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North Hills Monthly

Southern Maryland Provides A Unique View of Maritime History

Jul 31, 2016 08:21PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Kayaking past ‘ghost ships’ in Mallows Bay Park

Why anyone would let me fly an F-14 Tomcat is beyond me, but there I was, strapped into the seat and cruising down the runway. And while the take-off was smooth, the landing wasn’t. I crashed and burned. Twice. The third time I didn’t have the chance because I somehow flew myself out into the stratosphere, where the volunteer docent at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum informed me that I’d run out of oxygen, which I guess means that I’m not going to get any Top Gun award any time soon.

Luckily for everyone, I only learned about my lack of flying skills while in a flight simulator, and not up in the air. The chance to experience what it’s like to fly the Tomcat, an F-8 Crusader or a P-51 Mustang—the same plane that Gen. Chuck Yeager flew—is one of the coolest features of the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, located in St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland. 

The museum pays homage to the Patuxent Naval Air Station and its importance to the area, and holds everything from a collector’s replica of the A-1Triad built by Curtiss, which was the first airplane the Navy ever bought in 1911, to the Lockheed Martin X-35C and Boeing X-32 flight demonstrators that competed in the Navy’s Joint Strike Fighter competition. An outside flight line contains 21 more airplanes, all of which were involved on the base at some time in their lifespans. 

After 40 years in a much smaller building, the museum opened to the public this past May in its new location—a $5.6 million, 20,000 sq. ft. building that was designed specifically to showcase the history of Naval aviation and the impact that it’s had on local lives.

The Naval station, which employs approximately 25,000 people, was built in 1942 and its importance to the area can still be felt today. Many of the volunteers and staff who work at the museum once worked on the base, including Pete Butt, museum association vice president and head of the exhibit team, who was employed there for 45 years. This ‘insider perspective’ is one of the things that makes the museum really unique—and boy, have they got stories! 

While I wasn’t given the chance to actually pilot a Naval ship—and probably sink it—while on my visit to southern Maryland, I got to do the next best thing while visiting Mallows Bay Park in Charles County, spending the day kayaking in one of the largest sunken ship graveyard in North America. Who even knew there was such a thing, right?

Mallows Bay Park is part of the Potomac River Water Trail, which is a federally designated National Recreation Trail that runs from Washington, DC, to the Chesapeake Bay. Being out on the water here is almost otherworldly—there’s nothing quite like kayaking among the barnacle and rust-covered ribs of a ship that is slowly being reclaimed by nature. 

Vessels in the bay include an 18th century schooner, Confederate blockade runner and a Revolutionary-era longboat, as well as almost 100 wooden ships from the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet, which were built in response to the loss of shipping vessels sunk by German submarines during World War I. A steel-hulled ferry, the Accomac, which served in World War II, stands as a sentinel among the other boats, as well as home to a massive osprey nest.

While you can rent a kayak and paddle through the area on your own, I’d advise going with a guide to learn more about the World War I ‘ghost fleet’—Judy Lathrop of Atlantic Canoe & Kayak turned out to have a wealth of information, as well as some haunting tales of how a number of these noble ships finally met their demise. Did you know, for example, that it is considered degrading to a ship's reputation to tow it in backwards?

Far from being a depressing sight, though, the area was teeming with life, including tiny turtles, herons, and a number of very vocal osprey. And back on shore, the park was alive with flowers—taking off onto a hiking trail, you could walk in the steps of the Piscataway Indians, who once used the Mallows Bay area as a place to hunt, fish and trade more than 12,000 years ago.

While southern Maryland is well-known for its maritime history, it is unexpected experiences like these that make it such a unique place to visit.