In honor of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, I wanted to pay a return visit to the island and probe its inner waterways. But with the Queen of England and the King of America visiting, I had to wait until just after the big weekend celebration for entirely selfish reasons I didnt want to get shot. What could be more suspicious than a bearded guy in a wetsuit, peeing behind a tree?
It was a beautiful day: a high pressure system had brought us cool, crystal clear air with little wind. The Jamestown Yacht Basin on Powhatan Creek was quiet; the locals were still avoiding the area for fear of traffic. In the late morning shortly after high tide, I turned right out of the basin and passed beneath the Colonial Parkway. The water was virtually fresh with only 4 visibility, and almost warm enough for swimming. Making one loop through the marsh, I passed an osprey nest at the entrance to Sandy Bay with a nestling who piped at me as I passed by.
Osprey families seem to invite trouble: the huge nest is visible to God and everybody, the attending adult quietly flies off, the nestling doesnt hide, and for the benefit of any visually handicapped predators, the youngster often makes plenty of noise. If I didnt know they exclusively ate fish, Id think they had friends nearby waiting to pounce. It would be quite a sight if a raccoon were to try; something like the arrival of the Tasmanian Devil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but with feathers.
Once in Sandy Bay, you have to decide which route to take around Jamestown Island. To the left takes you to the protected waters of the Thorofare, which is basically Powhatan Creek as it widens and meanders between Jamestown Island and the mainland. To the right takes you to the James River which I prefer because it puts me on the big water before the afternoon winds pick up. The tide was with me, so I had no problem shooting out the narrow slot under the tiny bridge which connects Jamestown Island to the mainland. If Id been on the spot a few days earlier, I would have seen all the pieces of President Bush arrive in no less than five helicopters which landed on this same causeway.
In the days clear air, the James River was achingly beautiful. A short mile south across the river, lie shorelines bordered by trees including bald cypress. A bit further downstream is the Scotland terminal to which the white, boxy ferries shuttle back and forth. Even the ferries had been shut down during the VIP visits, another good reason not to be on the river at the time. Im sure any poor bubba out fishing in the area would have not only gotten a Coast Guard life-jacket inspection but a proctological exam as well.
The shoreline of Jamestown Island in this section has been rip-rapped, but its still nice with trees hanging over the water. I startled two bald eagles, one enormous female and one juvenile. Most of the occupied part of the island is and was squeezed into the northwestern corner of the island, so it was only a short while before I came to an open area with a large crowd of tourists listening to a historical interpreter. In addition to an active archeological dig, there are ruins of an old red-brick church. Presiding over it all is a patinaed statue of John Smith. Lots of derelict wharf pilings lie offshore: they are exposed at low tide, but at high tide lie submerged waiting to snag you. A deep shipping channel lies only a few hundred yards offshore, a fact which must have been extremely attractive to the colonists.
The rest of the island is quite wild now, though there is a narrow road which loops through it. Reasonably mature oaks, pines, and bald cypress line the shores, and in addition to the occasional bald eagles, turkey vultures and black vultures are common. Between whatever washes up on approximately 7 miles of shoreline, plus turnover in the deer population, scavengers seem to do well here. The rip-rap is replaced by a few groins which trap sand locally, but between groins the river eats into the island leaving dead trees.
Depending on the weather and your inclination, you can complete a circumnavigation of the island which takes you past small sandy beaches abutting lines of treed hummocks which used to be high points on an undulating sandy river bottom. For all practical purposes, this part of the island is inaccessible by land. Here, bald eagles devour their meals, and at low tide there is some limited beach-combing (catfish spines and gravels). Im not sure what the National Park Service thinks about it, but I cant imagine a better way to savor Jamestown Island than to view the James River from one of these tiny deserted beaches. Further on, the trees retreat from the shoreline and the beaches disappear, leaving a marsh exposed to miles of open water. If the winds are up, this section will be rough.
But today, I wanted a different Jamestown Island experience. I was looking for a creek that shows up on maps and aerial photos which bisects the island. This turned out to be at the 2nd marshy break. On entering the narrow creek, the current from the draining marshes was against me as it wound past the tree line. This proximity of wooded and marshy habitats is great for songbirds. The red-wing blackbird clung to the reeds and repeated its melodious trilling call. (Words really fail here.) I was confused by the sight of a few barn swallows, but not seeing any barns, cliffs, or caves, I just shrugged. Turtles basking on logs plopped into the water as soon as they saw me. A few aggressive flies pestered me, but I was DEET-ed up and they never bit.
