Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Paddle back in time with Capt. John Smith

U.S., natural history await explorers on James section of trail

"The idea of the Captain John Smith Trail is really hard to wrap your head around," said Jill Bieri, as her kayak glided downwind on Powhatan Creek through fields of arrow arum, a wash of emerald green leaves against the deep blue afternoon sky.

Powhatan Creek is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, an ambitious and ongoing project launched by 2006 legislation in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown in 1607. It was the first time that Congress designated a water trail as a national historic trail. Its creation has helped to revive waterfront communities throughout Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

The trail, which runs for 3,000 miles up the Bay and its great rivers, is a charted course and history lesson wrapped together. It commemorates John Smith's explorations of the Bay from 1607 to 1609 and his encounters with the Indians who had lived here for centuries.

Smith made two long trips from Jamestown to the Upper Bay in 1608, and his exploration provided the early colonists with their first real picture of the region's mighty rivers, coastal plains, marshes and upland forests.

Smith's trips were weeks to months long, but for most of us, exploring the trail requires taking it on in pieces. In fact, that's the way the National Park Service is planning the trail — in segments. The first, the James River segment, is well along, and that's where Bieri was paddling.

Bieri worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the early 2000s and was part of a multidisciplinary team charged with bringing the trail to life. She said the planning meetings spawned important partnerships between local and regional groups and were part of the impetus for her to create the nonprofit, Chesapeake Experience. The organization provides classes, camps and tours of the creeks that define the Bay ecosystems that she says are integral to understanding the history of these places.

It's especially important, she said, for people to visit sites along the water trail that are evocative of the landscapes that Smith encountered. "Powhatan Creek is still very pristine, which is amazing given how much development has taken place so close by."

She spotted a bald eagle against the background of trees on the bank, barely 50 feet from a waterfront home. Its presence is a conservation story of its own.

Many of the school children she takes on the water are blasé about seeing an eagle, never having experienced the time when they were rare and declining. This stretch of the James is noted for its high number of nesting and transient eagles.

"You really can paddle this creek and have an experience of what it might have looked like all along the James River back in the early 1600s when John Smith was exploring for the Virginia Company," Bieri said.

The tide slowly pulled the curtain back on the muddy bottom as Bieri and her fellow paddlers floated easily along a creek through a landscape layered with the history of English colonization of Virginia.

Modern maps, website resources and sturdy signs at boat launches, campgrounds and historic settlements provide visitors and would-be visitors with information about the trail and the region's history. All are adorned with the trail's emblem, shaped like a shield and with an image of the shallop that Smith used on his voyage of discovery.

Ten strategically placed "smart buoys" also provide information for trail explorers. Anchored at significant junctures along the trail, including one off Jamestown Island where the Powhatan enters the James, the yellow, special-purpose buoys measure and chart the daily patterns of weather, tides and water quality and tell, by way of audio recordings, the highlights of their location's history. They can be reached by phone at 877-BuoyBay or via the internet at http://buoybay.noaa.gov/.

To really understand the history, travelers may have to confront uncomfortable stories about the exploitation of natural resources and the displacement of native peoples — in both North America and Africa. Touch down on any segment of John Smith's journeys along the James, and you are on a trail of questions.

For Jamie Brunkow, the Lower James Riverkeeper, the river — and thus the historic water trail — is his beat. His skiff is docked at Eco-Discovery Park at the Jamestown Marina, just off Jamestown Road.

Brunkow takes the direct route to the river, under a low bridge that carries cars and bicyclists to the actual island of Jamestown. The geography is complicated here. The wind and water have played with the sediment and sand for centuries, covering and uncovering the isthmus between the island and the mainland. In spite of the landmarks ashore, it's easy to get disoriented. A chart is a good idea. A GPS is even better.

"The river is looking a bit brown today," he said, squinting into the sun toward his upstream destination. The combination of outgoing tide and 15-knot breeze is kicking up 2-foot waves that smack the hull. The previous days' rains upriver have rendered the James into a brown frothy chop.

Brunkow, who used to be the Sassafras Riverkeeper on Maryland's Upper Eastern Shore, said it has been a big change to monitor the 105-mile section of the lower James. In spite of being on the water every week, he still discovers new and favorite spots since arriving last year. There are several up ahead on the Chickahominy River.

Known colloquially as "the Chick," it is the second largest tributary of the James below the fall line, draining 470 square miles of a broad, mostly flat coastal plain. The ridge along the watershed's northern boundary was the home of the Chickahominy, the first Indians John Smith encountered as he embarked on his explorations upriver in 1607.

The Chickahominy people, known even today for a council form of government, were surrounded by, but not part of, the powerful Powhatan confederacy. It was the Chickahominy who captured Smith and turned him over to Chief Powhatan.

Much of the watershed is protected, as part of the state Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area, and there are places in the headwater swamps that feel as wild and remote as they may have felt to the English explorers.

