Saturday, March 30, 2013

Journey on the James

Earl Swift, Journey on the James: Three Weeks through the Heart of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 239 pages, notes.

Earl Swift, a reporter for a Norfolk, Virginia newspaper and Ian, a photographer for the same paper, set out in the fall of 1998 to explore the length of the James River from its beginning in a spring bubbling up on a farm deep in the Virginia Mountains until it empties out into the Chesapeake Bay 430 miles later.  At first, Swift hikes along the stream bed.  Once there is enough water, he crawls into a canoe stuffed with extra flotation and with a double-bladed paddle begins to make his way down river.  At the end, when the river is wide and he’s fighting the tide and wind, he switches to a sea kayak.  As Swift sticks to the water, Ian follows along in his old Volvo, scouting out places to stop, buying up all the Gatorade he can find and supposedly taking a few photographs.   In telling his story on the water, Swift also explores the history of the region. 

I must admit I had high hopes for this book and almost decided not to finish reading it.  Supposedly, according to the back cover, the author had hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail and paddled a kayak around the Chesapeake Bay.   I was expecting someone more turned into nature and the rhythm of the journey.  I never came to care much for the author or his side-kick.  At times, it seemed Earl was making light of their tenderfoot ways, but he never quite pulls it off in the way Bill Bryson does in A Walk in the Woods.  Of course, part of this may be that Swift was originally writing for a newspaper.  Bryson’s humor involves stretching the truth (or in some cases throwing it out the window), a talent that newspaper editors may not appreciated.  The lighthearted comments on their ineptness fell flat.  He’s not Don Quixote and Ian isn’t the faithful squire Sancho.  Also playing into my dislike of the characters is the lack of awe that Swift shows as he makes his way across the state.  Part of this may be due to the fact that he is never far from civilization and just about every bend in the river, Ian is there to hand him a Gatorade and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  At the end of the day, when they don’t want Mac and Cheese, Ian runs out for fast food and some beers.  This is no wilderness trip.
However, I do appreciate Swift’s insight into the history of this region.  From the first English settlement in the New World, through the battles between Native Americans and Settlers, to the Revolutionary, Civil and the World Wars, the James has a story to tell.  With a journalistic eye, Swift does a commendable job with the history.  He reminds his readers of the fights between civilizations (and makes the point that the native population in this part of the New World had develop quite an empire).  In a way, the story of the battle between the natives and immigrants is told backwards as he starts in the west where the last battles occurred late in the 18th century and then travels east where the first battles occurred early in the 17th Century.  I also gained appreciation for the hard work and ingenuity of early Americans (and their slaves) as they struggled to build a canal that ran up the river and help develop the western part of the state.   However, as soon as the canals were complete, the railroad came onto the scene, making the canals obsolete and eventually using their aqueducts to lay rails over creeks.  Swift also covers the Civil War battles as he paddles through Richmond and even mentions the role Newport News had in later wars as it churned out and continues to churn out warships for the American navy.       

I don’t recommend this book for anyone interested in canoeing as there are a number of other canoe trip books that I’ve reviewed that I’d recommend first.  However, if you’re looking for a quick read on the history of Central Virginia, this book has a lot to offer. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Late Winter Paddle

The river, filled with snow-melt, is running high, water just below the banks at the wildlife ramp off Airport Road.  Thankfully, there was a scalloped cut in the bank at the put-in, which created an eddy.  I slide my canoe into the water, its bow facing upstream, and stepped in, kneeling and straddling the saddle that I’ve placed in the middle of the boat.  When set, I pushed the bow out into the water and let the current spin the boat around and downstream and am quickly swept into a winter wonderland.  The river flows through banks dusted with snow.    Once in the channel, I refrained from paddling, as I wait for a friend to launch and catch up in his kayak.   I notice a robin hopping along the bank, and then another and finally realize there was a whole flock of robins, probably two or three dozen.  They are the first robins I’d seen this year, obviously having just flown in together from warmer latitudes.

 The temperature is in the upper 20s (a few degrees below freezing), with a gentle breeze that made it feel a little cooler, but with the layers I’m wearing, I’m warm.  The river moves at a nice clip and soon Lee is beside me in his kayak and we catch up on what’s happening in our lives as we make our way downstream.  The first mile or so we’re near the highway, which is a 100 or so yards to our left, and the noise of cars and trucks flying along destroys the wilderness- like atmosphere of the river.  To our right is mostly farmland, with a few trees along the bank.  We spoof a deer that runs along the bank for a good distance, stops to watch us and as we approach, takes off again, his white tail raised as he bounces along the bank until he finally turns inland and away from the river.
I tend to avoid the houses in my photos!

