The northern Bay rivers of Northeast, Elk, and Sassafras provided Captain John Smith and his crew with days of exploration in early August 1608, and they remain excellent waters to follow in his wake. Even now, the sight of the tall ochre bluffs at Turkey Point overlooking the confluence of the Susquehanna Flats and the Northeast and Elk rivers can take your breath away.
Boaters traversing these waters must be aware of the big ships, tugs, and barges traveling past Turkey Point on the Elk River en route to and from the western entrance of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. This can be a busy place, especially the Northeast River on a summer weekend, when boaters visit the restaurants and marinas in the town of North East, MD. Even so, it’s possible on a quiet morning to look across these broad waters and imagine the bright white flashing of birch-bark canoes of Massawomeck Indians in the distant past.
Smith traveled far up the Sassafras River. He encountered Massawomeck warriors in their fast canoes on their return from an attack on the Tockwogh tribe.
After obtaining fresh food and weapons from the Massawomeck, Smith and his crew headed upriver. According to Smith, the Tockwogh welcomed him with open arms, believing that he had defeated their Massawomeck enemies and plundered their goods. They also helped him make contact with the Susquehannock. This was a key meeting for Smith, as he learned that the Susquehanna River—and the Chesapeake Bay—were not links to a Northwest Passage.
Though the location of the Tockwogh town has not been identified, many Indian artifacts have been unearthed at the site of Mount Harmon Plantation, which is easily accessible by boat big or small, just behind Knight Island. Located on a peninsula flanked by Foreman, McGill, and Back creeks, this 200-acre, 18th-century tobacco plantation has about five miles of paths and trails along the creeks and into forests thick with native flora and fauna.
Boaters can anchor in the Foreman Creek and dinghy into the dock for easy access to the Tockwogh Trail. This trail meanders along the creeks and passes the northernmost existing “prize” house, where tobacco was pressed. A prize is a machine resembling an enormous screw used for compressing tobacco from two casks into one for more efficient shipping. The manor house, built in 1730, features a formal boxwood garden, 200-year-old yew trees, and antiques reflecting the various owners’ English, Scottish, and Irish backgrounds.
The Sassafras is especially beautiful and winding, with deep water and many protected, quiet anchorages. It’s approximately eight nautical miles from its mouth between Grove Point and Betterton upriver to Georgetown and Fredericktown, where you’ll discover a variety of marinas, restaurants, and other shore-side amenities if you’re traveling in a larger boat. Here you’ll also find the Route 213 bridge with a vertical clearance of five feet. This bascule bridge opens regularly and you can wander another mile or so. After that point, it’s accessible only to kayaks and canoes. The Sassafras is a wonderful river for small-boat paddling, with tall wooded hillsides and long stretches of beaches where you can pull up and explore. On weekends, however, it can be crowded with fast moving powerboats.
Another excellent access point along the Sassafras is Turner’s Creek Park and the Sassafras Natural Resources Management Area, located just inside Turner Creek, about four nautical miles from the river’s mouth near Betterton. This creek has a bit of a tricky entrance for deeper-draft boats, but once you’re inside it provides a terrific protected anchorage. The old granary building on Turner Creek Wharf is the key landmark, with a bulkhead and 100-foot pier where local boaters often tie up. There’s also a public launch ramp at Turner’s Creek Park (launch permit required). If there’s room at the wharf you can tie up here, or simply anchor in the creek and dinghy in. At the top of the hill you’ll find a large map of the several walking trails through the 147-acre park, where you’ll find native trees like paw paw and white oak, meadows of Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susan, as well as thousands of migrating waterfowl during the spring and fall.
Smith’s travels up the Northeast and Elk rivers were rather uneventful, encountering neither a single soul nor finding a connection to a bigger waterway. He and part of his crew hiked about eight miles up Big Elk Creek at the head of the Elk River, ascending the 250-foot-high “Peregryns Mount,” where he set a cross in 1608.
Today the Northeast River is a popular place for powerboats, with marinas and restaurants in Charlestown and North East. On the other side of Elk Neck, the Elk River is part of a major shipping route with the entrance to the C&D Canal at Courthouse Point. It’s a thrill to boat alongside Elk Neck State Park and watch these big ships pass close by in the channel.
Anchoring near the state park on either the Elk or Northeast side is impractical and uncomfortable—it’s better to access the trail by launching a kayak or canoe at the park itself. The park boasts 2,188 beautiful acres on Elk Neck, all the way out to the Turkey Point Lighthouse. Traveling up the Elk past Courthouse Point you leave the bustle behind and enter a quiet and scenic—if somewhat shallow—stretch of the trail. Like many of the Bay’s rivers, the Elk was once deep enough to support shipping and accommodate steamboats all the way to Elkton. Now its depths range from a dredged eight feet at high tide up to Locust Point to next to nothing in others.