Paddling – 2 days through the ICW, Indian River, and Atlantic Ocean

Gear List

I know what you are thinking: Delaware, how exotic! It’s not a tropical paradise, but in the summer, the Delaware beaches have a lot to offer if you are looking for water adventures. The beaches are the main attraction of course, but across the highway there are some sparsely explored bays, rivers, and canals that offer a peaceful relief from the summer crowds.

This exploration took me around south-eastern Delaware via the Assawoman Canal [insert joke here], the Indian River Bay, and through the Indian River Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean.

Paddle Map

One big reason why people veer away from the inland waterways is due to the smell. Especially during low tide, the canals and creeks can give off a certain odor consisting mainly of muck and fish. I know, I’m doing a great job of convincing you to take a day or two to paddle around Delaware. Fair warning: in addition to the potential smell, there is also the potential for insects (mainly mosquitoes). Either of these deterrents is usually enough for anyone to opt for another shore activity. During my exploration, I was fortunate enough to not encounter any heavy insect infestations or “low tide” smell. However I did come across another challenge that was persistent throughout the day: wind.

6/11: The sea was angry that day my friends

I began my adventure in a small pond (lake technically) on the other side of the neighborhood. This lake connects directly into the Assawoman Canal. Right off the bat, I encountered a small obstacle: it was low tide and the passage to the canal was only a few inches deep, and a log was blocking the “deep” part. With approximately 20 pounds of gear (not counting drinking water) onboard, shifting my weight around in a not-super-stable kayak is challenging. At least for this obstacle, if I tipped over, I would only be sitting in a few inches of water. Later on this would not be the case.

The launch point in Bethany Beach. My vessel, the S.S. Pelican, loaded up. I really do have a thing for green.

After maneuvering into the canal, I turned north toward White Creek. I paddled the canal for roughly 45 minutes occasionally stopping to admire the herons, and for some reason, squirrels that were walking along the canal edges. The canal is a very peaceful paddle. There is essentially no wind due to the terrain on either side of the canal, and the fact that the canal is lined with trees to break the wind. Little did I know, this would be the easiest part of the day. Immediately upon exiting the canal and entering the creek, the wind picked up from virtually zero, to around 10mph. Not bad, as I expected it to be a windy day. I was primarily paddling north, and the wind seemed to be coming exclusively from the north. For some reason, when I am traveling through Delaware, I always seem to have a headwind. As expected, my speed slowed significantly for the remainder of the day. Unless I was able to get behind a stand of trees or some sandbars with vegetation, I had to continue paddling or I would drift backward.

After about an hour of jumping from windbreak to windbreak, I stopped at my final sandbar in White Creek. To my surprise, this sandbar contained a plethora of horseshoe crabs. Before this paddle, I am not sure if I had ever seen a live horseshoe crab. I see them dead all the time after certain seabirds have discarded their shells. Nevertheless, I saw enough of these prehistoric critters for a lifetime. Thousands of them were gathering along the banks of the creek and in the Indian River Bay.

For lack of entertainment during the day, I spent some time observing the horseshoe crabs swimming and flipping around in some sort of mating ritual. The seabirds were also flying overhead and the crabs seemed to be using the birds to clean the hitchhiking shellfish off of their backs. Maybe an expert can fill me in as to what I was witnessing.

Putting the GoPro to use. OK this is the last time I mention a horseshoe crab.

After navigating around what Google Maps identifies as “Walter Point”, it was all headwind and rough surf for the remainder of the day. My destination for the day was Holt’s Landing State Park, just a 1.5 mile paddle from Walter Point. Unfortunately, there is not anywhere to break from the wind for the last 1.5 miles. The shoreline is all private and jetties line the majority of the shore. The waves frequently breached into my boat, soaking my clothes and gear in the process. This was a good test for the waterproofing of my bags.

Before landing at the park, I decided to drop my recently purchased kayak anchor and attempt to fish for my dinner. I was excited to be a faux-waterman for the evening: dropping anchor and casting my line for sustenance. After tying the anchor line to my boat, I began assembling my fishing rod, only to realize that the current was so strong that my anchor was rendered useless. I was still drifting in the direction from which I came. I then abandoned my plans to fish and paddled between two jetties to a landing in the park. Day 1 was complete. Time for a good night’s rest in the hammock, after a mac n’ cheese dinner of course!

Other than the headwinds, conditions were great and the ending was the icing on the cake.

6/12: But I don’t want to be a pirate!

After a restless night, I awoke in time to film the sunrise and get an early start. I was on the water by 6:30. Woah! I can barely get up for work that early, let alone cook breakfast on a camping stove, pack up, and launch a kayak. I also say a restless night because the wind picked up heavily around 2am (not fun in a hammock) and I think a raccoon or similar critter was making noise trying to get at my fishing bait during the night.

