Wednesday, September 16, 2009

James River at Arcadia - September 2009, The Power of Water

I chose a cloudy, warm, and humid late-summer afternoon for an hour's paddle on the James River, Virginia, near the Arcadia boat access. You can read more about the Arcadia access here. Parking for about a dozen vehicles and gravel path to the water provide access to a reasonable amount of flatwater in the downstream direction, enough for 45-60 minutes on the water, including poking around time.

Water levels today were much lower than when I visited this location in the spring, and numerous boulders were jutting out of the water along this stretch. It's possible to paddle upstream from the access point, at least for a short while, but I chose to head downstream today along a relatively quiet stretch of flatwater. Besides two people bank fishing, I had the river to myself.

Downstream from the boat access point and around a long meander, I came upon a small creek entering the James.

It's a small creek which flows out of the adjacent mountains and beneath a railroad bridge before emptying into the James. The lack of recent rain has reduced its flow to barely a trickle. Listen to and watch a short (15 second) video clip of water from this creek flowing over some rocks into the James River:

The force of the water today was barely enough to move a rock the size of a pebble. What's interesting about this location, however, is the size of the bar immediately downstream from where the creek joins the James River. In the picture below, you can see the creek spilling into the James in the left-center of the photo:

A large bar of boulders extends downstream, formed when the river and creek are in flood, and large boulders are brought down the creek out of the mountains by the force of the water and the creek's steep gradient.

When faced head on, the bar looks like this:

The bar itself is large enough to act like a peninsula, and it's possible to paddle around it to the backside. In late summer, much of the bar is overgrown with vegetation and young trees:

One can image the incredible force of the water necessary to move these large boulders, and the many tens of thousands of years needed to build a bar of this size. And, really, the amount of rainfall needed to create a flash flood sufficient to move large boulders - something we haven't experienced in recent years, given the persistent drought.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here. Note the bar in the satellite photo, taken when water levels were relatively high and flowing partially over the bar.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

James River, Head of the James - September 2009

Just south of Iron Gate, Virginia, the Jackson River merges with the Cowpasture River to form the head of the James River. I chose a cloudy day with the threat of showers to explore this confluence with my 14' Heritage Sea Dart kayak. The closest river access point is south of Iron Gate adjacent to the Route 220 bridge over the James River. This location offers primitive access to the river in the form of a steep gravel road and gravel point bar. Plenty of parking is available at the top of the access road, but no other facilities are available.

The access road is very steep, and four-wheel drive is required. Once on the point bar, it's a simple matter to carry the boat to the water, hop in, and go.

The first set of rapids are about three hundred yards upstream. These rapids represent a two-foot drop in the level of the river, and it's not possible to power through them. Water levels today were low enough that I was able to hop off the boat and portage over the rapids on one side of the river.

Above the rapids is a short stretch of flatwater before another set of longer rapids. With a more gradual gradient, the water was just deep enough that I was able to power through and continue on to an area of 'crazy waves' just below the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers.

A set of rapids marks the termination of the Jackson River:

Flatwater is available up the Cowpasture River, so I headed up that way until I reached the first set of upstream rapids:

As I've mentioned before on this blog, the MeadWestVaco paper plant in Covington, Virginia is the second worst polluter in the state, releasing thousands of tons of toxins and carcinogens into the air and into the Jackson River each year. Indeed, the facility if recognized as the 57th largest air polluter in the entire country. The area has the highest rate of respiratory illnesses and cancer rates in the state. The Jackson River has a brown tinge to it thanks to the facility's polluted brown waste discharge. Paddling up the mouth of the Cowpasture River, I was immediately struck by the clarity of the water once I got away from the Head of the James. The brown tinge, so apparent on the Jackson and James Rivers disappeared, and I was able to see the bottom of the Cowpasture River with full clarity.

It's not unusual to see a demarkation where two rivers meet due to differing sediment loads in the rivers. The brown tinge in the Jackson, however, was not sediment, and the demarkation between the Jackson and the Cowpasture Rivers was very evident where the brown-tinged water of the Jackson met the clear waters of the Cowpasture.

