Saturday, August 20, 2016

Gwynn's Island, VA

Way back in early June during a random visit at Glen Manor Vineyards, Kelly mentioned to us that she and Jeff were headed to Mathews, VA in August and that we should make plans to join them for a day or two. I kinda just shrugged it off to wishful thinking, but she followed up next day with an insistent email and that got Ann and me to thinking. That far in advance, maybe, just maybe we could swing a Sunday and a Monday off, a real two-day weekend. I know that to a lot of people this sounds like no big deal, but then, those people are not chef-owners of demanding fine dining restaurants. Ultimately, with a lot of planning, I was able to take that two-day weekend this week.

There is a tale in my family that at least some of my Matthews ancestors are from Mathews County; one of my now deceased cousins who was the family historian had done enough research to be convinced. It was kind of neat to be going some place with ties to my family, even if they were 300 years ago. Mathews County is in the middle peninsula (between the York and Rappahannock Rivers) just below the mouth of the Piankatank River, which is the first river south of the Rappahannock. As a boy, I used to vacation on Tabbs Creek, two rivers to the north of the Rappahannock and just under 12 miles north of where we stayed this time, on Gwynn's Island. A small part of me feels at home in this part of the world.
We Stayed Near the Southern Tip of Gwynn's Island
I spent a solid week beforehand just getting ready to take a day off and finally, after a somewhat slow (because of the brutal near 100-degree August heat) Saturday night, I got home and got myself packed. After coffee the next morning, we got away about 9:30 and had an uneventful trip down the Rappahannock River via Warrenton, Fredericksburg, Port Royal, Tappahannock, and Saluda. East of the fall line in Fredericksburg, it is amazing how much the landscape and the flora change and how different it is from what we are accustomed to in the Shenandoah Valley. Moreover, east of Fredericksburg, we entered the land of corn and soybeans, driving through miles and miles of hill-less agricultural fields.

Because we couldn't get in to the rental house until about 4pm, we planned to meet Jeff and Kelly at nearby Merroir, the restaurant attached to the Rappahannock River Oyster Company, for a lingering afternoon lunch. We serve Rappahannock River Oysters at the restaurant and I have met one of the owners at a charity event for which we both supplied food at Patowmack Farm near Leesburg. The idea of oysters and small plates riverside just doesn't suck and I was really looking forward to seeing where at least some of our oysters are born.

Kelly warned us early on in a cryptic text that the Garmin is a lying bitch, but we didn't get the reference until much later. Merroir is situated right on the Rappahannock River just downstream of the Route 3 bridge across to White Stone and the Northern Neck. The Garmin had us turn off route 3 on a horrendous dirt road that was so rough that even in the Jeep with its beefed up suspension, the radio connection shook loose at under 5 mph. As we neared the restaurant, we joined a paved road that is clearly the way we should have come. "I told you the Garmin was a lying bitch," said Kelly just moments later.

We got out of the air-conditioned Jeep into breathtakingly brutal heat and humidity and found her and Jeff under a couple of umbrellas at a picnic table on the north side of the small building, with a view north onto the Rappahannock.

Rappahannock River at Merroir
On the south side of our picnic table was this pergola with a view of Locklies Creek. Nobody was sitting under the pergola because it was 1:00 in the afternoon and the temperature was 98-100 F with soupy humidity and little to no breeze. It was miserably hot, even under the umbrellas in the shade. I'm always happy to be anywhere other than the restaurant and I'm used to the boiling stew-like atmosphere that is a restaurant kitchen, but this weather was trying. I concentrated on our conversation and tried to forget about the heat, but there was no denying the sun.

Most Seating at Merroir is Outdoors
Fortunately for us, Jeff and Kelly had arrived about 10 minutes ahead of us, long enough to order the first round of wine and oysters. Never have I been so happy to see a bottle of wine in all my life. This bottle of rosé was a welcome sight. I don't know this producer, but the wine was spot on what I expected for a Provençal rosé. Even Ann, self-labeled rosé disliker, enjoyed the wine. I will bring her to the dark side yet: I love rosé in the summer.

