: a paddle-in campsite, repurposed from a portion of the group camping area. The sites, which opened for reservations in January, are about 75 feet from the boat ramp and 50 feet from potable water. A full restroom facility, including showers, is a quarter mile away. Further improvements, including signage and help for people with mobility issues, are under way.
The new kayak campsites were developed in partnership with the Virginia Association for Parks through a grant from the National Park Service. The project was one of many that have been spurred by a regional effort, led by the Chesapeake Bay Program, to increase public access to the Bay and its rivers. State, federal and local partners have agreed to add 300 new access sites by 2025. Approximately 100 sites, including places to launch boats, walk the shoreline, fish, camp and picnic, have been added since the effort began in 2010.
John Davy of the National Park Service helps coordinate these projects in Virginia. “It’s exciting to see what’s happening,” Davy said. “The paddle-in sites at Caledon State Park opened in 2014 and, this past summer, Virginia state parks built two more really nice ones, at Leesylvania and Westmoreland. When you pull up your kayak, the campsites are right there. They’re perfect.”
Along the Potomac, new sites are planned for the state park being created at Widewater, across from Mallows Bay, and several sites are being evaluated at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
On the Maryland shore of the Potomac, paddle-in campsites on state lands exist at Chapel Point State Park, Friendship Farm Park, Smallwood State Park and Point Lookout State Park. Because options for kayak touring are changing, and conditions vary from site to site, overnight trips require research and planning. The Potomac Passagemaker Tours are described on the Chesapeake Paddlers Association web page. (Visit cpakayaker.com, choose Online Forums and then Trip Reports. The Passagemaker trips are near the top of the list.) Heimlich has also provided detailed river maps and itineraries that can be downloaded as a pdf.
Parks with paddle-in camp sites almost always require advance reservations and a small fee. When calling ahead, be sure to ask for specific information about the landing, campsite and any available amenities. Seek information about parking options if you need a car to shuttle your gear.
You might also take the time to learn about the waterways and landscapes you’ll be exploring. Information about the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail is at SmithTrail.net, helping travelers knit together the experience of heritage, landscape and outdoor recreation. Trail partners are currently focused on creating and promoting more trail experiences along the Potomac.
The story of John Smith and his interactions with American Indians in the early 1600s adds meaning to Heimlich’s paddles.
“One of my big fantasies is to go back to 1600 and see what it was like — not live there, just see what it was like,” Heimlich said. “I like to think that John Smith would, in a different time, be a kayak tourer too.”
Prepare yourself and your gear for adventure
If you like kayak touring or would like to give it a try, now is the time to make your plans and look for classes to improve your skills. Research your route well, and make safety a priority — in terms of both skill and equipment.
“We are big advocates of appropriate safety gear,” said Ralph Heimlich of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association. “That means wearing a PFD (personal flotation device), not just having it. We also think every kayak should be used with a skirt. You need a pump and a paddle float so you can do a self-rescue and, if you don’t know what that is, you should find out.” Air bags at both ends of the kayak can keep the cockpit afloat if you capsize. A sea kayak may be more appropriate for open water and cover distances more easily.
Outfitters and retailers provide advice on gear and sometimes sponsor classes. The Chesapeake Paddlers Association also offers classes to get you started or improve your skills.
An introduction to sea kayaking, a classroom course at the West River Center in Anne Arundel County, MD, takes place in March to help people decide if the sport is right for them. It provides tips on boats and gear, too. In April, a field class takes place on Lake Anna, VA. Other classes teach self-rescue, coldwater safety and paddling skills. Group trips, including routes appropriate for beginners, begin to appear on the web calendar in March. For information, visit cpakayaker.com.
“For some people, it’s a big adventure. They’ve never done anything like this,” Heimlich said. And many, he’s sure, will be hooked.
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