As I re-entered the Head of the James on my way back to the put in location, I also noticed a certain smell to the James, one that I've encountered many times on the river, that wasn't present on the Cowpasture River. Old timers in the area talk about how bad pollution was in the James & Jackson Rivers decades ago, and I don't doubt it. Great strides have been made in recent decades when it comes to cleaning up rivers in the United States, including the Jackson. However, it's a shame that pollution on the order emitted by MeadWestVaco is still allowed to so thoroughly contaminate the Jackson and James Rivers - contamination that persists all the way to the mouth of the James - in this day and age.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jackson River at Low Moor - September 2009

A strong early-fall cold front swept away the warm, humid August airmass a couple of days ago to reveal clear skies, mild temps, and low humidity. Perfect paddling weather. I chose to visit the Jackson River at Low Moor today to explore the available flatwater on this river. Access in this location is several miles west of Clifton Forge, Virginia just off I-64. In fact, the river access is visible from the interstate. A gravel parking is lot is provided with space for several vehicles and short walk-down access to the river. No boat ramp is available. I was the only vehicle in the lot when I arrived, and I used my fat kayak wheels to move my 14' Heritage Sea Dart down to the water. Framed by bluebird skies and leaves with the beginnings of fall color, the river was quiet as I slipped away from the shoreline.

The Jackson River flows down a bit of a gorge in this location, so I was bordered by rock outcrops on both sides as I traveled upstream to the first set of rapids.

Rocks in the area consist of folded slates and sandstones, part of the formation of the Appalachian mountains about 250 million years ago. The slates were mud, basically, when they were being deposited as a sediment on an ancient continental shelf off North America before lithifying into shale, then being folded & faulted and transported onto the North American continent during a phase of the Appalachian mountain building event.

Rounded boulders of sandstone were transported off the continent by rivers as this mud was being deposited, and these sandstone boulders found themselves embedded in the mud. As you can see in the above picture, numerous rounded sandstone boulders are present in the slate along this stretch of the river. Consisting mostly of hard quartz, the boulders weather out of the rock outcrop and eventually fall down, leaving behind an indentation in the rock outcrop. Unfortunately, I don't recall my sedimentology course with enough clarity to remember what these structures are called.

Parts of the river shoreline are so littered with these sandstone boulders that they look like discarded cannonballs.

After exploring the upstream section of the river, I paddled downstream through one small riffle to the next set of downstream rapids. The roundtrip took me about 40 minutes, and that includes plenty of poking around time.

While the Jackson River flows through a pretty part of the state in this region, there are some downsides. The I-64 region through this part of Virginia is quite industrial, and quite a lot of activity is crammed into the valley between Clifton Forge and Covington. As a result, there was an overabundance of noise on the river, from I-64 traffic, to trains and various noises from nearby industrial plants.

The MeadWestVaco paper plant upstream in Covington, Virginia is the second worst polluter in the state, releasing thousands of tons of toxins and carcinogens into the air and the water each year. Indeed, the Jackson River in Low Moor has a bit of brown tinge to it, and the river itself is reportedly relatively lifeless between Covington and Clifton Forge, where the Jackson joins with the Cowpasture River to form the head of the James River. Some of the exposed muds along the shoreline, too, had a rank smell. Respiratory illnesses are the highest in the state here, along with cancer rates. It's not unusual to encounter a smelly 'fog' when driving on I-64 through this valley, courtesy of the paper plant. For this reason, I do not recommend fishing or swimming in this part of the Jackson River, and maybe not even paddling. Money or not, it's unfortunate that blatant pollution on this scale is allowed to continue in this day and age.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

James River at Narrow Passage - August 2009

Public boat access to the James River is provided at the Narrow Passage (sometimes called Horseshoe Bend) boat ramp, several miles north of Buchanan, Virginia off Route 42. I arrived at the boat ramp last week on a warm and humid afternoon to paddle the flatwater available on this section of the river. During summer weekends, this access area can be crowded with James River trippers, and in fact, I've seen the parking lot full on those days. But on this Tuesday, only couple of cars were parked in the lot, and I had the river section to myself with my 14' Heritage Sea Dart.

A concrete boat ramp provides easy access to the water, and there is plenty of parking (on most days!). No other facilities are provided. Access to the river is at the top of a rather long Class I wave field, so I began by paddling upstream away from the rapids.

For the flatwater paddler, the amount of flatwater available upstream of the ramp amounts to the length of a Par-4 golf hole, and it takes only about 10 minutes to reach the first set of rapids.

With low water levels, it was a bit too difficult to power through these rapids, and I found myself striking the paddle blade on rocks too much. However, it was easy enough to hop off the boat and walk it over the riffles to continue on upriver.

For the flatwater paddler, I found that this stretch of the river offers only limited access. The next set of upstream rapids came up pretty quickly and represented a one-foot drop in the level of the river. Being more of a ledge, this rapid would be more difficult to portage, and looking upstream, I could see a third set of rapids very close by, and this third set of rapids looked to be fairly long. Deciding to halt my upstream progress, I turned around and paddled downstream through the rapids I had initially walked over.

