by Will Parson
February 20, 2020
To reach the most remote stretches along the Chesapeake Bay, visitors to the Eastern Shore typically head south. Cities like St. Michaels or Cambridge are an easy drive for those who want a taste of watermen history and the local shellfish.
If, instead, you leave the confines of Route 50 and head north, Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge offers quiet expanses of tidal wetlands, forest and farmland, all within sight of the Bay Bridge. In winter, when its waters support thousands of tundra swans and other waterfowl, visitation gets a boost from a series of guided Winter Walks. However, you’ll find people to be rare here—as they have been for centuries.
Surrounded by the Chester River, Eastern Neck spans 2,285 acres in Kent County, Maryland. And based on the age of a skeleton discovered on the island, it has a history of human use dating back at least to 1,300 B.C.
When John Smith explored the area in 1608, he encountered the Ozinies, part of the Algonquian-speaking Nanticokes, who used the island as a base for harvesting shellfish.
From the mid-1600s to 1902, a farmer named Joseph Wickes and his descendants owned the island. As the prospect of a 293-lot residential development loomed in the 1950s, local residents appealed to the federal government, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service acquired the entire island in the 1960s. Today, a sign marks the site of Wickliffe, the family home that no longer stands. Nearby, a 1930s hunting lodge now serves as a refuge office, bookstore and gift shop staffed by volunteers from the Friends of Eastern Neck. The island is also part of the Chesapeake Gateways Network.
Over the course of an hour on a January day, it was possible to see more marsh boardwalks than people. And two bald eagles stood sentry on opposite sides of the road through the island, with scarcely a traveler passing between them.