Digging Delmarva

Winds are hammering out of the southeast, and no captains here in Crisfield, MD, want to fight the five-foot whitecaps churning Chesapeake Bay. It's normally an easy nine-mile run to Smith Island, an inhabited blob of marsh, but with gusts punishing the vanes at 50 mph, all ships are staying put. So we wait. On nights like this, the bar inside VFW Post 8274 is about the only place in Crisfield to get a beer.

A buddy and I are multisporting from the Atlantic Ocean to Chesapeake Bay across Delmarva, a tri-state teardrop of muck, black rivers, and spooky forests that stretches almost 200 miles from Delaware, through Maryland, to Virginia. We ride a few hours each day, following a designated bike path on our 80-mile trip, saving time for kayaking, fishing, and kicking back at historic inns. Roughly 16 million people, from Norfolk to New York, flank this peninsula, yet few choose to look into Delmarva's hidden pockets. Hell, I grew up here but fled years ago thinking there was nothing to do.

Cross the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore, exit the highway, and you enter a land where "heaven and earth never agreed better," as Chesapeake explorer Captain John Smith wrote in 1612. Lonely roads roll through stands of sweet gum trees, over wooden bridges, and into colonial towns in which locals wrap their words in a Tidewater twang. Kayakers slip along the nation's northernmost reaches of bald cypress swamp. And fishing: We had planned to head out of Smith Island tomorrow to troll for striped bass, but the storm is granting no passage. We belly up at the VFW to formulate a Plan B.

Patron Bob Leef, an avid kayaker and fisherman, senses our need to explore. For the price of one Natural Light he draws us a treasure map that he says will lead to a ship graveyard off Smith Island, an old haunt for pirates such as Marmaduke Mister, a feckless picaroon and a distant relative of mine. Supposedly you can paddle into the cabins, Leef says—when the tide is right. I don't know if this is true, but it's the kind of adventure we're after. "There are a lot of places around here that will blow you away," he says. "You just need to know how to look for them." In a land as overlooked as Delmarva, that's the key to everything.

We started the trip two nights earlier on Assateague, a 37-mile-long barrier island with wild ponies and Sitka deer. A few miles north sits Ocean City, a strip of T-shirt shops and crowded beaches popular with "Baltimorons," as some locals call them. To the south, however, lies the longest span of undeveloped beach on the entire East Coast. We pitched a tent on the side of a dune dusted in the silver light of a full moon and fell asleep to the sound of waves bouncing off the continent.

The next morning, we set out for a 40-mile ride to Snow Hill with Dave Wilson Jr., the director of Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences, or DLITE, a group that arranges custom adventures on the peninsula. We passed Berlin (here that rhymes with Merlin) and ate lunch on Chincoteague Bay with our feet dangling off the dock. On the road Wilson pointed out birds with fantastic names: blue grosbeaks, indigo buntings, dunlins. We rode by fox pups playing in the fields. Four cars passed us in two hours, two of them the same mail car heading out and back.

Despite the rural setting and the fact that there are virtually no other travelers pedaling these roads, we have a sense of urgency in exploring Delmarva. This region has been discovered, but not by bikers. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have homes here. "I don't want to say it's the East's last sacred place, but it kind of is," says Beth Lefebvre, a spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation group. Oysters were once so abundant they filtered every drop in the bay in less than a week, keeping it so clear that Captain Smith could have seen 60 feet down. Now manure and fertilizers wash into the waters, creating algae blooms that suffocate marine life. Oysters number only about 2 percent of their historical high in the 1800s.

While spinning along, the dotted lines drip by at 14 mph and I notice things I never did growing up. I see wild asparagus sprouting by the road; I find ruins of an 18th-century church in a field of buttercups; I run my fingers over weathered words like "lyeth" on a tombstone placed in 1743.

After rolling out of Chincoteague, we dawdled much of the afternoon and pedaled into Snow Hill, population 2,500, a sleepy port on the Pocomoke River settled in 1642, at sunset. The Underground Railroad likely used this lick of tannin-rich water, which drains the Great Cypress Swamp and feeds a forest so dark and deep I wasn't the only kid who thought it was haunted. Today, I saw, it's just unsettlingly quiet. We bunked down at the River House Inn, a gothic manor perched in the willows.

Jim Rapp, a DLITE partner, met us the next morning, and soon we launched kayaks for a five-mile drift down Nassawango Creek, a Pocomoke tributary protected by the Nature Conservancy. Cypresses covered in resurrection ferns stood 80 feet high. Rapp pulled out a boombox and hit play. A stentorian voice announced, "The prothonotary warbler," followed by bursts of birdsong. The branches turned atwitter as yellow birds fluttered overhead. "Basically I just told them I was going to kick their ass," Rapp said. "You can't do that too much or else they'll leave." He did it again, with hoots. A barred owl slipped in stealthily on serrated wings and stared us down.

Afterward we pedaled west to Crisfield, anxious to hop a boat out to Tylerton, a town of fewer than 100 people on Smith Island. The headwind grew more stubborn the closer we got.

In a few days we'll spin 30 miles up to Princess Anne and onto one of the country's oldest ferries, running since 1692, to cross the Wicomico River to Whitehaven. We'll feast on crabs at the Red Roost and turn our table into an epic pile of shells surrounded by empty pitchers of Delaware-brewed Dogfish Head beer. But for now we ride out the storm in Crisfield's VFW.

The next morning, we finally make it out to Smith Island, catching a ride on a sheriff's boat, slicing through bipolar seas now glassy and calm. As we lumber by crab shanties into Tylerton, I scan the marshes for signs of sunken ships. Maybe we bribed Leef with one too many Natural Lights, but his map turned out to be woefully inaccurate, if not wholly fictitious. No matter. I've found something else pedaling my way across this flatland that makes me think I should come back more often. And in that way Bob was right: There's hidden treasure all over this place.

Do It
Information on planning a low-impact adventure can be found on the DLITE website (www.dliteonline.net; no phone). The site includes maps, contact information for tourism, including links to eco-friendly inns. A complete Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail guide is available through the website for $7, including shipping. It covers 14 counties and more than 2,500 miles of roads accessible to riders of all abilities.