The Narrow Passage access point is popular for James River trippers, coming or going. It doesn't really offer much more than about 30 minutes worth of flatwater paddling, though. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cowpasture River at Walton Tract - August 2009

Paddling on the Cowpasture River in Virginia is provided by the state at the Walton Tract, a farm donated to the state for recreational purposes. Located off Route 42 north of Clifton Forge, a 2 mile section of the river along the Walton Tract is legally navigable to the public. Access to the river is available on the south end of the property (see my posting here) and also at the north end which is where I visited today.

The canoe/kayak access on the north end of the Walton Tract is accessible via a small road, along which four-wheel drive with clearance is required. The road is fairly wild and wooly, with very steep, rocky, & rutted sections, and I would not attempt it in a car.

Access to the river itself is via a gravel sandbar. I chose to paddle upstream first, as I usually do, until I encountered the first set of rapids.

The water along the river was very clear, with no hint of silt. The river bottom was visible at any point on the river. In fact, the bottom itself was covered with rounded pebbles to the point that it looked like some type of pavement.

The first set of rapids was about 10 minutes upstream. The rapids themselves represent a one-foot drop in the level of the river, and it was not possible to power through them (although it would be fairly easy to walk over them).

I chose to turn around and paddle back downstream through the next set of downstream rapids. They were pretty tame, and it looked like a simple matter to power back through them on my way back to the put in.

I continued downstream until I encountered the second set of downstream rapids. These appeared to be quite long, so I paddled back upstream, through the set of small rapids I had just come through, to the put in location.

The river access here provides the flatwater paddler with enough water for a 30 minute paddle. For those with a shuttle (4WD), a 2-mile stretch of the river would be available between the north and south access points at the Walton Tract, along a wide meander.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Carvin Cove - August 2009

Carvin Cove is a large reservoir north of Roanoke, Virginia that forms the public water supply of the city of Roanoke and surrounding areas. The recreation area is open to mountain biking, hiking, and equestrian activities. Boating is also available, but it is restricted to protect the fresh water supply. Boating is currently open to local residents only; there is a $5 fee per person to use the lake, and your boat must be clean & dry and not have been in any other water for at least three weeks prior to visiting the reservoir.

Dual concrete boat ramps are available along with plenty of parking and basic public facilities. I arrived last week to paddle on the reservoir on a cloudy, humid afternoon with the threat of showers and thunderstorms. I chose to bring my 17' Heritage Expedition on this trip, and it is a fast boat and able to cover large distances - an advantage on a lake this size.

After dropping the boats on the water, a friend and I paddled across the lake to explore some of the many coves along the shoreline. A stiff wind had stirred up three to six inch waves on the lake which pushed us quickly across the open water.

My time on the reservoir was limited this trip, so we were able to explore only a handful of coves before it was time to paddle back to the boat dock. As it turned out, the wind had pushed us a fair distance down the lake, so I took advantage of the headwind to get a bit of a workout while paddling back to the ramp.

The weather quickly deteriorated on the return trip as a shower adjacent to the lake grew and began to move in our direction. Not wanting to be a lightning rod on the middle of the water, aluminum paddle and all, I lit the afterburner and managed to get off the lake just as we heard the first clap of thunder. Heavier rain descended upon as just as we were pulling out of the parking area - fortunate timing.

Carvin Cove is a large reservoir, and I plan to visit this location again on a day when I have more time to explore the nether reaches of the lake. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

James River at Gala - July 2009

I last visited the James River at Gala in May when the river was in flood and water levels were several feet higher. The river today was much milder with clear water and a mild current. The Gala location offers walk-down access to the James River behind a convenience store just off Route 220 between Iron Gate and Eagle Rock, Virginia. Parking is available for several vehicles, and four or five of them in the parking area were evidence of James River trippers today when I arrived.

Using my fat kayak wheels, I was able to walk my 14' Heritage Sea Dart down to the water and put in on the flatwater available on this section of the river. Paddling upstream, the first set of rapids isn't encountered for several hundred yards, making for a pleasant paddle. Exposed tree roots on the river banks were not evident at all when I visited this location in May, and the slower water was appreciated.

The first set of rapids encountered upstream are very mild. I was able to power through most of them, with the exception of the last little bit where the water was just too shallow. But it was a simple matter to hop of the boat and pull it the last ten feet in order to keep moving upstream.