I wasn’t sure where I was going to go when I set off from Holt’s Landing. Weather conditions (70F and partly cloudy) were favorable for whatever I wanted to do for the day. I was originally going to make this a 3 day trip, but in preparation for my next exploration, I figured it was be best to shorten the trip to 2 days. With this in mind, and the winds still generally coming from the north, I decided that it would be exciting and advantageous to paddle toward the Indian River Inlet and make my way for the ocean. This way I would be paddling with he wind, and hopefully the current for the rest of the day. After about 2 hours of paddling in the choppy bay water, I arrived at the inlet. Before navigating into the ocean, I decided to venture around the tidal islands south of the inlet marina to explore.

The water clarity in the Delaware waters is generally poor. However while I was paddling around the tidal islands, I noticed that there was no shortage in aquatic vegetation and grasses. This made for much better water clarity in the immediate area. There is a lesson to be learned here. The idealist and environmentalist side of me would love to see improved water clarity return to the area, but with the boat activity and human population, I don’t think that will happen anytime in the near future.

I suppose the lesson is to simply encourage as much aquatic vegetation and filter feeders as possible, and perhaps it will encourage long-term “de-sedimentation” of the waterways. On a similar note, I also noticed a great deal of pollution lining the shores of the inland bays. Lots of plastic and boating equipment; tragedy of the commons I suppose. I digress from my environmental stump.

You can’t see the waves at the end, but I was focusing on staying on target, not on taking a picture as I approached the bridge and channel.

After contemplating the pollution levels in the bay, I paddled into the inlet and headed toward the ocean. The current was strong and pulled me toward the bridge. The Indian River Inlet is an odd mixture of water. There is no shortage of eddies and waves pushing you off-target. As I paddled beneath the bridge, I noticed the dozens of fishermen watching me from the jetties. Several of them had a look on there face as if to say “are you really trying to go through the inlet in a kayak…and on that kayak?” The only scary stretch comes as you move to the end of the jetties and the ocean waves meet the river. The waves appear stationary, like a wall of water to climb. However once you paddle up to the waves, you realize that the waves are moving in an almost random fashion, and you are an object for the waves to toss around. The best advice I can give anyone who wants to paddle through the inlet is to stay centered, stay away from the rocks, and keep paddling hard but controlled. I think it’s much easier paddling into the ocean than into the bay at the inlet. I can decisively say that I do not need to paddle through the inlet again. It was fun, but the water in that area is unpredictable and I think I got lucky with my timing.

A successful passage through the inlet. All ocean paddling from here.

Fish, mammal, whatever

The ocean paddle from the inlet back to Bethany Beach was largely uneventful. Again I had an urge to fish, but with the ocean swells pushing my boat up and down repeatedly, I thought it best to not handle any sharp hooks or knives. It’s approximately 4 miles from the inlet to the northern end of Bethany. I was surprised at the pace I was able to keep. Of course I was moving with the current. My plan was to paddle the tail end of the trip with the current, lucky for me it worked out. The only highlight from the ocean paddle was a close encounter with a dolphin (or porpoise?). He or she swam along with me briefly, which made me feel like I “belonged” at sea. It was nice to have a companion in the ocean, if only for a minute.

I was surprised at how quickly I was approaching Bethany Beach. I could make out the boardwalk and the first lifeguard chair at 5th street much sooner than I expected. I was on autopilot for the majority of the ocean paddle so I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to complete the last 4 miles from the inlet. Lack of sleep and a 5 hour non-stop sit in the kayak will do that to you. I arrived at 5th street in Bethany just after 11:30. I was exhausted. I called my dad for the rendezvous and took a short nap while awaiting my ride home.

Land ho! The northern limits of Bethany Beach.

Total paddling distance: ~15 miles
Day 1: 6 miles
Day 2: 9 miles

After I arrived home I took a solid hour hosing down my kayak, car, and gear. Salt water is corrosive. Note to self: do not let metal tools get wet, especially with salt water. My leatherman felt the wrath of rust.

So what did we learn?

As this exploration drew to a close, I was reminded of two important life lessons that unfortunately need to be drilled into my head:
1) Don’t push it…repeatedly: You think I would have learned this lesson from my previous trip. The second day was definitely a push (another reason to shorten the trip), but I knew I was finishing my paddle on the second day so I did overextend myself a bit. It’s okay to sprint to the finish line, but not in the middle of the race. 9 miles is by far the farthest I have paddled in a day.
2) Ask for help: (and the reciprocal: ask to help others): people generally want to help if they can, especially if they are someone you know.

Not to be too sappy again, but exploring new places also allows you to explore who you are. You get to test your limits and hopefully grow as an individual. My two cents.

After my paddling exploration, I recommend exploring the waterways around the Delaware and Maryland coast. Just remember to bring bug spray and sunscreen if you are in the bays, creeks, and canals. When you are on the water, you shouldn’t have any insect problems. The only time I needed to apply bug spray was when I made a stop on land. I was fortunate enough to have limited encounters with any insects, but I know they can be much worse.

I have to thank my parents, especially my dad for helping me load all my stuff, driving my car to drop me off and pick me up, and helping me carry my boat to and from my car. I like to do things myself, but taking a lesson from my previous adventure, it’s good to have friends and family. They want to help. Why not let them? It makes life easier.

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