Finding Fox Creek

Guest perspective/Tim Murphy

When I die, daub a papyrus basket with pine tar and pitch, and set me off on the ebb in a salt-marsh trickle. I’ll go out as Moses came in. I grew up in a Louisiana bayou, which is another name for a salt-marsh trickle. An alligator named Rufus lived in ours, and the game was to lure Rufus with Cheetos; the first kid to land a loogie on his snout wins. We’d sneak off with somebody’s dad’s overpowered skiff and waterski Bayou Bonfouca, slicing back and forth between the spartina’d mudbanks hopping our own wake, and I never knew a kid who wiped out except in midchannel. We weren’t idiots. Everybody knows where the water moccasins keep their nests. And that sweet and acrid autumn air of a great marsh burn-off is redolent of nothing so much as home. I paid down my college debts delivering boats north and south through the Intracoastal Waterway, and it’s the salt marshes that call me back to the Georgia Sea Islands and the Carolina Low Country, where bottlenose dolphins swim alongside as you navigate the rivers. I never could get enough of those salt marshes. Still can’t.

A 17th-century map hangs in the hallway of a West Gloucester farmhouse that belongs to the family of my friend Lesley Davison. The house tucks right up close to the left bank of Walker Creek, which would be called a bayou if it ran next to a Louisiana farmhouse. But Louisiana doesn’t have 11-foot tides, so maybe that’s the difference. For 25 years I’ve been invited to summer parties at that house, and every time I visit, I find myself drawn to that wall-sized map. For one thing, the map is almost entirely green – not the buff color of solid ground that you’d build roads or houses on, nor the white of water you can dependably float a boat in, but marshland green: sometimes tidewater, sometimes cordgrass and mud. On the map you can see that the green entirely separates two great estuary systems: Plum Island Sound at the top, and Essex Bay all through the middle. But does it? What happens to all that green in a land of 11-foot tides? I never walk through that house without pausing to study the map.

The Davison family keeps canoes and kayaks, and as some of those summer parties coincided with favorable tides, we’d occasionally paddle downstream for 20 minutes and look out across Essex Bay – a vast body of open water at high tide – past the mudbanks and the summer-green spartina toward a sandy horizon at Castle Neck and big Atlantic rollers beyond. Just that kayak’s nose, poked out the mouth of Walker Creek, kept me going for more than 20 years, and only on rare occasions. It was all I knew of Essex Bay, this northern landscape that sings in my key.

Plus, that wall-sized map.

The map shows the Merrimack River entrance at Newburyport and the Isles of Shoals. On the righthand side, it depicts the deep ocean water off Rockport and Thatchers Island. Gloucester Harbor and the Annisquam River are there, too, of course. And in the middle of all of that landscape: virtually nothing but green. In fact, you can pull out a modern color NOAA chart right now (13279 or 13282) and see what I’ve puzzled over for all these years. This marshland is vast. And these tides!

Three summers ago Lesley bought a 15-foot Boston Whaler with a 70-horsepower Mercury, and she built a dock for it behind the house. On one warm September Saturday, as the sunlight started coming in horizontal and gold, we pushed out on a rising tide beyond the mouth of Walker Creek and into Essex Bay. We ran the channel from Conomo Point eastward and then north, tucked in anxiously close to Coffin’s Beach where the only deep water is, and then headed off across the turbulent inlet to Castle Neck River, behind Crane’s Beach. We raced past the anchored beachcombers and around Choate Island, then came down off our plane to search more slowly for the day’s true goal: a navigable inside passage between Essex Bay and Plum Island Sound. Did it even exist? Our desire to find it was fervent and mutual; still, we understood, simply wanting it didn’t prove that it was there. Neither did our charts.

Several times we got lost in the marshland maze, in trickles become too thin to float in. Several times we backed out with our paddles as punts till we found the room to turn. Three or four false leads, and then I stood in the bow and saw two alternating flashes of white, rhythmic and repeating, sustained and panning across the landscape to the right. They didn’t move like egrets. Not like plovers, either. But, sure enough, they moved steadily across what looked like unbroken marsh toward Argilla Road, the causeway to the west of us. Yes – kayak paddles. We’d found a key.

Reckoning where the flashes had been from where we could now see them going, we worked ourselves back out into the more open water near Round Island, around a corner, and – what’s this? Privately maintained stakes, marking an entrance. We entered. The flood tide was behind us, and once, twice, four times we snaked around 180-degree oxbow curves in the waterway, two to the southwest, two to the northeast. The water under us again dwindled, but never so much that we wondered whether we’d float.

Our first great victory was reaching the bridge at Argilla Road on a waterway that the wonderful maps and charts of this country had been hinting at for all these years but had never entirely promised. We continued on, and an even sweeter victory came next – when the tidal current flipped direction. This was the same flood we’d been riding up from Essex Bay, except that now we were getting it from Plum Island Sound. This was our proof, and we whooped a celebration. The water deepened, the banks widened, and we overtook the kayak. Soon we found ourselves in a busy scene, an entirely new crowd of boaters out of Ipswich getting in one last good day on the water.

What we’d discovered, we learned over the next few days, was Fox Creek: America’s earliest manmade tidewater canal (circa 1820). The how and the why of the canal is a story for another time, and a good one. But for now, I can tell you this: we found God’s country, and it’s under the Argilla Road bridge.

Portsmouth, R.I. native Tim Murphy is a “Cruising World” editor at large. He and Lesley Davison are outfitting a Passport 40, Billy Pilgrim, for voyages beyond even Plum Island Sound.