Some people’s default position is active-outdoors mode. They have kayaks strapped to the roofs of their cars and paddles in their backseats. They know all of the Chesapeake’s put-in points. They have maps, optimized Smartphones and an eye for identifying birds. They are the people for whom the Subaru commercials are made.
Then there are people who like being outside, but are a bit intimidated to paddle the Bay and its tributaries without a leader. They fear getting lost, or dehydrated or just tired. They want someone to tell them what is that pretty plant over here, what is the name of that bird over there. And, if at all possible, at some point during the outdoors-filled day, they would like to have a glass of wine and take a nap.
Count me in the second category. It was for people like me that the Paddle Your Glass Off kayak tour was created. SouthEast Expeditions runs the tour out of its Cape Charles, VA, location. Dave Burden, the former Eastern Shorekeeper, formed the company 14 years ago with the hope of sharing the wonders of the area with visitors so they would become committed stewards of the land and water. The company is also located in Onancock, VA, and Chincoteague, VA. It rents boats and offers close to a dozen tours, including one of the Eastern Shore Wildlife Refuge and another that allows kayakers to collect clams from local beds.
The wine kayak tour is the most popular. From March to December, guides take up to seven people on a paddle that begins in Bayford, VA, and follows the generally placid waters of Church Creek to the shores of Chatham Vineyards. The paddle is about 2.5 miles each way, and takes about two hours. Guests usually opt to spend at least an hour at the winery. The $89 cost includes a bottle of wine to take home as well as a wine tasting. For $12, you can also buy a cheese plate to help keep up energy for the paddle back.
I called guide Margaret Van Clief to book our tour in late October, as the season was winding down. I asked my friend, WYPR senior producer Nikki Gamer, to come along. Nikki helps produce the Bay Journal’s monthly radio show, Midday on the Bay with Dan Rodricks. Let’s just say there was not a lot of arm-twisting involved after I said the words “kayak” and “winery.”
Van Clief prepared us well for the trip, providing suggestions of places to stay in Cape Charles for the night and good places to eat before the paddle. She asked if we wouldn’t mind if others came on our tour. We didn’t.
“I figured you wouldn’t,” she said. “Only nice people take this tour.”
I liked Van Clief right away. We met her at SouthEast’s dock in Bayford. The other paddlers had canceled, so there was no waiting around. Margaret gave us a quick paddle lesson. Then, we were off.
In short order, we saw a heron, a cormorant and a belted kingfisher. We paddled through golden marsh grass, our boats just inches from scraping the bottom in the shallows. That, she said, was Spartina alternaflora. We nosed into a cove that Margaret said she often can’t get in because it’s too shallow. Then we headed to Rabbit Island, a thicket of trees, and explored a bit before two Adirondack chairs and a manor house came into view. That, Van Clief said, was Chatham Vineyards. The Federalist-style home we spied was built in 1818.
At Chatham, owner Jon Wehner greeted us warmly. He grows his grapes on 20 acres and has much of the land in conservation easements so it can never be developed. To conserve water, he doesn’t irrigate his grapes, plants lots of cover crops and does not use synthetic fertilizer. Wehner makes about 3,500 bottles of wine each year; they’re available in restaurants and private clubs in Baltimore and the District of Columbia.
Wehner and his wife both had high-pressure jobs in DC. His family had owned the vineyard since 1979 and grew grapes as a hobby. One day, while sitting in traffic on the Washington beltway, Wehner vowed to move to Chatham and run the winery fulltime. He now lives there with his wife and three children.
Chatham subleases the creek’s bottom around his property to a local oyster farmer and hosts several events a year that showcase both the wines and local oysters, including the Wine & Brine and the Terroir, Merroir. When we visited, Wehner had just won an award for his Church Creek Steel Chardonnay. It was delicious, and we chose it as our complimentary bottle. (The wines range from $17 to $22 per bottle.)
We could have talked to Wehner all afternoon, but the sun looked like it would set soon. Van Clief, ever the accommodating guide, did not try to rush us, even though she had evening plans. She helped us back into our boats and we paddled back.
A Charlottesville native, Van Clief had come to the Virginia Shore seven years ago to work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She fell in love with Cape Charles and stayed. When not leading kayak tours, she works as an educator with the Nature Conservancy.
Van Clief told us the wine kayak tour started a few years ago when owner Dave Burden, who was friendly with Wehner, realized it was possible to paddle up to the winery. The clamming tour started much the same way, as kayakers passed clam beds. That’s how things work on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a narrow tail of land between the Bay and the sea where everyone seems to know each other.
I am glad for that, and so are the thousands of others who have joined SouthEast for one of their tours.
We hugged Van Clief goodbye and headed back to Cape Charles for the night with promises we’d all see each other again. SouthEast has seven other tours, and we would like to try them all.