How to Paddle One of the East Coast’s Largest Bird Sanctuaries

This article and video were produced in partnership with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, which reminds you to leave no trace when you Enjoy Outdoors.

A beautiful mix of freshwater ponds, tidal wetlands, fields and forests, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is the waterfowl version of the best rest area on Interstate 95: a critical place for bird families to stop on their annual migrations to and from warmer climes. While there’s no Waffle House, its 42 square miles of biodiversity might be unique in the Chesapeake Bay in that the paddling crowds have yet to descend. A recent visit encountered only five cars at the boat landing and zero boats on a three-hour paddle — on a holiday weekend, no less.

Shorters Wharf Blackwater Wildlife Refuge
Take a left out of here. Tom McCorkle

Getting There

While the Refuge is blissfully free from crowds, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is not; it’s best to plan your journey for a weekday if possible to avoid the inevitable bridge bottleneck. Once you’ve crossed the bridge, simply stay on Route 50 until you pass through Cambridge, MD. Take a quick right onto Church Creek Road just past Cambridge, then a quick left onto Maple Dam Road, which will take you all the way to Shorters Wharf.

  • Be cautious of wildlife; the closer you get to Shorters Wharf, the more liable you are to be surprised by red foxes and white tail or sika deer. This is particularly true at dawn and dusk.
  • Route 50 is very low-lying and prone to flooding on extreme tides.
  • There are no fees for using the modern boat landing, but it is closed from dusk to dawn.
  • There is usually a porta-potty at the landing, but no water, so bring your own.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
The Purple water trail takes you to the heart of Blackwater. Tom McCorkle

The Paddle

The Refuge features three distinct water trails: Purple, Orange, and Green. Both the Orange and Green are out-and-back trails; while you can do the Purple one way, beginning at Shorters and ending at the Blackwater Boat Ramp on Golden Hill Road, this requires a shuttle car (20-minute drive) and 10-plus miles of paddling. That said, tidal influence in this area is relatively small, and even when the tide is against you, you can quickly push miles.

The eight-mile route below takes you out along the Purple trail, through a good mix of small winding creeks and open water before pausing to take in the scenery. From here, you can return the way you came or use a GPS to chart a new route back, as there are plenty of connecting waterways that surround the water trails. With multiple stops for wildlife viewing, this route takes about three hours but could be done in closer to two if you pushed it.

  • Water trail markers are on tall steel poles, and carry a color coded letter P, O or G. When the trails share a route, you will see multiple letters on the pole. They are fairly easy to spot, and are tall enough you can see them over the marsh grass, even from a kayak.
  • After launching, head left out of the boat landing into the Blackwater River. After .5 miles look for the first trail marker on your left (P, O), where the river splits for the first time. Take this left hand water way, which is Coles Creek.
  • Keep an eye out for waterfowl, watersnakes, eagles and osprey as you make your way through the winding waterways.
  • Follow the Purple and Orange trail markers up Coles Creek; the creek will widen out significantly and after 1.25 miles the Purple and Orange trails split. Turn right to follow the Purple trail through a narrow unnamed creek.
  • After about .5 miles of small winding creek, the trail opens up into Swan Pond. As you enter the pond, look left for a creek exiting north. Take this creek and head left when it ends, which takes you toward Barbadoes Pond.
  • As you enter Barbadoes Pond, follow the trail markers on your left as they take you along and then out the southwestern tip of the Pond.
  • This next winding creek gradually bends toward the northwest before opening up into Cattail Pond, and the heart of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
  • From here, hug the left shoreline for about .25 miles to find a small inlet with skeleton trees growing up from the middle. Crack a beer and enjoy watching the eagles from the water.
  • Return the way you came, or choose a new route using your GPS; there are plenty of options to link the small ponds together.
Bald Eagle Blackwater Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater is where all the bald eagles in D.C. hang out on weekends. Tom McCorkle

What to Bring

There isn’t much in the way of services around the Refuge, so don’t plan on supplying en route. Also, pay careful attention to the wind and cloud forecast, as cloud cover combined with slack winds will make the bugs voracious during warmer months.

  • Personal flotation device, quick-drying layers, hat, plenty of sunscreen, and drybags for storage; a packable raincoat in case of unforeseen storms.
  • A GPS device. Cell coverage can be spotty throughout the Refuge, and a fully charged GPS unit is a good idea for safety’s sake. It also enhances your ability to explore beyond the water trails.
  • A printed map of the water trail, which is available at the Refuge visitor center. If you plan to rely on your phone, download the map beforehand in case you lose service.
  • Food and water. There is no water at the boat ramp, and the above route will take about three hours if you plan to stop frequently for wildlife sightings.
  • A few cans of Sierra Nevada Pale Ales to toast the eagles.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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