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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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Watermen’s Heritage Tours offer entertaining and enlightening experiences

Diane and John Grubiak and their pooch, Kipper, enjoy perfect weather on their customized tour with Capt. Gene Edmonds.

by Audrey Thomasson

One of the best parts of family vacations is the chance to create wonderful memories. Discover history and the culture of watermen of the Chesapeake Bay when you cruise area waters on the Watermen’s Heritage Tour.

You’ve chosen to vacation in a place where water is a way of life. The Chesapeake Bay region has miles of scenic tributaries where the kids can see dolphins following the boat, and waterfowl nesting nearly close enough to touch.

But you won’t need your own boat to experience the life of working watermen. Area watermen are providing many different adventures through the Watermen’s Heritage Tour program. The tours are designed to give you a taste of local history and a way of life that has served the area since colonial days.

Watermen’s Heritage Tour
While the name may sound downright brutal to people looking for excitement and adventure, the Watermen’s Heritage Tour delivers the hallmarks of a fun and entertaining experience. And you might learn a few things, too.

Customize the tour to fit your family’s idea of fun. Get up before sunrise if you want to see the pound netters empty their fishing traps. Start out after breakfast and there’s still plenty of opportunities to see crabbing, oystering, fishing, and birdwatching, while exploring hidden coves and learning area history. Of course, you’ll want to stop at a waterside restaurant to sample local seafood.

Once you decide on a destination, contact a participating captain directly to create your own personal Chesapeake Bay experience. Most boats take up to six passengers comfortably, while a few can handle as many as 25.

Custom tour
Be prepared to be entertained with fascinating stories from the past and present. You might even make a few of your own to reminisce about for years to come. Many guides are third or fourth generation waterman. They are licensed, insured and graduates of a Watermen’s Heritage Tours course, which provides them insights and skills in how to conduct heritage tours which help to supplement their income.

Your tour could include stops on a sandbar, where you may get off the boat and dig for sea creatures, collect shells, or play in the water. You might like to try your hand at pulling a crab pot or oyster basket and learn how to identify the catch. 

Going out on the bay with an experienced waterman is a one-of-a-kind experience. The tour can range from a crabbing adventure to scenic photography trips, sunset or sunrise sails, and traditional deadrise charters.

I selected Capt. Gene Edmonds because he promised a comfortable ride aboard the Nathalie, a 26-foot Steiger with a 100-square-foot deck with enclosed pilot house. And he delivered. I didn’t get the least bit nauseated.

“My boat is popular with first responders because of its safety and stability,” said Capt. Gene.

Oyster shells at Kellum Seafood in Weems be used to foster future generations of oysters.

We cast off from the Tides Inn in Irvington to pick up Virginia Beach residents John and Diane Grubiak, and their Labradoodle, Kipper, at a pier off Steamboat Road.

Capt. Gene had invited me to bring my dog along, too. I knew juggling a camera, note pad and my dog’s first trip on a boat would prove to be too much to handle, so I wisely declined. However, I was impressed that the excursion is dog-friendly.
The Grubiaks came to town to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary at the Hope and Glory Inn.

“We discovered the tour on the internet,” said Diane. “I liked what he had to offer and thought it would be fun.”

Our first stop is Kellum Seafood in Weems. A mountain of oyster shells next to the dock will be used “to host future generations of oysters, either for oyster spats or returned to the bottom of the river for natural breeding of oysters,” Capt. Gene tells us.

Leaving Carter’s Creek we notice a flock of birds perched on pilings. “Those are Cormorant birds,” Capt. Gene explains. “They’re a diving bird that nature failed to supply with natural oil in their feathers. Without the ability to repel water, which weighs them down, they have to dry out in order to fly.”

A pleasant cruise across the Rappahannock River and under the Robert O. Norris Jr. Memorial Bridge, past Parrot Island and we approach Locklies Creek in Middlesex County.

A lone waterman is sifting through an oyster basket on his boat as we approach.

“We’re slowing down so we don’t cause a wake and rock his boat,” Capt. Gene says. “He’s culling his oysters, taking out those that are ready for market and returning the younger ones to the water.”

We move on, docking at Merroir Seafood Restaurant. We sit at an outside picnic table with views overlooking Locklies Marina and the river. One of the benefits of the heritage tour, is that waterside restaurants work closely with the tour captains. We aren’t there more than a couple of minutes when a waitress appears with two plates of oysters to sample—smoked and raw—along with dipping sauces of butter, cocktail sauce and wine vinegar. She points out the three different kinds of oysters, ranging from salty to sweet.

Kipper enjoys a bowl of water, laced with a little oyster juice.

Blue crabs shed their hard shells and become soft shell crabs in shedding trays.

The owners of Merroir also own Rappahannock Oyster Company, an oyster hatchery adjacent to the boat dock.  Capt. Gene guides us through the hatchery, explaining the different oysters and how they thrive on the riverbed, filtering the water. We learn about natural oysters-diploids, and those bred to be sterile—triploids, and the difference between farming in cages or in an open environment on privately owned or state owned beds.

On the ride out of Locklies Creek, we pass multiple osprey nests tucked onto the tops of channel markers. One especially tolerant pair of birds aren’t the least bit ruffled by our intrusion. A nod to the captain for a quiet motor and calm wake.

Our next port of call is historic Urbanna Creek.

On the way over, Capt. Gene describes how life was along the river in the first half of the 1900s when steamboats called at many ports. We pass a 42-foot buyboat. He explains the length allows the vessel to sit atop three wave crests, making them less pitchy and more stable. Buyboats made the rounds to purchase oysters from watermen, which were then wholesaled to a processing house for market. Buyboats also transported produce like tomatoes and watermelon in the off season.

“They are the workhorse of the bay now,” he says.

Capt. Gene gives an overview of the local fisheries, history and area culture along the various tributaries.

Then it is off to The Urbanna Seafood and Raw Bar on Robinson’s Creek next to Beth Page Camp-Resort—such a peaceful setting. Kipper dines with us on the screened-in porch. We select fresh crab cakes and soft shell crab sandwiches.

After lunch, we tour the restaurant’s shedding house, where we watch young crabs in shedding trays working to shed their hard shells and become the soft shelled crabs like the ones we ate for lunch.

On our way home, the Grubiaks say it was a wonderful way to spend their anniversary. Perfect weather for sightseeing the area from the water and having a rare glimpse into the way of life of watermen and their influence on history, culture and the economy.

Not only is it entertaining, the authentic experiences offered by the Watermen’s Heritage Tours are helping to preserve a culture and continue a Chesapeake Bay tradition.

Be sure to make it part of your family experience, too.

posted 05.25.2017

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