Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Elkhorn Lake - May 2009

Deep inside George Washington National Forest northwest of Staunton, Virginia lies Elkhorn Lake, a 54-acre impoundment used mostly as a fishing lake. I arrived on a cloudy and muggy afternoon with the threat of showers to explore this lake on my 14' Heritage Sea Dart. Access to the lake is provided by a gravel boat launch with room to park several vehicles. Restrooms are also provided, but there are no other facilities.

The lake itself is squarish in shape and framed by high peaks on all sides. Being 54 acres, it only takes five or ten minutes to power from one side of the lake to the other, so I mostly explored the shoreline by doing one circuit around the lake.

Several people were bank fishing this afternoon, and there was one small bass boat fishing on the lake, but for the most part, the lake was smooth and quiet during my time on the water.

It was tempting to just float in the middle of the lake and watch the low-hanging cloud deck pass over the surrounding peaks.

Rock ledges are visible on one side of the lake. Closer inspection revealed these outcrops to consist of interbedded fine- to coarse-grained siliclastic rocks (i.e., sands & muds) with about a 30-degree dip.

One layer exhibited a fine conglomerate with rounded quartz nodules showing nice differential weathering. Notice in the picture below how the fine-grained matrix material has weathered away relative to the resistant quartz nodules:

This side of the lake also shows evidence of a recent forest fire. Perhaps in the past year or two during severe drought:

One downside to this lake is the amount of trash along the shoreline. While trash is, unfortunately, a reality almost everywhere these days, the shoreline along this lake had more trash than I've seen at any of my other locations in the region. It's second only to West Point Lake, Georgia - a location I paddled this past March, and I was surprised by the amount of trash in the coves on West Point Lake.

Elkhorn Lake is a fine location for local paddlers looking for an hour's paddle. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

James River at Big Island - May 2009

Two public boat access points on the James River are available in Big Island, Virginia, just off Route 501 below the Snowden dam. The upper ramp is the Hunting Creek boat ramp, and it offers improved access to the river just above a dam and the Georgia-Pacific containerboard mill plant. A concrete ramp offers good access to the water, and there is plenty of parking. No other facilities are available. After you put in, you must paddle a very short distance down Hunting Creek and under two bridges before entering the James River.

There are 3-4 miles of flatwater available between Hunting Creek upstream to the Snowden dams, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of flatwater available on this stretch of the James River - by far the most flatwater in the area outside of Lake Moomaw & Smith Mtn Lake.

Water levels were relatively high today, but five feet lower than last week. In this kind of flatwater, I enjoy using my 17' Heritage Expedition kayak. It's smooth, stable, and really fast, allowing me to cover more ground than I'm able to do in smaller boats. As is typical on a weekday, I had the river to myself for a 90 minute paddle this afternoon.

The river is wide in spots along this stretch and fairly straight. Current is mild in this location just above a dam.

There are several islands around which to explore, and they also offered shelter from the fastest current. Two islands are available just across from the boat ramp, leading to the rocky north side of the river with dramatic ledges and outcrops.

Two miles upstream is the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the James River at Otter Creek. I paddled to this location today before turning around and floating back to the boat ramp. At the Otter Creek Visitor center, you can walk across the James River on a footpath suspended beneath the roadway. The footpath leads to a restored James River lock & canal system.

There is more flatwater and more islands to explore beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge, but they will have to wait for another visit. I was excited by the amount of flatwater available here, and a I plan to return later in the season.

One downside of this location is the aforementioned mill. The mill at Big Island is one of the dirtiest plants in the US, spewing many toxins into the air and into the water. When the wind blows in just the right direction, you can smell that classic paper-plant odor. According the, the plant emits a whole laundry-list of toxins and carcinogens. The Hunting Creek access point is located just above the plant, so water issues are likely minimized. For this reason, I do not recommend using the Reed Creek boat ramp on the other side of town, downstream of the plant, and I would avoid the James River for many miles downstream of Big Island.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Calfpasture River near Deerfield - May 2009

The Calfpasture river joins with Mill Creek in Goshen, Virginia to form the head of the Maury River. I took advantage of a pretty afternoon to drive up Marble Valley and explore the Calfpasture River, which runs through Augusta and Rockbridge Counties. While there seemed to be several promising, if short, spots for flatwater paddling, public access to the river was not apparent with the exception of one road crossing a few miles north of Deerfield.

For sure, the road up Marble Valley is pretty, with sweeping views of 4,463-foot Elliot Knob to the east. Elliot Knob is one of the higher mountains in the northern part of Virginia, and is just high enough to support a small stand of spruce trees growing on the summit - just visible in the picture below (click it for a larger version):

The section of the Calfpasture I paddled on today was very short and didn't allow for much more than playing around in the small riffles. On the positive side, because you must cross the river on this road by driving through the river, access to the water required no carrying at all. Just drive up to the water, and drop the boat in.

However, this really was a very short section of flatwater. I spent about 20 minutes on the water paddling between riffles that were perhaps 25 yards apart, which is barely enough space and time to get your boat turned around in the current.

