Rivers, Creeks & Marshes


You’re out on Little Totuskey Creek, gliding silently downstream in your canoe, binoculars in hand, and you get the distinct feeling that you’re being watched. Not a house or shed or duck is in sight. Coming around a bend amid a carpet of big cord grass and pickerelweed, a fluttering of wings takes place just off the starboard bow. A young heron soars swiftly, cutting across your line of vision and disappearing into the deep darkness of hardwoods beyond the marsh. Welcome to the “backwaters” of the Northern Neck.

The rivers, creeks, and marshes of the Northern Neck are spectacular by any measure. From a water-quality perspective, these waters are among the healthiest along the entire coast. That makes them great recreational treasures. Fishing and duck hunting, wildlife watching and canoeing all share long seasons on the waters of the Rappahannock, Potomac, Dividing Creek, and their tributaries. Duck hunting and seasonal fishing tournaments, in particular, have united communities here over the years. Important not only for their social benefits, they continue to raise money for local charities and political campaigns.

Historically, rivers served as essential links in an otherwise isolated world. The rivers of the Northern Neck were the roads, the communication lines, and the food sources to a struggling new colony and, well before it, to the earlier settlers of the region. The rivers later served as lifelines to small milling and timbering operations—generating much-needed hydropower while providing transport to barges and schooners headed for Chesapeake Bay. In the 1800s, their shorelines represented regular stopping points for a number of steamships carrying locally-made products, canned goods, and passengers north to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, or south to Norfolk.

A handful of locals still fondly remember traveling on the Rappahannock aboard the Three Rivers, or leaving Coan Wharf aboard the Dorchester. The rivers bustled with traffic in the 1800s and early part of the 1900s. Calendars were set by steamer and ferry schedules as much as anything else. It is, indeed, one of nature’s endless ironies that this intricate network of branching waterways was the lynchpin that enabled early settlers to survive the inhospitable winters in the new world, and, later, the single greatest deterrent impeding road construction, such that it effectively isolated the peninsula from the expansion and development occurring all around it.

Life Along the River


Today, vast marshes hug the curving shorelines of the low country’s rivers and protrude from its shallower waters. It is here that many water-loving mammals, ducks, reptiles, fishes, and amphibians seek refuge and shelter. It is here that they mate, raise their young, and forage for food. It is also here that small mammals burrow or build while birds take flight, squawking from the treetops when you encroach on their territory.


But marshes are much more than convenient rest stops for neighborhood wildlife. They act as tremendous sponges, trapping runoff with all of its natural and man-made ills from upland areas. They also buffer the impacts of waves and wakes and slow erosion of the shoreline. A marsh, in short, is a river’s best friend.

Marshes, of course, like the creeks and rivers they inhabit, have many faces. The diversity of plants they support and the fish and wild animals they feed all depend upon a complex arrangement of environmental and physical factors. However, the ecology of any given marsh is influenced first and foremost by water salinity.

Salinity—the amount of salt in water—is measured in parts per thousand (ppt). Moving down a tidal river here, salt is found in an increasing gradient as you travel from the headwaters to the mouth. The exact amount of salt found at a particular point along a river changes, however, throughout the year, and from year to year. Tides, winds, precipitation, seasons, and human activities in the watershed all affect its presence and concentration.

To simplify the study of marshes and aquatic plants, it is helpful to divide a river into salinity zones that generally shape the life we find within them. Scientists use the presence of plants, trees, fish, and other wildlife to classify these zones, to make generalizations about natural conditions, and to understand how rivers change over time. For the purposes of this book, river segments are classified simply as freshwater, tidal freshwater, tidal brackish water, or saltwater.

