At Beach Week 2021, Beach #20, Gloucester Point Beach Park on the York River, Gloucester Point, Virginia, I met Louis, another avid fisherman. It was his first time at the park. This landscape, once known as Tsenacomoco, was home to some of the tribes in the Algonquian-speaking alliance that paid tribute to Wahunsenacawh, whom the English called Chief Powhatan. Credit: JCouser
By: Jody Hedeman Couser, senior vice president of communications at Chesapeake Conservancy
It was the fourth week of September 2020, and the weather was gorgeous. I had vacation time to use, but my husband and two daughters were still tethered to their Zooms. So, I set out by myself to see how many sandy beaches I could visit within a reasonable drive from our Annapolis, Maryland, home. Over five days, I made it to 32 beaches and enjoyed one of the most epic adventures of my life, sharing the journey along the way with my friends on social media. A year later, in September 2021, I challenged myself to do it again. This time I made it to 37 different beaches in five days.
When I returned, my colleagues with the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership asked if I would share a few highlights from my trips. My first thought was, “How lucky am I…. If the lines between vacation and work life blur together, you must really be doing something you love.” This is true. I’m especially excited to share this with fellow Chesapeake Bay lovers because, as you can imagine, there was a lot more to this journey than just sand.
First, I had some ground rules. To qualify for this quest, the beach must be on the Chesapeake Bay or one of the tributaries and must be publicly accessible. This doesn’t necessarily mean public land, however. One beach was privately owned, but anyone can visit for the day or even camp there for a fee. For the most part, however, I visited federal, state, county and municipal lands. Some of the parks I visited have free admission, but many charge a fee ranging from $2.50 to $15.00 per person or vehicle.
For one day I cheated on our beloved Chesapeake and traveled to Delaware Bay, which I also love, but I wore plenty of Chesapeake swag to make my true allegiances known.
To plan my trips, I used FindYourChesapeake.com, a partnership website from the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Office and Chesapeake Conservancy. In addition, I also used Google and even aerial imagery to detect sandy stretches of shoreline. Then I researched if they were publicly accessible.
There Was a Lot More to This Journey than Just Sand
A journey to the beaches of the Chesapeake is also a journey through its history. Some of that history is quite painful, and the effects are still felt by many even to this day. Thoughts of the Indigenous people who lived here for more than 10,000 years before the European colonists (reflected in so many of the parks’ names: Kiptopeke, Chippokes, Matapeake, and Aquia—named for Algonquian Indian word for gulls)—and thoughts of the enslaved people whose labor enabled the many plantations that lined the Chesapeake’s shores made standing on a beach not just standing on a beach. I could literally feel the history of the place, and it was heavy.
I was really struck by how many of the parks were former plantations. As conservationists, you understand how these large tracts of intact land made them ideal for conservation. Sometimes the family bequeathed the land to the state, or sometimes funds were raised to purchase the land. These are places with stories to tell—and certainly not just the stories of the plantation owners.
Throughout my trips, I typically took a silly selfie photo on the beach, a way to mark that I had reached another milestone on the quest. But looking back at my pictures, I am reminded that at quite a few places, I just couldn’t. Did I really want to stand there on a beach smiling where hundreds of people were enslaved? No. Not every beach got the selfie. At some places—like Fort Monroe, where 402 years ago, the White Lion carried 20-30 enslaved people from Angola, considered to be the beginning of race-based slavery in America—the history was too heavy, and the moments were just too solemn.
But isn’t that the point? What I am describing is a vital part of many park experiences. These are places where we can learn about and reflect upon the people who came before us. While not an expert on the Chesapeake’s history, I do have an insatiable curiosity. I want to learn more, and I want to ensure that my daughters learn more. Helping us better understand how we got to where we are now is a huge part of why these places are so very important to conserve and share with the public.
Sense of Place
I do a lot of reading and writing about the Chesapeake both professionally and personally, even as part of my own genealogical research. Thanks to these beach trips, I have a much deeper sense of place.
Here is just one example: One day, I was following my car’s GPS directions basically on autopilot when I happened to notice on a few street signs that I was traveling through San Domingo, an area established in the 1800s by free Black men and women in Maryland’s Wicomico County. Of course, I paused on beaches and spent a little more time exploring San Domingo, which I had read about in the Chesapeake Bay Journal and The Baltimore Sun. Thanks to that fortuitous stop, I now will have a sense of place as I learn more about this area in the months to come.