A Welcome Respite from the Heat
The Merroir menus were fun and not overly serious, pretty fitting for a restaurant with little to no indoor seating, printed on brown paper bags bound to a binder with string, one paper bag each for the beer menu, the wine menu, and the food menu. We became well acquainted with the wine menu as I ordered a Muscadet next and then Jeff ordered a Macon-Villages after that. We never did get around to the food menu. Because, if you're at an oyster house, why would you order anything other than oysters? Especially in that ridiculous heat.

Cute Menus

Bearing Up Under Adverse Conditions! Wine Helps!
Bless our server for keeping us well-supplied with growlers of water and buckets of ice, copious quantities of which Ann was scooping wholesale down the front and back of her blouse. Secretly, I think our server was happy to go stand in the walk-in while getting more ice. She was really nice to let Jeff store his case of wine in the walk-in so that it wouldn't bake in his truck. When Jeff went to retrieve his wine from the walk-in, he found a lot of the Merroir crew in there, taking refuge from the heat. I can't say that I am any stranger to that; we often duck into the walk-in on a hot summer evening if we have a break.

Lots of Growlers of Water
They had three oysters on offer: Rappahannocks from right at the restaurant, Stingrays from Mobjack Bay, and Olde Salts from Chincoteague. I have always preferred the sweeter oysters to the super salty Chincoteagues, but any fresh oyster is a good oyster. I had not had the Stingrays before; it turned out that they were my favorite of the three. I imagine that Mobjack Bay is a good bit more saline than the brackish Rappahannock.

Merroir's Finest
After Merroir, we headed in to the town of Mathews to get the key to the house where we were staying, but it was only about 3:00 so we had time to kill before the 4 pm check-in time. On the way there, Ann texted Kelly saying that we really needed to eat something more substantial and got the response "Follow us!" In town, Jeff parked us in front of Richardson's Café, in an old drug store across the street from the real estate office, and led us inside where we all piled into a booth and ordered something a little more substantial than the 5 dozen oysters we downed collectively earlier. Though it was early, we silently made a collective decision: what the hell, let's eat dinner early and then just nosh later rather than cook dinner.

Richardson's Also Has Cute Menus

Richardson's Clearly Used to Be a Drugstore
Though Jeff was on a milkshake mission (the milkshakes are reportedly very good here) both days we were in town, Kelly and I are both lactose intolerant, so the thought of downing a milkshake is more or less viscerally anguishing. Jeff seemed to have no problem downing them though.

Jeff and Kelly (note milkshake)

And Once Again (another milkshake)
I got a decent enough burger and Ann ended up with loaded fries. The food here is just about what you would expect. They put some care into it and they keep the prices very reasonable. It's a nice place to eat casual fare if you're not up for the more refined cuisine at the White Dog Bistro around the corner.

Bacon Cheese Fries
We stretched our legs a bit in Mathews. A bit being the operative word as the central downtown is about two, maybe three, blocks, no traffic light, no horse, quintessential small tidewater Virginia town, more lighthouses than traffic lights as the old saying goes.

We Were

Looking at Much of Downtown Mathews

Mural with Reference to Whitman, Opposite Richardson's
After our respite in Mathews and after fetching the key from the real estate office, we headed back north and crossed the bridge from the mainland onto Gwynn's island and from there worked our way (all of five minutes) to the far southern point of the island on the Chesapeake Bay side.

As we turned into the driveway of the house where we would be staying, the first thing I saw was an osprey nest in a snag in the yard next door and then I saw an osprey in the pine right next to the house where we were staying. We would hear that osprey call pretty much non-stop the whole time we were there, though the calls were less frequent during the night. They have a wide range of vocalizations and get especially animated when a mate approaches, and more animated still when one of the neighboring ospreys encroaches on their turf. From the back deck of the house, I saw three nests in very close proximity. We watched them catch fish, carry sticks to the nest, and perch, perch, perch. Mainly, they perched on dead limbs and watched the rest of the world, calling all the while.