In the uppermost reaches of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers and their tributaries, fresh waters rush forth from underground springs originating in the rocky uplands of the Piedmont Province. Here, the water is clear and shallow, moving in narrow rivulets over gravel and rock. Insects and tiny critters hide under rocks and logs in tamer, slow-moving pools. The presence of immature bugs, such as caddis fly and mayfly nymphs, indicates that the water is healthy and getting a good balance of nutrients from adjacent land and fallen debris from overhanging trees, mixed with ample oxygen at the surface. It is to these creeks and pools that the treasured hickory shad and river herring migrate during early spring to release their eggs before returning to the Chesapeake Bay and, eventually, the Atlantic. Traveling as much as several hundred miles along the same routes that their ancestors chose to spawn, these migrating fish are a living testament to the underlying forces of life that, over time, assure survival of each species.

Along the freshwater edges, pockets of low-lying land may form swamps, or wetlands, that house woody shrubs and vines mixed with trees like red maples and green ash. Skunk cabbage and Eastern joe-pye weed grow along with common greenbrier and poison ivy. In late summer, keep an eye out for the pale pink blossom of the swamp rose, or the spotted orange trumpet-shaped blossom of the jewelweed (commonly called spotted-touch-me-not), waving from its slender stem. With a little imagination, you can hear its sweet melody drifting over the water.

Freshwater wetlands are home to quite a large number of animals. Muskrats and beavers and the occasional river otter build houses here. Lots of frogs and turtles consider them “home base,” returning after forays farther inland or in the river channel. Elegant birds like the snowy egret and great blue heron roost in the tops of dead trees, using their posts to scout for meals, while aggressive blue jays and belted kingfishers work the shoreline for prey.

In tidal freshwater marshes where trees are absent, look for other vegetation, such as rice cutgrass, pickerelweed, Walter’s millet, and the feathery plumes of wild rice, relished by red-winged blackbirds and an assortment of ducks. At higher elevations, a mix of cattails, sedges, and reeds slowly gives way to water-tolerant shrubs and trees that can withstand occasional flooding. Along upland creeks, many treasures flank the water’s edge, including black gum, silky or “swamp” dogwood, sweet gum, and river birch.


As you travel down a large river like the Rappahannock—below the Route 301 bridge, for instance—you will notice two things immediately: with increasing volume, the river broadens and deepens while cutting more deeply into its banks. The force of tides, either incoming “flow” or outgoing “ebb,” directs water movement from here to the Bay. Only during the brief slack tide in between, does the river appear glasslike on a still day. Right about the time you reach Foans Cliffs, near the line separating Westmoreland and Richmond Counties, the river changes from fresh to brackish. It also loses clarity as the character of the bottom changes—now receiving and accumulating sediments and finer gravels more susceptible to the stirrings of wind and tidal action, or temporarily suspended in the water column after washing in from the land.

On the major tributaries of the low country, riverbank vegetation is still thick along tidal freshwater reaches, though it often buffers expansive farm fields directly beyond. You will undoubtedly pass loblolly pines growing on the banks along with sycamores, hollies, and sweet gum.

In more brackish water (say between .5 and 30 ppt of salt), wax myrtle and marsh elder dominate the shores above the high-tide line. Many of the animals found in freshwater marshes also spend time here, in more brackish zones—the eastern mud turtle, muskrat, leopard frog, and red-winged blackbird, for example.

The rivers of the Northern Neck are broad when they empty into the Chesapeake Bay. This is typical of coastal estuaries. Here, the salt content is as much as 35 ppt, pulsing up the arteries of the Bay with the incoming tide.

With this change in the water regime comes a significant shift in the variety of tolerant vegetation and animal life. Salt marshes predominate throughout the lower reaches of the Rappahannock and Potomac. In the fall, sweeps of marsh meadows create a beautiful transition of gold, framing the land against open water and sky. Saltmarsh and salt-meadow cord grasses are by far the most common plants here, accompanied on higher hummocks by salt meadow hay, black needlerush, and salt grass. Sea lavender is a perennial herb found on higher ground. Look for its delicate tube-shaped flowers along the upper edge of marshes in mid to late summer.

Also on higher ground, look for sea oxeye, marsh elder, marshmallow, and hibiscus—all shrubs that flower in late summer. Among the salt grasses, you might catch a glimpse of a molting blue crab or fiddler crab. Kingfishers, sandpipers, and rails also are common. They use their long, pointy bills to pry open snails and other invertebrates clinging to the grass stalks.