Because the water here is virtually fresh, the marsh plants are more diverse and attractive than what you find in a salt marsh. Ill take the pretty green leaves of arrow arum over salt cordgrass any day. On the shorelines, wild raspberry bushes were in full flower. Japanese Honeysuckle, an aggressive, invasive species, was just beginning to spread its delightful scent. The war against this honeysuckle is long since lost, and it is now as much a part of the Virginia landscape as poison ivy.
Passing up a few large channels on the left, I soon reached the nexus of the creek, the point of zero flow. The channel was still 3 deep, which suggests that its probably even navigable at low tide. (But dont count on it). Such areas want to evolve into mud flats, because they silt up from the lack of current. Occasional storm surges may be the only thing that keeps them open. After paddling a just a little further, the current increased until it pulled me along at 1 mph across the rest of the island.
Trying to cross the marsh without a map or compass could land you at the terminus of one of a hundred little tributaries. However, this section of Jamestown Island isnt dangerously big (not on the scale of Virginias barrier islands anyway). If lost, you should be able to avoid the nickname Sleeps with Muskrats by reversing your direction with respect to the current that got you there and consistently following or fighting it until you are back to the river where you started. (Okay, this only works if the tide hasnt reversed and/or you didnt paddle through the nexus. No strategy works under all circumstances.)
Floating down the creek, I had to pass a lone dead tree with an osprey nest in it. Except for the occasional deer swimming the channel, this nest probably doesnt get many visitors. The adult left the nest and flew much higher than they usually do, but screaming like she was trying to pass a catfish spine sideways. Ive encountered hundreds of ospreys but have never seen an adult freak out like that. The infant piped up, of course, but Mom had him so convinced that this blue kayak was going to jump up there and eat him, that soon his piping turning into a croaking gag-like sound. I didnt feel too badly until Junior starting standing erect and clumsily flapping his wings. Needing only a few more seconds to float by, I thought, Dont do it. But he took off, as wobbly as my first paper airplanes. Somehow, he managed not to crash, and after one orbit of the tree he actually started looking like the product of millions of years of winged evolution. Then he gave up and landed in the top of the tree. Staring down at the nest 10 feet below him, you knew he was thinking that it might as well have been on the moon.
Wildlife observation while paddling is like seeing only five minutes of a dozen different movies. Theres no question that youve seen something, but you lack the context to really understand it. Thats why professional naturalists hide in blinds for hours and days being eaten by bugs, hoping that their first glance of the jaguar wont be two golden eyeballs located 6 away through the slit in the cloth. They are gods. But amateurs can only guess what theyve seen, so take my conclusions with a grain of salt. After first feeling bad about disturbing the ospreys, I later decided that I had probably been used in a case of feathered failure to launch. Now when Junior is hungry he wont be able to pretend that he cant fly off to fishing school with the parents.
At the mouth of the creek, I was back in the James River, across which lies low, marshy Hog Island WMA. Its easy to recognize from the two tan domes of the Surry nuclear power station, partly hidden in the trees. Turning left to follow the shoreline, I surprised a deer in the park-like woods. There were lots of small fish in the water and larger fish chasing them. Marking the end of Jamestown Island is Black Point, where beaches of sand and gravel hide behind groins. I wasnt surprised to meet a couple of people here, since its the best stopping place on a long, skinny looping road through the marshy side of the island. We watched two ospreys circling offshore, one just circling, the other twice folding its wings to hit the water and coming up empty. With only 4 water visibility in this area, its a tough fishing school.
After Black Point, I began paddling against the current in the Thorofare, which separates Jamestown Island from the mainland. There were more ospreys in a dead tree at a point. They are doing so well, they are running out of quality nesting sites. Perhaps in the next decade well see a return of osprey colonies as described by author/naturalist Gilbert C. Klingel in the 1940s. It seems only a matter of time before we see joint Department of Education/Interior pamphlets entitled, What Osprey Population Rebound Means for the School Lunch Program.
A rarer sighting was an adult otter next to the shoreline. He paused and looked in my direction for a few seconds, then plunged into the water and never showed his muzzle again. From a human perspective, all that staring and head-bobbing makes them look intensely curious. But I think they just dont see very well.