At Beach Week 2021, Beach #6, Guard Shore Beach, near Bloxom, Virginia, and the Saxis Wildlife Management Area, I met these self-proclaimed “Shore Folks” who had moved to West Virginia and were back visiting their beloved Shore in Accomack County. I asked them which they liked better, and they said, “Shore! Without a doubt!” In this area, English explorer Captain John Smith met the Pocomoke Indians in 1608. Credit: JCouser
The most memorable parts of both the 2020 and 2021 trips were the people I met. Something about a beach breaks down social barriers. You may remember making beach friends when you were little: you start building a sandcastle with another child, who you would probably be too shy to speak to were it not for the magic of the beach. I feel like I’ve been on a grown-up version of that. I work in public relations, and I’ll have a conversation with anyone who is willing, but there is just something different when it comes to the beach.
What’s Your Favorite Beach?
I heard from many people during my trips: my own Facebook friends, of course, but also people who heard about the trip—from a county leader in tourism thanking me for stopping by, professional colleagues and even a Maryland cabinet secretary who took the time to write. They often asked: “What’s your favorite beach? Which one would you recommend?” Each beach has a different personality, but I love them all. My honest answer is the best beach is the one that you can get yourself to.
So, I made it to 37 beaches this year and 32 beaches last year. That’s 69 beaches in 10 days of exploring. Although drop-by visits to the Chesapeake’s diverse beaches are not ideal, I consider these whirlwind trips to be reconnaissance for choosing places to return to with family and friends and the time to truly enjoy what each place has to offer.
This probably sounds like folks who live or visit around here have plenty of beach access. You may have noticed that my photos show few people. Consider, though, that I had the luxury of taking vacation time and doing my exploring during the week in the off-season, something not everyone can do.
It’s a different story in peak season, especially weekends, when many of the places I traveled to are filled to capacity, and park employees must turn people away at the gate. Or, if there is no gate, there’s simply no parking left for all the people who want to visit. This was true even before the pandemic, but now, even more people are turning to nature for solace and recreation. Our demand for water access and outdoor recreation is pushing our parks to the limits.
At Beach Week 2021, Beach #35, Chapel Point State Park on the Port Tobacco River, a tributary of the Potomac River near La Plata, Maryland, I found four happy fishermen reeling them in! Back in the day, this is where the Charles County Fair took place, and the site once offered an amusement park and roller-skating rink. The land belonged to the Jesuits from 1638 until it was acquired by the state in 1972. The area is the ancestral homeland of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe. Credit: JCouser
One natural area preserve that I visited this year had no trash cans and no bathrooms, and there were just a handful of unofficial parking spots. Many of you know this is customary for nature preserves meant for low human impact. This worked fine for my off-season, weekday, brief visit, when I was the only one on the beach for most of my time there. But a local woman told me that on summer weekends, there are hundreds of visitors a day, many of whom stay for a significant amount of time. Hundreds. Remember, there are no bathrooms and no trash cans and very little parking. Remember, too, that every single one of those hundreds of visitors a day has the right to be there.
Just down the street from the last beach I visited this year (North Beach in North Beach, Maryland), is the resort town called Chesapeake Beach. To visit their public beach, called “Bayfront” or “Brownie’s Beach” by locals, you must literally be a local. Since 2020, it’s only open to municipal residents as a Covid-related precaution. Potential for collapse along the cliffs area there is another concern. This is a reminder to check for the latest information on beach closures before you go.
Communities are grappling with how to provide public access, including near my home, where Sandy Point State Park fills to capacity and turns people away on the most glorious summer weekends.
I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know that we need more parks. Parks don’t make themselves. Here’s a shout-out to everyone working in conservation and trying to create more opportunities for people to visit beautiful places like these. Now more than ever, it is important that our federal, state and local governments, along with nonprofits, foundations and private donors, work to conserve more sites for public access to the Bay. This is the work done by so many of you involved with the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Thank you.
What started out as a Covid-safe solo “staycation” adventure turned out to be so much more. We’re lucky to live where we are surrounded by beauty in nature, amazing wildlife and the opportunity to learn the history of the Chesapeake and its people past and present.
You can see a list of all 69 beaches, view photos and follow along the two journeys at www.flickr.com/photos/beachweek.
P.S. There are so many more to see! Same time next year!
Small world! At Beach Week 2020, Beach #31, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Park in Pasadena, Maryland, there was only one other person at the park—my big brother! Neither of us had been to this park before, and it’s not near our homes. A phenomenal coincidence! Credit: JCouser
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.