There’s no better way to learn about a marsh and its river than to get up close, on the water, with a good field guide in hand. Christopher White’s Chesapeake Bay: A Field Guide, and the Lippsons’ Life in the Chesapeake Bay are wonderful resources to help you identify the variety of flora and fauna on the Northern Neck. You’ll quickly discover that rivers and marshes defy neat attempts at classification. They are extremely dynamic places. Plant and animal distributions change over time and according to seasonal fluctuations. The descriptions given here are intended to whet your appetite and give you a starting point for closer study.



The Rivers that Border Virginia’s Northern Neck

The Potomac River

From its distant, humble beginnings in the Alleghenies of West Virginia, the Potomac flows almost 400 miles to Point Lookout on the Chesapeake Bay. On the way, it meets with the Shenandoah River at historic Harper’s Ferry, meanders past the nation’s capital, and subsequently opens to a wide estuary south of the fall line that eventually flows into the Bay. Even below the fall line, however, the river cuts through high bluffs reaching upwards of 140 feet in places like Nomini Cliffs and Westmoreland State Park.

The Rappahannock River

From its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Rappahannock runs some 184 miles before reaching the Chesapeake Bay. It courses over rock and sandstone as it flows through the Town of Fredericksburg, just below the fall line, before widening into a tidal estuary that weaves slowly across the coastal plain. Below the fall line, the river corridor remains rural in character and is generally blessed with thick vegetation along its bluffs.


The Cat Point Creek Watershed Project is a grassroots organization working to develop a long-term stewardship plan for Cat Point Creek and its drainage basin. The watershed is characterized by agricultural use, with some forestry activity and population concentrations in places like Montross, Lyles, Newland, and Warsaw. Because of its long tradition of agrarian use and the leachable, erodible nature of local soils, the watershed is particularly vulnerable to pollution from wind and soil erosion during farming and forestry practices. Recognizing the potential threats to receiving waters, especially as more land in the watershed becomes developed for residential and commercial uses, a coalition of local citizens and natural-resource managers came together to plan for growth while protecting Cat Point Creek’s outstanding water quality.

Since its inception, the group has formed a steering committee to shape current programs and formulate a long-term management plan for the entire watershed.

Boating and a Safe Environment


  • Taking fuel onto your boat or portable tanks requires great care to avoid spillage. With portable tanks, be certain that they are fully closed before loading to prevent fuel and mix spills. When pumping at a marina and using a hose, wrap the end of the nozzle with a cloth when you begin to fuel. When finished, allow a few seconds for the last fuel in the hose to completely drain into your tank. Discard 2-cycle oil containers at a marina facility and, if used in open water, save the empty container until you return to port and discard immediately. Keep a bilge pillow (available at many marine stores) in your bilge to absorb oil and prevent it from being pumped overboard by your bilge pump. These simple steps will go a long way toward keeping fuel out of waterways.


  • Since 1988, tributyltin (TBT), mercury, and arsenic have been partially banned or restricted for use on boat bottoms because of their toxic risk to aquatic life, especially shellfish. Right now, copper-based paints provide the best anti-fouling protection with the least environmental impact, and generally offer adequate cover over a full boating season. If you elect to paint your boat’s bottom yourself, take these precautions: cover the ground with a protective drop cloth; wear protective clothing; be extra cautious when cleaning up these chemicals. Clean up all paint chips, abrasives, or sanding dust left from your work, and place them in a trash receptacle designated for hazardous household waste disposal.
  • Marine toilets with holding tanks and portable, self-contained toilets keep pollutants out of the water. All types of marine sanitation devices (MSDs) must be regularly pumped out or emptied at a marina or other land-based facility. Unfortunately, boat pump-out facilities can be hard to find in southern Bay waters and rivers, so find out ahead of your boating trips where they’re available (see the “Resources & Information” section of this guide). If necessary, take the holding tank with you when you return home, dilute its contents with water, and flush down your toilet.