Osprey in Pine to Left of House Where We Stayed; Nest Far Left

This Osprey Called Non-Stop

Its Mate on the Nest at Dusk

And the Nest in the Moonlight
Looking out on the Chesapeake Bay, we saw a constant stream of ships out in the ship channel in the middle of the Bay, headed to and from the port at Baltimore. At times when the light was right, we could see land out east: the near shore of the Eastern Shore is about 16-17 miles distant at this point.

Lots of Ships Headed to and from Baltimore
Sunday night we hung around the house and drank our share of wine. I brought some and Jeff brought plenty, but none of his own. I understand that. When I'm away from home looking for a meal, I'm looking for something I would not cook. As I am far too close to my own cooking, so is he to his wine. After plenty of wine, a day in the hot sun, and a game of Cards Against Humanity, we all retired early.

As a result of my early bedtime, I was up at 5:30 the next morning, in plenty of time to catch the sunrise about 6:10. Jeff was already outside with his camera when I stepped outside with mine, only to find that I couldn't see through it at all, so dense was the condensation that formed immediately on every surface on moving from the air-conditioned house to the already warm and soupy outdoors. Once my camera warmed up so that there was no more fog on the lens, I got a couple of snaps of the sunrise. Jeff also got some pretty cool ones shooting through the lens of his binoculars, with which we scanned the bay for Bottlenose Dolphins. There was nothing moving in the water, not even any gannets or cormorants diving for fish.

Monday Morning Sunrise

Ten Minutes Later
In the relative cool of the early morning, I started poking about the area in which we were staying to see what could be seen. Mind you, cool is a relative thing. It was so hot and humid that twenty minutes after the sun was up, it was too warm to be in the direct sun any longer.

The house is situated on the southern point of Gwynn's Island with the Chesapeake Bay due east of the house and Milford Haven just southwest of the house. To the north was a small pond with another house behind it. One of the things that we noticed right away is how many crape myrtles there are in this part of Virginia and how huge they can become. You can see several in the photo below; we saw many that were 30 feet high and higher, trees in their own right, in all shades of crimson, pink, and white. Ann and I marveled at all the crape myrtles on our trip back to Winchester on Tuesday.

Crape Myrtles; Milford Haven Behind
Speaking of trees, there was an interesting oak tree in the front yard, some of whose leaves were starting to go red and to fall. My first glimpse led me to think that this was a live oak, a tree that I am very familiar with from my time in Alabama and Texas, but the habit and bark were all wrong. Looking at it in more detail, I could see that is a Laurel Oak, Quercus laurifolia, not something we ever see in our part of the world.

Laurel Oak, Quercus laurifolia, in Front Yard
Just to the north of our not-so-charming house was this little Low Country charmer, across a small marsh of reeds and a small pond filled with small crabs. I expected to find a few wading birds on the pond, but there were none at any time of the day, nor were there any tracks. The only tracks belonged to a much larger bird, more about which later.

Handsome House Next Door to the North

Reeds (Phragmites?) Along the Beach

Annie Enjoying the Sun (too much! ouch!)

Pond Backed by Loblolly Pines

Unusual Beach Pattern by the House
On Monday afternoon, we took a drive to the very southern point of Mathews County near where Jeff and Kelly usually stay. A large tract of 146 acres at the very point is given over to the New Point Comfort Preserve, a salt marsh that borders Mobjack Bay with views of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse, which sits at the confluence of Mobjack Bay and Chesapeake Bay.

The Very Southern Tip of Mathews County is a Preserve

Looking  Across the Salt Marsh to the New Point Comfort Lighthouse

The Boardwalk Gives Great Views of the Marsh and Mobjack Bay

Looking out onto Mobjack Bay

Looking at Baby Crabs

We Saw Hundreds of Small Crabs in the Marsh
The blazing conditions in August along the Bay don't really lend themselves to wildflowers, but there were a very few, most of which we do not see up our way. In particular, all of the ditches were full of gorgeous white hibiscus with bright crimson centers. We also saw a whole lot of trumpet vines in bloom, a lot more than we are used to seeing back home.