It has been a few years since I’ve paddled this section of river and I am amazed that there appear to be so many nice new homes along the river. Of course, dispersed between these “castles” are others that look as if they belong in some backwater hollers in Appalachia, shacks surrounded by rusty cars that haven’t seen pavement in years along with other junk.  Or maybe I just never noticed that there are so many places along the river as I don’t think I’ve ever paddled this section in the winter or early spring.  I know I’ve paddled it a few times in the summer, as this is prime small mouth bass waters and I have caught a number of them as I’ve floated this section.  I have also floated it once in the fall, when the leaves were magnificent.  But now, without leaves, everything along the bank stands as a sinner before the throne, exposed.

After the river makes a bend and runs up to a low point in the highway (the one place that I know from experience that you might drop a cell phone call), it turns sharp to the northeast and away from the road and the noise of civilization.  As the sound of automobiles fade, I relish in the quiet sounds of the river, the rippling water rushing around snags and trees that have dropped into the river.  I also hear the sounds of birds, robins and red wing blackbirds.  The birds pause along the river for a break as they make their way north to their summer grounds.  Neither with be found in large flocks in a few weeks, as the robins stake out a claim in backyards and the redwings claim nice wetlands with cattails upon which they perch.    Occasionally, to our right, are the banks upon which ran the old Michigan Central, a rail line that changed hands many times before it ceased operation in 1984.   There have been plans to incorporate the entire line, from Grand Rapids to Vermontville into the Paul Henry Trail (an already existing section of this trail is also a part of the North Country Trail), but one of the holdouts from what I’ve been told is the Hayward family whose oversized factory farm and dairy take up much of the land on that side of the river. 

We don’t have to paddle hard, as we let the current take us downstream, enjoying the new sights every bend brings.  Along the edges are old trees: maples, box elders, sycamores and oaks.  The few cedars, with their grayish green leaves, and white pines with their green-needles in their crowns that tower over the other trees, seem out of place in this black and white world.  At one point in the trip, the sky spits out sleet and I pour myself a mug of tea and sip as I feel more alive than I have all week.

We cross under an unused trestle, just beyond Whispering Waters campground.  There are four old trestles from the Michigan Central along the Thornapple as the railroad jump from side of the river to the other and a fifth old trestle that was built by the CK&S (Chicago, Kalamazoo & Saginaw or as it was known, the Cuss, Kick & Spit or Swear).  The CK&S trestle was taken over by the Michigan Central in 1937 when that line went bankrupted and the Michigan Central used it as a spur to serve industries on the north side of Hastings.  Today, the trestles are only crossed by those walking or biking. 
After a couple of hours, the water begins to slow as we enter the backwater behind the Irving dam.  As the river widens (and becomes shallower), we’re greeted by a large flock of Canadian geese who are disturbed by our presence and take to flight, squawking.    From behind, a solo sandhill crane flies into a hidden spot in the marsh and joins the chorus of geese.   I wonder where its mate is.   The mill pond is filled with a variety of other ducks and a pair of swans.  Once, in the summer, I hooked a large Northern Pike in these waters, using ultra-light tackle.  I fought the fish for a few minutes, getting it up close enough to the boat only to have it take off again.  I was never able to get it in a net and the fish finally broke my line, leaving me to wonder just how big he really was.  I’m sure he’s grown at least eight inches if not a foot in my immigration since that fateful day. 

Geese and the Village of Irving
We take out at the portage to the right of the dam.  This is one of two dams still producing a trickle of hydroelectric power along this section of river, but the impoundment behind the dam has so silted up that during the summer, where there is great need for electricity, there isn’t much water to produce power.   To the west of the river is the village of Irving, in which the train use to stop as it made its way north to Middleville and then Parmalee and Caledonia and on to Grand Rapids.  Today, the small village is just a collection of houses, not longer served by the train and bypassed by the highway.  It’s 4:30 PM.  We talk about how we could have, if planned, had enough light to have paddled on to Middleville, but that would require us to shuttle the vehicles.  We load the canoe onto my truck and slide his kayak into the back and head back to our put-in point where Lee’s van waits.   As it is, he needs to get back to work as they’re busy, which is a good thing.  It’s been a nice paddle and a good opportunity to catch up with a friend on a Saturday afternoon.