A couple of small tributaries enter the James above Gala. I enjoy paddling up tributaries as far as possible before having to back down or turn around. I've learned that it's an advantage to carry a small Swiss Army knife with a saw blade when traveling on a tributary, as I often need to remove small overhanging branches.

Numerous fish were visible in the clear water as well as crayfish. The water invites you to slow down and float with the current while you gaze at the river bottom.

A couple of families coming to tube on the river arrived in the parking area as I was packing up shop. Otherwise, I had the river to myself this afternoon for an hour's paddle. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Smith Mountain Lake - July 2009

Smith Mountain Lake is one of the largest lakes in Virginia, with over 500 miles of shoreline. It's fully developed and commercialized, as opposed to most of the lakes I visit in Virginia. I chose to visit Smith Mountain today with my family for a little swimming and to allow one of my kids the chance to paddle my 14' Heritage Sea Dart as she learns to paddle and handle a boat on the water.

Numerous marinas and boat ramps are available around the lake. We chose a lesser-developed public boat ramp on the northeastern side of the lake which offered a concrete ramp, dock, and small beach for paddlecraft. Parking was available for about a dozen vehicles. While one child paddled my 14' Heritage, I myself paddled my Mainstream Tango tandem kayak with the other child. This tandem is a large family 'yak with seating for two adults and one to two kids (or perhaps a dog). It's wide, slow, and a bit of a barge, but it paddles straight and true, is stable, and it's easy to use as a portable swim platform.

Being a Thursday afternoon, I had assumed that the lake would be relatively quiet, but I was wrong. Numerous boats and jet skis were on the lake, so we stayed in the shallows up one of the lake arms and out of the traffic.

School today consisted of teaching my elder child how to climb back into the kayak after capsizing and also learning how to turn a 14' kayak without using a rudder. But mostly they wanted to swim, so I towed the 14-footer behind the tandem while the kids swam in the lake.

In all, we paddled and swam for about an hour in a quiet, residential, no-wake part of the lake this afternoon.

Being such a large lake, one could spend months exploring Smith Mountain on a kayak. And I'm sure some areas of the lake are quieter and less developed than the location we picked today. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Offshore Sea Kayaking in South Carolina - July 2009

Living in the mountains of Virginia, it's a special treat for me to be able to paddle my sea kayaks offshore in the open ocean off South Carolina a few times each year. My 14' Heritage Sea Dart and 17' Heritage Expedition are made for kayaking offshore, with their sleek Greenland lines, speed, and inherent stability.

Paddling offshore is an entirely different beast than poking around western Virginia lakes and rivers. One must take into account winds, currents, waves, tides, and a whole laundry list of other factors before hopping in the water and powering offshore. It's more serious, and the implications of making a mistake more fatal. So before I go, I make sure the winds, tides, etc. are favorable for an offshore outing, i.e., you don't want to head out if there's a strong offshore wind - onshore winds are much better.

I also take advantage of my boat's storage by stuffing it full of survival gear, such as a waterproof floating marine VHF radio, cell phone, survival kit with basic fishing gear, wind-up flashlight, plenty of water, food, a NWS weather radio, extra paddle, my sail, nautical map, GPS receiver, strobe light, compass, basic med kit, thermometer/anemometer, batteries, and more. I want to be reasonably well prepared should a sudden storm or unanticipated current push me far offshore.

Breaking waves washing over the bow can easily strip away items strapped to the deck, so I've learned to stow almost everything before setting out - as well as the fact that it's quite easy to capsize in the surf zone, and over the years I've lost things like hats, sunglasses, and water bottles which were not properly secured.

I typically stay within a mile or two of the shoreline when I venture offshore. The part of the coast I paddle sports several remote island sand banks as well as numerous salt marshes, estuaries, and rivers. It is great fun to explore some of the deserted islands to look for shells or to simply enjoy the solitude.

Paddling offshore is a fine location for using a sail. Although it's not necessarily great in rough conditions, my Spirit Sail can be an advantage in calmer water.

In my case, I paddle into the wind for a while, perhaps rounding an island, then use the sail on my way back to shore.

Two novice paddlers perished in the area I paddle two years ago. Apparently, two men who had little or no paddling experience rented a tandem sit-inside kayak and ventured offshore in very unfavorable weather conditions, i.e., a strong offshore wind and strong offshore current. They capsized, the boat swamped, and they were carried as far as 5 miles off the coast. One person was found still clinging to the swamped boat, while the other was never found. Their experience illustrates the danger of venturing offshore unprepared and with little or no local marine knowledge.

The dangers of paddling offshore are real, but the rewards are worth it for experienced, knowledgeable paddlers with the right equipment.