to the Pocomoke River Canoe Company
This summer marks 33 years for his Pocomoke River Canoe Company, nestled in a historic building on the banks of the Pocomoke River. They offer not just canoe and kayak rentals but a chance to step away from our busy lives for a spell, to experience a pristine marvel of nature, a place untouched by time.
“You get back there,” Laws said, “and you’re in nowhere land.”
Folks say a day on the Pocomoke feels like paddling around New Orleans or East Texas or the Great Dismal Swamp – some Southern bayou with vast expanses of water lilies and cypress knees.
“You see very few boats on it,” said Ron Pilling, who works with Laws in the shop. “This drawbridge out here blocks motorboats. It is just magnificent and flat, gentle and placid. It’s perfect for beginners. People who’ve paddled all their lives are unlikely to see a river like the Pocomoke this far north.”
Laws and Pilling will drive you 5.5 miles north of here, to Porter’s Crossing, and it’s nothing but nature along the way. A forest of bald cypress trees flanks both sides, then the river widens a little as you get closer to town.
Another trip takes paddlers down Nassawango Creek, starting on nearby Red House Road and cutting to the left, back up the river to downtown Snow Hill. It bisects 11,000 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy and is known as a great spot for birdwatching.
Pocomoke is a Native American word meaning “dark water.” That makes sense, considering that the river is believed to be the deepest in the U.S. for its width, according to a 1982 Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) report.
South of Snow Hill, the river’s average width is 400 feet, with a uniform depth of 15 feet and a range of 7 to 29 feet, according to DNR. The river is tidal, meaning it flows both north and south, depending on the tides and time of day.
A century ago, The Corddry Company owned the Snow Hill riverfront, with its lumberyard, sawmill and hardware store. Their 4,000 sq. ft. warehouse, nestled between the river and the railroad tracks, was the only building to survive the passage of time. That’s what would later become Laws’ canoe shop.
By 1982, the warehouse was nearly 50 years old and was quite literally falling apart. Laws bought it for $4,000. “I guess I was too stubborn, and I didn’t have anything else to spend my money on at the time,” he said with a smile. “We got the building, and we started working on it.”
All the windows were boarded-up with plywood. It was right at-grade, basically sitting on the ground. There were holes through the roof, all the way down through the building. The only reason the building was standing was because of the sturdy Corddry timbers that held it together.
They managed to jack the building up off the ground and put in a new roof and bulkheads. The siding added in recent years means the rain doesn’t blow through the building anymore, and they finally got a heater in here that works.
Some folks had encouraged Laws to fix it up and open a restaurant on the water, “But I knew better than that,” he said.
“The guy next door, who owned a Ford dealership, was selling Grumman canoes; he wasn’t renting them,” Laws recalled. “I just got interested in that. I said, ‘That’s what I should do. I should rent canoes.’ We started with about six canoes and have grown ever since.”
Their fleet has since grown to 20 canoes, 16 kayaks, 4 stand-up paddleboards, and two Jon boats with outboard motors. They do not offer jet skis. “There are times in the summer,” Pilling said, “that pretty much every boat is out on the water.”
Historic wooden canoes hang from the back walls of the shop: a 1962 Old Town in firetruck red; the one someone found wrecked in Captain’s Cove that the guys restored; another, plain as a tree branch, is their most treasured, Pilling said, for its rare mahogany construction.
Over in the middle of the shop, next to a vintage nickel Coke machine, Laws keeps another batch of canoes for rental. The rest of their boats are kept in a storage building nearby, and they can haul as many as 20 canoes to launch at one time.
“We picked these boats,” Pilling chimes in, “because they are stable, secure, safe and comfortable, not because they’re fast or necessarily whitewater maneuverable. Most of our paddlers are beginners.”
They don’t keep a regular schedule. It’s literally walk-ins. “Whenever somebody walks in the door, we’ll take them to Porter’s Crossing,” Pilling said.
Even after 30 years in business, there are some paddlers who left an impression. Like the woman who wanted to know if there was a place along the river to stop and eat. Laws told her: “Sure, there are plenty.” But he’d meant quiet, flat spots to break out your cooler and sandwiches. The woman thought he meant restaurants.
Another woman was once heard to complain that her canoe ride was a disappointment because there weren’t any beautiful riverfront houses along the route for her to admire.
Mindie Burgoyne, of Marion Station, is an avid kayaker who’s paddled many waterways across Maryland and Delaware.
“There’s athletic people who know they can get in a kayak and go most anywhere,” she said, “but for people who have never done it – or maybe if they’re old or not as fit – the guys can help you. They’ll get you in the water and get you back out. If you want to paddle around right near their place, if you’re a beginner, you can do that, too. The guys are great guides.”
The other advantage, according to Burgoyne, is that once you’re dropped off, you only need to follow the river to get back, instead of having to retrace your steps.
Outdoors enthusiast Jim Rapp of Baltimore has conducted birdwatching excursions originating from the canoe shop for the Delmarva Birding Weekend for 20 years. “I was doing this with Barry before kayaks were a big thing,” he said. “Barry’s been one of the river-captain pioneers down there.”
Rapp called the Pocomoke River Canoe Company “a Snow Hill icon.”
“You step inside and you feel like you’ve walked back in time,” he continued. “They’re not going for that modern Dick’s Sporting Goods look. It’s got a lot of character. I love that it’s kind of a public space. You can pull up a rocking chair and shoot the breeze with Barry and Ron.”
Pocomoke River Canoe Co.
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