My next destination was Kingsmill Creek, the islands largest creek on the Thorofare side. It wasnt easy to find among the many creeks to choose from, plus being partially hidden by peaty clumps and two decrepit duck blinds. Wildlife became more apparent as the tide dropped. Small fiddler crabs covered the small mudflats and fled at my arrival. Fat turtles basked on shelves they had made on the marsh edges. Usually they bolted into the water in the blink of an eye. The lone exception didnt see me as I approached because it was facing the reeds. I was about to tap him on the shell and ask for directions when he spun around and plopped into the water. There is nothing slow about an alarmed water turtle!
Fish activity increased as the creek narrowed and became shallower. The bottom was sandy, and I had to keep looking for the channel. As I approached a low bridge, barely higher than the marsh grass, it was clear why there were so many barn swallows in the area. The girders were covered with their mud-pot nests. The location looked vulnerable to predators like raccoons or black rat snakes, but perhaps the swirling of 50 swallows in the air discourages them. It discouraged me. Any bird that can catch mosquitoes on the wing probably has the coordination to pluck out any eyelash it happens to fancy.
Leaving Kingsmill Creek was easy, a matter of turning around and going with the current. Done with marsh for the time being, I crossed over to the wooded mainland, where I inadvertently crowded a flock of Canada geese floating near the shoreline. The entire flock was reluctant to fly because of the presence of two goslings, so they hissed at me and then one another as they dominoed into one others space. Meanwhile, several deer in nearby woods who had accepted the noisy geese were completely oblivious to my arrival.
Theres a lot of unsung history along this shoreline: the remains of wooden ships pinned together with iron spikes or square nails, and piles of crude, red bricks, some now being lifted out of the ground by tree roots. Its a beautiful, wild looking area, but youre never far from the drone of cars and especially buses on the Colonial Parkway, only a few hundred yards away. A sign on the nearby parkway notes that small settlements on these shores were wiped out in a massacre. Nowadays, the major danger is being run over by a power boat.
A little further on, I passed behind the parking lot for the Jamestown visitor center and was almost ready to call it a day. But I decided the trip wouldnt be complete without some photos of the Discovery, Godspeed, and the Susan Constant, a short paddle up the James River. The tide had reversed at least an hour earlier than predicted, either because the tables are wrong, or the wind blowing upriver had advanced the tidal phase a bit. The narrow channel beneath the causeway has one of the strongest rips in our area. When the tide is against you, it needs to be attacked aggressively and with an open mind because the currents and whirlpools will do strange things to your paddle and your rudder. But its only 100 feet of pain.
The replicas of the ships which brought the original Jamestown settlers are usually moored right next to the ferry landing. (Stay well away from the ferries.) Most people are struck by how small some of the ships are considering they had to cross the Atlantic Ocean; the Virginia Company was obviously not over-capitalized. After a few pictures, I was paddling away when a cannon was fired from one of the ships, a real underwear-changer. That immediately answered an important question for me. About a mile into this trip, I had heard an explosion and seen a cloud of smoke rising over the trees and wondered if someones car had caught fire, perhaps even mine. That may sound paranoid, but you havent seen my car.
On the trip back, low tide had exposed a pile of rocks in the middle of Sandy Bay. Most of the rocks are the usual water-smoothed sandstone cobbles from the Blue Ridge Mountains which got deposited over our entire area about 2 million years ago in a mysterious catastrophe. Since then the sea-level has dropped, turning sea bottom into clay hills, which the James River and Powhatan Creek later washed away to leave these cobbles as a lag deposit. There are also some rotted granite boulders, one the size of a king-sized bed which had not-surprisingly accumulated lots of propeller scars. If these granite boulders got here by natural means, they would be the most interesting rocks in Tidewater. However, its conceivable they were brought here.
On the trip back to the landing, I saw something long and two-humped crossing the creek. It wasnt drifting with the current or the wind, so I knew it was a critter. I accelerated to get closer before it reached the opposite bank, but it saw me and turned around. When it reached the shore, a sorry looking young raccoon stepped out of the water and quickly disappeared into the rip-rap. One hump had been his head, the other hump had been the dry tip of his fluffy tail.
