More and more Delawareans and tourists are heading to the bay shore region to enjoy the state’s ‘quieter, wilder side’
Delaware’s bay shore region between Delaware City and Dover is a continually-growing mix of outdoor recreation, wildlife preservation, fishing and crabbing, and now, at historic Fort DuPont, major development. Now, the interconnectedness of Bombay Hook, Rt. 9, Delaware City, Fort DuPont and the Michael Castle Trail should prompt visitors to return again and again to discover all the area offers.
Head south from Wilmington or Newark to the banks of the C&D Canal, and everything changes. The world is a flatter, more breathable place, and the ratio of landmass to development is in stark contrast with the state’s northern reaches, at least for now. Veer off Rts. 13 or 1 to moody Rt. 9, also known as the scenic Bayshore Byway. You’ll be greeted by an unrefined beauty, featuring watchful waterside towns set back from the road. I make the drive to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge one recent spring morning, sharing the lanes with binocular-clad birders and backroad-cruising motorcyclists in pursuit of their contrasting hobbies.
This area, known as the Delaware Bay shoreline and internationally recognized for its ecological significance, stretches from Pea Patch Island to Cape Henlopen, although the 30-mile-plus stretch along the coast between Delaware City and Dover is of particular interest right now. Its expansive coastal marshes and forests provide diverse habitat to many species, including thousands of migratory shorebirds that each year at this time flock to the area to rest and feed on their way north from South America.
The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s launch of the Delaware Bayshore Initiative (DBI) a few years ago is enhancing the region’s growing reputation as an outdoor destination. DBI Coordinator Anthony T. Gonzon, Jr., says that raising awareness of the bay shore region is a collaborative effort with conservation and wildlife partners like Delaware City’s American Birding Assn. and the Delmarva Ornithological Society. What’s more, the completion of the C&D Canal Michael Castle Trail and major developmental plans at Fort DuPont are turning heads from all directions.
“Experience it. We like to say, ‘Come explore Delaware’s quieter wilder side,’” says Gonzon.
One budding trend, aside from photography, cycling and birding, is water-themed adventure: canoeing and kayaking in the area’s tidal creeks and rivers. Take Blackbird Creek Reserve in Townsend, for instance, which now has an updated boat launch, thanks to DNREC.
“If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can even take the creek all the way out to the Delaware Bay,” says Gonzon. Duly noted.
Bombay Hook and the May Shorebirds
Bombay Hook, celebrating 80 years this year, is active as ever in creating a haven for migratory birds. At the refuge, I embark on an enjoyable 12-mile wildlife drive, witnessing a carnival of creatures —ducks, woodpeckers, and, as promised at the information center, resident herons and egrets perched rigidly in the brackish waters. Tiny turtles scuttle across sun-drenched paths. It’s not hard to imagine why Bombay Hook attracts on average 100,000 visitors a year, primarily birders and wildlife photographers, according to Outdoor Recreational Planner Tina Watson. Although a new subset of enthusiasts is building: young families from surrounding neighborhoods that are cropping up in the area, says Watson.
Though the largest wildlife preserve around, Bombay Hook isn’t the only one. Situated off the Bayshore Byway, smaller tracts of preserved land punctuate the marshes and estuary. They include Augustine Wildlife Area, Woodland Beach, and Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area, totaling well over 3,000 acres. While equipped for hunting, the spots are also ideal for hikes, birding and photography, particularly at Thousand Acre Marsh and on the Port Penn Trail. Gonzon says a new wildlife viewing platform at Port Penn, the Ashton Tract, has become “wildly popular.”
Meanwhile, this month, it’s the migrating shorebirds that swoop in to steal the show, alongside a supporting cast of horseshoe crabs.
“If there’s one thing you need to witness on the bay shore, this is it,” says Gonzon.
He recommends viewing the migrating birds—which feed on horseshoe crab eggs—at Slaughter Beach, the DuPont Nature Center in Mispillion Harbor, or Kitts Hummock, toward the middle or end of May, around high tide.
“There’s no other spectacle like it, certainly in the East, probably in the world,” says Gonzon.