Brunkow navigated his boat across an edge into lighter colored water, a pulse of freshwater from the Chick. The chop flattened in the lee of the land, as the boat entered the mouth of the river, past the riverfront golf course estates, under the Route 5 Bridge and along the bend where Gordon Creek comes in from the east through sun-drenched shores of pickerelweeds and arrow arum.

As Brunkow slowed his boat to get a closer look at the flowering azaleas on the shoreline, a muskrat slid through the water toward a tangle of roots that disguised its den. Its beady eyes kept watch on the boat.

The Chickahominy has been a popular spot for boaters for years. Chickahominy Riverfront Park boasts a doublewide trailer launch, 161 campsites and a swimming pool. During the summer, the park swells with weekend and vacationing families spilling out of tents on the bluffs overlooking the Chick and Gordon Creek. It's a favorite of local kayakers, who can find plenty of quiet coves and meandering side creeks away from power boats and jet skis.

James City County's parks and recreation budget is second only to its school budget, and the results are evident in the number and variety of outdoor opportunities for year-round residents and visitors. Hiking trails and biking trails are abundant, and major portions of the Virginia Capital Trail have been built, including the 8-mile section between Jamestown and the Chickahominy.

The trail winds through patches of wetland forests as dark and primeval as Smith may have encountered. Sturdy wooden bridges ford the streams along a route that was once used by animals, then Indians, then commerce of the colonial era. Joggers, cyclists, walkers and parents with strollers make good use of the trail. Spur trails connect to one of the oldest farms on Virginia's Lower Peninsula and the Powhatan Greenway along the headwaters of the creek.

Ann Hewitt, president of Friends of Powhatan Creek, takes great pleasure in showing off the natural beauty of the county where she and friends have worked to minimize the impacts of development.

Showing visitors around, she is a bundle of energy, her words tumbling over each other like a waterfall. But she will just as easily stop for a moment to appreciate of an iris in bloom or to marvel that — at least for the day we were on it — the water is clear in the creek. Hewitt knows what it takes to save a wetland and for her, it starts with understanding the ecology and knowing the plants in flower and what's native and what is not.

It's easy to understand why planners decided to anchor the John Smith Trail at Jamestown. In addition to being the first permanent English settlement, Jamestown served as the first capital of Virginia, and was the site where the Indians and colonists first clashed over the use — and taking – of the land and its bounties.

Visitor access and interpretation are varied and finely tuned, illuminating the stories of Jamestown's settlers, including indentured workers from Africa, England, Scotland and Europe prior to the institution of slavery here. Jamestown Settlement offers historic interpreters and replicas of the boats on which the early colonialists arrived.

At Historic Jamestowne, on the island itself, the visitor center doors open to a wide boardwalk over marshy lowland, with a vista of the James River beyond the obelisk erected to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown.

Under tall oak trees, the guide, who is also an archeologist here, invited a group of visitors to imagine the earliest years of the settlement.

Stopping at an active digging site, he told them how the original stockade fencing was rediscovered in 1994 through the painstaking review of historical records,

maps and an understanding of soils, weather and the work of water.

Beyond the church that served as the first assembly place of the Virginia colonists, his colleagues are busy brushing free the sediments of time to expose a cannonball, brick hearth, and, most recently, the skeletal remains of a young, unknown girl whose discovery has made a new round of history.

Named Jane by the archeology team, her bones show irrefutable signs of cannibalism, a gruesome but very real testimony to the "starving times" during the winter of 1609.

William Kelso, the lead archeologist in the team that discovered the stockade, signed autographs for a crowd of onlookers. This happens a lot when he shows up at an active dig on the property.

Archeology is part science, part art, part geology and is all about asking and trying to answer the questions, as Kelso explains in his book, "Rediscovering Jamestown." "We've tried from the start to make this a very public working archeology site. Teaching and interacting with the visitors behind the rope line is just as important to us," Kelso said.

As the sun slid toward the horizon, two cyclists followed the last cars around the driving loop on the island. Sun filtered through stands of loblolly and oak. Below a narrow wooden bridge crossing a channel through the marsh, a turtle foraged slowly upstream against the receding tide.

At a series of pullouts, educational signs are placed at just the right height for car windows, pointing out significant landmarks and natural history features. After all, not everyone can ride a bike.

Or paddle a kayak.

The water trail can be bit off — piece by small piece —and savored by way of boat, car, foot or bicycle.

Trails are meant to take us places, but like all travel, there is the destination and there is the journey. By naming this the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, we are given a reference point in time.

All that's needed is willingness to follow the signs, pause along the way and consider what has changed and what might yet change if we allow ourselves to respond deeply to the natural world.

Explore these sites before exploring the James

These websites provide information to help guide any exploration of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail on the James River. For a map of sites on the James River, check out the National Park Service insert in this issue.

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Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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