If you’re looking for a new cruising ground that’s off the beaten path, is packed with plenty of history, and offers just enough facilities to let you cruise with confidence, you owe it to yourself to check out one of the Eastern Shore’s most pristine waterways, the Nanticoke River.

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Kayaking on the Nanticoke. Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Conservancy

The river flows from southern Kent County in Delaware and runs into the Chesapeake Bay in Tangier Sound. It is 64.3 miles (103.5 km) long. The 710,000-acre watershed of the Nanticoke drains a third of Delaware’s land surface and a huge chunk of the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland on its journey to the Chesapeake Bay. 

The river is a paddler’s dream, as tranquil creeks lead the curious past acres of marshes and forests teeming with wildlife. To this end, be sure to bring your kayaks, canoes, or standup paddleboards. 

The basics of the Nanticoke are straightforward. You approach the mouth of the river from Buoy #1 just off Hooper’s Straight. Mind the channel markers leading into the river, as locals tell us, “many a boat ended up high and dry if they get too cocky and think there’s lots of open water.”

Local waterman and chief cook and bottle washer at Millie’s Roadhouse Grill in Vienna, Greg Cusick has been working the river on and off all his life. “The river runs pretty quickly… just stay in the channels. Sometimes the markers get you close to shore. But honor them and you’ll be alright.” He also cautions about the sand barges that run up and down the river. “You can throw down an anchor off the channel and be okay if you’re protected,” he says. “But better to take a slip at Vienna or poke up into a creek to play it safe if you want to drop the hook.” 

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Aerial of the Nanticoke. Courtesy of Chesapeake Conservancy

Friends of the Nanticoke’s Judith Stribling echoes Cusick’s cautions. She tells PropTalk: “between Vienna and Seaford, there are issues with boat speeds and shoreline erosion, so your readers should be aware of the need to avoid excessive speeds. The channels are pretty well marked, but one needs to be sure to stay in them. Depths of four feet or less are not uncommon just outside the marked channels, even in the middle of the lower river. One spot is at Roaring Point, where the depth goes from a bar exposed at low tide to 35-plus feet in just a few feet.”

There are only two marinas on the River. Cedar Hill Marina, located in the town of Bivalve, boasts 140 boat slips, additional transient slips, a dual concrete boat ramp for easy launching, a pump-out station, and toilet and shower facilities. The marina is surrounded by the peaceful and secluded park area. There is a pavilion and floating dock by the water’s edge, perfect for fishing or crabbing in the summer, and a small beach area with a nice view of the river. Overnight slips can be had for $20. Call George Fowler, harbormaster at (443) 783-0484 for availability. 

The Nanticoke River Marina in Seaford, DE, sits 41 miles upstream from the river’s mouth. The marina has plenty of transient slips and offers fuel, laundry, and pump out, plus a full range of marine services. You can call Ed Cranston at (302) 628-8600. Transient rates are $1 per foot. Cranston advises boaters to be aware of the Delaware Coastal Railway Bridge just before you reach the marina’s entrance. You may have to hail the bridge tender on Channel 17 or call (302) 584-7132 for an opening. Nanticoke River Marina is also home to the Recycled Cardboard Boat Regatta, staged in August of each year by the Nanticoke River Yacht Club. 

About halfway up the river is Emperor’s Landing at Vienna, MD. This modern facility offers free dockage along the seawall. There are no services. Call the City Hall for docking information: (410) 376-3442.

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Emperor’s Landing. Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Conservancy

Vienna Mayor Russ Brinsfield welcomes transient boaters and invites them to take advantage of the town’s free open-air concerts at the waterfront during the summer. There is a convenience store located a short bike ride away from the waterfront, and Millie’s Roadhouse Grill on Middle Street serves down-home food in a welcoming atmosphere. Call (410) 376-3130 for hours of operation. Nearby Layton’s Chance Vineyard presents a full calendar of musical events plus pours a nice glass of local wine for those who are of a mind to sip and sing: (410) 376-3442.

The river is wide and deep in most places. Except where it’s not! The river’s middle section is replete with a host of twists a nd turns. Be advised that shoals develop, and skippers need to mind channel markers with deep water on the outside of the bends and mud flats on the insides.

Captain John Smith ventured up the Nanticoke on June 8 and 9, 1608. His Discovery Barge was shot at by the indians living on the east side of the river. The adventurer and his crew were befriended by natives on the west side. Smith’s diary recounts how grateful he was for the sustenance the indians provided which was especially welcome after a somewhat buggy and rain-drenched trek across Tangier Sound. Smith’s 1612 map of the river is still correct today. He traveled as far north as Broad Creek where he left a brass cross on the west bank.

Smith’s musings about the rivers of the Eastern Shore are almost lyrical: “By the rivers are many plain marshes containing some 20, some 100, some 200 acres… other plains there are few… being a plain wilderness as God first made it.”

Beth Wasden of the consensus-building group called the Nanticoke River Alliance advises paddlers on the best places to drop in on the river. Her favorite places to paddle include Marshyhope Creek, Broad Creek, and the Wetipquin. She cautions that the winds can come up in the afternoons. Paddlers should make plans accordingly.

The Nanticoke River Water Trail and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Discovery Trail offer outstanding guidance on paddling the Nanticoke. Check out paddlethenanticoke.com.

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Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Conservancy

The steamer Philadelphia plied the waters of the Chesapeake up the river to Seaford from Norfolk in the early 1900s. The Philadelphia was brand new, 136 feet long, and 25 feet and four inches at its beam. It had a 70-hp motor and accommodated passengers with 44 luxury births. The trip cost $12 dollars one way and meals cost 50 cents each. That equates out with inflation to $258 in 2017 dollars for the ticket and $10.76 cents for each meal.

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman availed herself of a steamship voyage in 1856 as she brazenly escorted a runaway slave named Tillie on a dash to freedom up the Nanticoke that eventually would bring the Baltimore girl into the waiting arms of her fiancé who had escaped to Canada sometime earlier. Find the complete story of Tilly’s escape at the Seaford Museum in historic downtown Seaford, DE.

History buffs can find plenty of ties to the past at a variety of museums located along and/or near the Nanticoke:

  • The Seaford Museum in Seaford, DE, serves as a repository for historical artifacts that highlight the area from early Native American presence to present day, including the DuPont nylon legacy, and shipbuilding, boating, and fishing. 
  • The Days Gone by Museum and Shad Barge located in Woodland, DE, is a private museum run by Jack Knowles, former shad fisherman. It houses a collection of artifacts and memorabilia from the heyday of shad fishing and from the Nanticoke River and Woodland area.
  • Both the Vienna Heritage Museum and the nearby Nanticoke Discovery Center are worth a stop. 

Find additional information about the Nanticoke in the National Park Service publication “A Boaters Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail” at findyourchesapeake.com. The Chesapeake Conservancy also has a mobile guide to assist you in trip planning: chesapeakeconservancy.org/apps/BoatersGuide

By Craig Ligibel