American Birding Assn. Boosts Ecotourism
In this region, it’s easy to see why feathered creatures in particular come to mind, especially since the American Birding Assn. moved its headquarters from Colorado Springs to the Central Hotel in Delaware City in 2014.
Delawareans may remember the antiquated hotel for ghostly visits and decay until the ABA moved in and refurbished it. The small port town’s proximity to larger cities along with its biodiversity made it attractive to the 13,000-member organization. President and Delaware native Jeff Gordon and his wife Liz live in an apartment above the headquarters.
Liz Gordon estimates 2,000 more birders have visited Delaware City as a result of the ABA’s relocation. And with its presence, locals are learning to keep an eye to the skies. At least 100 species can be spotted in the immediate area in just half a day.
Says Bill Stewart, the ABA’s director of conservation and community: “The entire Delaware City and Port Penn area has changed significantly in the past five years,” owing in part to additional access to natural areas that were once off limits, such as DNREC’s Ashton Tract at Thousand Acre Marsh and Port Penn impoundments.
Hidden partly in the shadow of all this development, Pea Patch Island is a longstanding spot for birding and photography. When I take the ferry ride to Fort Delaware, I catch sight of various bird species—and the island provides a gorgeous windswept landscape for photography.
A New “Trail City” Reputation
During my education about all things fowl and swamp, I learn that an ecotone is the spot where different habitats come together, like where a forest meets a meadow. These spaces are rich with diversity. One could make that connection with Delaware City, where the C&D Canal merges with the Delaware River.
Really, Delaware City’s reputation as a sleepy town is only a disguise. Underneath, there’s a subtle buzzing. You hear it in the rumble of the river ferry headed to Pea Patch Island, the newest catch of crabs rustling in their baskets hauled in from the marina; it’s in the swoosh of a cyclist on the expanded Michael Castle Trail; the alert calls of birders brought into town by the ABA, huddled in clusters with their binoculars aimed high; the voices of kids in line at the Ice Cream Parlor; patrons opening and closing the doors adorned with bawdy humor at Lewinsky’s on Clinton and Crabby Dick’s. It’s impossible for this meeting place of recreation and livelihood, hobbies, history and home to be anything other than this: an eccentric waterfront prize and the pin on the map from which everything else emerges. And now, Delaware City Manager Richard Cathcart is proud of his town’s new branding as an outdoor destination.
“It’s quickly becoming known as a trail city. It’s become pretty obvious,” Cathcart says.
In fact, development of a one-mile trail on the Fort DuPont side, called Dragon Run Trail, is in the initial master plan stages and should be constructed within 18-24 months, says Cathcart. The route will run along the east side of town toward Rt. 9, connecting to the Branch Canal Trail, which links to the approximately 14-mile Michael Castle Trail.
The trail twists like a hazy maritime dream through the wetlands, where you’d feel that local lore runs deep, amid swaying tall grass and bobbing fishing boats. Homes worn and faded by sun and time emerge from the isolated banks of the canal, and waterways diverge into streams and bogs. The trail is a totally new perspective to entering Delaware City—far more alluring than driving in.
The Branch Canal Trail was completed last June, and now the connected Castle Trail runs uninterrupted along the canal from Delaware City to Chesapeake City, Md. The path brims with wildlife and lush, at times almost tropical, foliage. Mimosa trees hover over the trail, and electric blue indigo buntings—and herons, and maybe even an eagle, or falcon, or chickadee—can be spotted.
With this byway in particular in mind, it’s no wonder Delaware was ranked the third most bicycle-friendly state by the League of American Bicyclists in 2015.
Development at Fort DuPont
Inarguably the biggest burst of change in the Delaware City area is the total overhaul of the 322-acre Fort DuPont State Park. Until now, the park, located just south of Delaware City off Rt. 9, had seemed under the radar (and a favorite picnic and exploration oasis for this writer). It comprises trails and still-standing military structures that span two centuries and that played roles the Civil War and World War II.