My kids went through Virginia elementary schools and have had to take Virginia standardized tests, so they have been stewed in Jamestown history until their brains became tender enough to slide out their ears. They may think Maryland is somewhere in Canada, but they (and unfortunately their parents) have heard a lot about the London Companys questionable investment. Its interesting to speculate how observed conditions would have affected the Jamestown colony.
Given the presence of indigenous populations on the mainland, it was probably wise to begin the colony on an island, particularly one which was readily accessible to deep-draft vessels. The water here is currently tidal fresh, drinkable when boiled. At the end of the day your clothes will be stained with salt you didnt know was there, because its only a few parts per thousand. It doesnt taste salty, but it would take special techniques to irrigate with it, otherwise the salts would accumulate and poison crops. Only 10 miles downriver near Mulberry Island, the water is significantly clearer, 2/3 as salty as the ocean, and completely unpotable. These conditions wouldnt have surprised people who had lived in London on the Thames River, and who recognized that theyd come a similar distance upriver from a salty bay. But during the period of extraordinary drought that tree-ring studies have found, the salty finger of water would have pushed its way further upstream, and life in Jamestown would have gotten harder.
As for food, areas of the higher northeast section could be cleared and cultivated with crops. Oysters were plentiful in the river. The greatest botanical bounty, acorns, may not have been exploited because these require special techniques to reduce the tannins to a safe level. Deer and other large mammal population on its roughly 2 square miles would be quickly extirpated, but the colonists could otherwise do well fishing and hunting on its 7 miles of shoreline and its uncountable miles of creeks. This area is known for its gravels, so within a short distance of Jamestown Island should be found spawning area for sturgeon and other fish. Giant sturgeon scales have indeed been found in the Jamestown trash dumps. So springtime should have yielded a particularly rich harvest.
Unfortunately, you may leave with the impression that those same 7 miles of shoreline make the island completely indefensible by a small population during times of tension with the Indians. The wooded hammocks would provide plenty of cover for hostiles arriving by canoe under cover of darkness, while the marshy guts would be a serious impediment to someone trying to keep his match and powder dry. The colonists would have been forced to retreat behind palisades. I can imagine the gut-wrenching fear of a couple of colonists sneaking out of the palisades into the interior creeks to catch a few turtles, fish, or shellfish. They would go there because of the high wildlife density, and because they couldnt be seen from the river or mainland. The beautiful green trees would become horrible, dark, hiding places, an easy bow-shot from the creek. So while the island location would slow a massed attack, even the threat of an occasional small raiding party would make life hard. The Indians of the area were probably no less disposed to torture than the Europeans but were more ingenious; having their women scrape the skin of a captive off with sharp-edged shells was only a warm-up. Slow starvation might have seemed less ghastly.
This is a trip of significant regional (perhaps even national) interest for scenery, wildlife, and history. The described trip was 14 miles in 6.5 hours.
Jamestown Yacht Basin, bathrooms or porta-potties.
$5 for kayaks
Unfortunately, the National Park Service doesnt allow hand-carry boats to put-in along the nearby Colonial Parkway. However, they have no problem with the thousands of commuter vehicles speeding up and down it which tarnish the ambiance and destroy any hope for a safe and pleasant bike ride. Go figure. The most practical remaining option for paddling Jamestown Island is to put in at Jamestown Yacht Basin.
From Interstate 64 near Williamsburg, take 199 West, then turn southwest on Rt. 31. Jamestown Yacht Basin will be on your left. If you end up on a ferry or in the James River, you drove a few hundred yards too far. (We locals will pop off 199 onto the scenic Colonial Parkway heading toward Jamestown, make a few confusing turns near Jamestown Island, and end up at the yacht basin. Touring the Parkway is highly recommended, but not if you have a tide to catch.)
The national park service website is http://www.nps.gov/jame/
The ADC street map book for Greater Hampton Roads was very helpful.
Aerial photos and topo maps from http://www.terraserver.microsoft.com were useful, as were virtual tours via Google Earth. Look for evidence of mans hand in the uninhabited southeast section of the island.
I use http://tbone.biol.sc.edu/tide/ for tide predictions.
The CBOFS wind forecast for the Chesapeake Bay area can be found at http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/ofs/cbofs/wind_forecast.shtml
Osprey colonies on the Chesapeake Bay were described in The Bay, by Gilbert C. Klingel, c 1951, Dodd, Mead, and Company, NY.