Hog Peanut, Amphicarpaea bracteata

Seaside Oxeye, Less Petals, Borrichia frutescens

Crimson-Eyed Rosemallow, Hibiscus moscheutos

A Hawkweed
Several times a day, we saw a small flock of Canada Geese moving here and there about the area. I never really associate Canada Geese with the beach as I do Brants, their smaller cousins, but I guess they pretty much live anywhere anymore. When I was nosing around the pond to the north of the house looking for waders and wader footprints, all I saw were goose tracks in the sand. Lots of goose tracks and the ever present goose crap. You can go to the beach, but you cannot get away from the winged rats, er, I mean, geese.

Noisy Neighbors

Raccoons are Nocturnal Visitors to the Beach

Angel Wing, Cyrtopleura costata, at Northern End of its Range

This Dragonfly was Curious About my Camera

Annie Found This Green Tree Frog on the House
Tuesday morning before our jaunt to Mobjack, Jeff and Kelly had gone into town on a beer and crab run and returned shortly, mission quite successful. They brought back a bushel of some really fat and feisty number one jimmies. Both Kelly and I got bitten transferring them to coolers. I was holding a crab from the back as I always do when it reached around and nipped me. I have never had a crab to do that in all my life; live and learn. In the afternoon, after our trip to New Point Comfort Preserve and after a quick bite for a late lunch at Richardson's, we headed back to the house to start in on both beer and crabs.

When I was a kid, we used to crab all week and hold the crabs in a pot until Friday night when we had our crab feast. Seldom if ever did we buy crabs, though my mom would buy a bunch of softshells and we would have them in sandwiches for lunches. We kids, being always out on the dock when not swimming or fishing, we always had a string with chicken necks out in the water that we would check every few minutes and often I would walk the salt marshes with a bucket and a dip net, scooping unwary crabs up off the bottom.

The beer of choice for steaming crabs back then was National Bohemian; Kelly used Lite, but I won't hold it against her; cheap beer is the only choice for steaming crabs. I started picking crabs when I was only as tall as the dinner table, but it's been a very, very long time since I had picked crabs, at least 30 years. I have picked a few at the restaurant, but none for myself since I was in my early 20s. Though it's tedious, it's a fun time to sit around the table, swill some beer, and chew the fat. Picking crabs is as much a social gathering as it is dinner. And for Kelly and me, it brings us back to childhood on the Bay.

Blue Moon at the Beach, Good Living!

Kelly Loading the Crab Pot

Drinking SB; Waiting on Crabs

The Gentlemen of the Hour

Post Feast Carnage; I Made Soup from the Shells
Monday night was also an early night. Kelly wasn't feeling well and we had to hit the road early the next day so that I could get back to the restaurant. Just before we went to bed, my mother called with news that my father had a heart attack and so we spent the next few minutes texting back and forth with my siblings trying to find out what was going on. He would ultimately remain in the hospital until he had a quadruple bypass on Thursday, but we didn't know that then.

Tuesday morning, I snapped awake at 5:30, glanced out the window through barely opened eyelids, saw a lot of clouds in the still dark sky, and lay there trying to decide if they might yield a good opportunity for some sunrise photography. I finally decided that if I were going to need 20 minutes for my camera to become acclimated to the outdoor heat and humidity, I needed to get moving.

As I emerged, Jeff met me at the door and told me that Kelly was feeling a lot worse and that they were leaving to go to the hospital. While they packed and showered, I sat out on the deck facing the Chesapeake and watched the sunrise unfold. It turned out to be one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen. I took it as a sign that Kelly would be fine.

Chesapeake Sunrise

Chesapeake Sunrise II

Chesapeake Sunrise III
Jeff and Kelly left quickly and I made coffee, packed my stuff, washed dishes, and cleaned the house in preparation to leave. And around 8:30, Ann and I made our exit for the 4-hour drive back to Winchester, back up the Rappahannock through the land of corn and soybeans, and back to home. As much fun as we had at the Bay, when we finally got that first glimpse of the hills that surround our home, Ann exclaimed, "Mountains!"

To Jeff and Kelly, thank you so much for your friendship, your generosity, and a much needed two-day weekend!

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