Now, though, the development of a live-work-play-stay community divided into eight districts is transforming the fort and its historic buildings. Residential districts with waterfront views will be built for single-family, townhome, duplex and apartment living. Homes in this phase will go for $290,000 to $500,000, though later options will include some $500,000-plus residences, says Jeffrey D. Randol, executive director of Fort DuPont Redevelopment & Preservation Corporation.
In addition to housing, entertainment and business opportunities will make up an area called the Marina Village district, which will boast a 120-slip marina, restaurants, shops, a boutique hotel, and multiple hiking trails and other outdoor recreation options.
The first phase consists of 100 homes and will be completed over a five-year period, says Randol. The first sample homes should be up by next spring. Other projects within that five-year period include retail spaces, the marina, office space, a performing arts center, a conference center, and a brewery located in one of the old bunkers. Overall, Randol says, the project may represent approximately 500 residents—and maybe more.
“This project is a living community without end,” Randol says.
The community, annexed by Delaware City, will potentially be big enough to double the town’s population of 1,700. A pedestrian bridge will tie the towns together across the Branch Canal.
Redeveloping Fort DuPont will require a seven-foot-high levee to protect the low-lying property. Thus far, the state has contributed $4 million taxpayer dollars to fund the project.
Traditions Endure: Fishing & Seafood
Besides the burgeoning activity around hiking, biking and birding, there are plenty of opportunities for fishing and boating in the bay shore area, Gonzon says. “We make it easier for the public to get to creeks and streams and rivers, have access to beaches.”
He says the fishing piers at Woodland Beach and Port Mahon in Kent County, in addition to Bowers Beach, Broadkill Beach and Beach Plum Island, are fishing havens.
“They put you right where the fish are, and the chance of having a successful fishing outing is really nice,” Gonzon says.
That’s certainly true for Wiso’s Crabs & Seafood, situated on the cusp of Delaware City and the marsh, intersected by the Mike Castle Trail. Just one in a community of seafood mainstays like Kathy’s Crab House and Crabby Dick’s, Wiso’s conveys its nautical theme with a baffling assortment of anchors, fishing nets, helms, buoys and rope that decorate the eatery.
A pile of wooden crab mallets and paper towels wait on the counter for hungry patrons, but not for long. People arrive in droves to pick up their orders.
Owners Bob and Joanne Wiso, who sit at the narrow window bar for a quick chat with me, say that hundreds of bushels of crabs are sold to “tens of thousands” of people each season. Bob —typically referred to as “Cap” or “the Captain” (“Even I call him that,” says Joanne)—expects at least two shipments of crabs a day from Cape May and other regional suppliers during the season.
Most customers’ first order of business is to stop and talk with the Captain and Joanne—my car broke down last week, so-and-so is still in the hospital, I’m heading out on the water tomorrow. The Captain never fails to chat, patting almost everyone on the shoulder.
“They’re all our friends,” says Joanne. “Some started coming in here with their parents when they were kids, and now they’re grown adults.”
The couple is always busy. The Captain checks his watch in anticipation of the next arrival of crabs, then in one long breath recommends the crab cake for lunch and tries to set me up with the guy behind the counter.
The Captain, who grew up in the building that is now Crabby Dick’s, started crabbing when he was a “young lad” of 12, he says, selling $1 dozens to friends and family. He opened his first seafood shop in 1970, after graduating from the University of Delaware with a business degree, although he skipped the graduation ceremony to go crabbing. His budding seafood empire was already a local legend.
Now his team sources seafood from five states. Wiso’s has even caught the eye of at least one former President—George H. W. Bush, who took a ride on the ship Wiso II in 1988 for a news program.
The Wisos’ success in keeping people coming back is no mystery.
“We got the ambiance here,” says the Captain. “We’re just an old crab shack, but that’s what people like. And what keeps them coming back? Well, they love us.”
He laughs and checks his watch. Time for another shipment of crabs.
Visit bombayhook.com for information about events, bird walks, school outings, and more. Go to delawarecity.delaware.gov, dnrec.state.de.us and fortdupont.org for updates on development and initiatives in the area.