Paddling in this section was confined to one side of the river, as water levels were too shallow on the point bar side of the river. Access required a short walk into the water before I was able to sit in the boat and paddle. The water here permits a crystal clear view of the Calfpasture's rock bottom.

For trippers headed down the Calfpasture to Goshen, this would be a convenient put in spot.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lake Nelson - May 2009

Today I drove east over the Blue Ridge Mountains into the piedmont of Virginia to visit Lake Nelson, a 24-acre lake just northeast of Amherst. After a light frost in the morning, the temperature quickly rose to top out around 70 degrees today with crystal clear skies. A perfect afternoon for a drive through the mountains and a lake paddle.

Lake Nelson is a public fishing lake in Nelson County, Virginia. It has a concrete boat ramp plus dock, plenty of parking, and a couple of porta-johns. There were several people bank fishing from the parking area when I arrive, and one couple in a small fishing boat on the lake. People who approach me at these lakes always ask if I'm going fishing with my kayak, and they give me a strange look when I tell them I'm just there to paddle.

Being only 24 acres, the lake is rather small. But it does offer two arms in which to explore, as well as two feeder creeks.

The west side of the lake is undeveloped and quiet, while the east side sports a fair number of homes plus a campground.

Recent rains have resulted in swollen creeks across the area, so the feeder streams in these fishing lakes are more accessible than usual. I brought my 14' Heritage with me today, and it's just small enough to nose into and explore these creeks. I usually follow them upstream as far as possible, until they shallow out, I hit a rapid, or it becomes clear that I'll have to back out too far - I try not to go much farther past the point where I can no longer turn around.

On more than one occasion, I've appreciated the saw blade on my Swiss Army Knife, as I've used it to saw away small overhanging branches along these creeks.

I can certainly see the wisdom of having a smaller boat in these creeks, say around 9', rather than my 14-footer.

In all, I spent about 75 minutes on the lake this afternoon. Lake Nelson is a pleasant location for an afternoon paddle, especially for local paddlers.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Maury River at Ben Salem Wayside

Ben Salem Wayside is a small park along Route 60 between I-81 and Buena Vista, Virginia. The park offers carry down access to the Maury River as well as parking for several vehicles, picnic tables, and a couple of porta-johns.

I drive past Ben Salem Wayside quite often, but late last week was the first time I've explored the access point with my boat. A nice point bar offers easy access to the river after carrying the boat down a grassy river bank from the parking area. There's a very short area of flatwater immediately adjacent the park with the promise of more just upstream of a small rapid.

On this day, the water level was just high enough that I wasn't able to power through the rapid to continue upstream. However, the water is shallow to one side (ankle deep), so I simply hopped off my 14' Heritage Sea Dart and dragged it to a point immediately upstream of the rapid.

The major downside to this access point is its proximity to Route 60, a busy & noisy 4-lane divided highway. It's not a location for those seeking privacy and seclusion. Things improve somewhat as you head upsteam past the first rapid. The river here meanders away from the highway and offers more flatwater for a casual 45-minute afternoon paddle.

While exploring this part of the river, I came upon a nice point bar with abundant rounded stones. The geologist in me had fun admiring the siliciclastic rocks and granitic-intermediate igneous rocks. A fun project for a undergraduate geology student would be to sample these rocks and trace them (chemically) back to their parent outcrops, somewhere upstream. It's also interesting to compare the rates of erosion and rounding of different rock types.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sherando Lake - May 2009

Bluebird skies, light winds, a temperature hovering around 70, and a dry airmass made for perfect paddling weather on Sherando Lake today. This 24 acre impoundment is part of the Sherando Lake Recreation Center, just over the mountain from Wintergreen, Virginia. The area contains a full service campground, beach with bathhouse, gift shop, a smaller 7 acre fishing lake, and lots of hiking trails. The area also requires a day use fee of, in my case, four dollars.

Carry down access to the larger lake is via short paths from the main parking lots near the beach. I paddled this lake one day last summer when the beach was crowded and noisy, but today was a different story. With the exception of four or five people bank fishing, I had the lake to myself.

A moderate breeze gave the lake a light chop at times, with waves running just high enough to splash over my bow from time to time. It would've been a nice day to bring my sail, but really, the lake isn't large enough to do much sailing. One lap around the perimeter takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on the speed of your boat and your cadence.

Sherando Lake is particularly scenic on days like this, as it's hemmed in by tall peaks on all sides. It also sports one rocky island not too far away from the beach.

I enjoy doing one lap around this lake, then paddling up and down the center of the lake a couple of times. It's scenic enough that you'll be tempted to just float in the middle of the lake while soaking up the view, letting the wind and current push you wherever.

Although it's only barely visible in my pictures, there is a large landslide visible on one of the ridges. It looks fairly recent, and there are hiking trails leading to the slide so you can hike up the rock pile.

Sherando Lake has a concrete viaduct as part of the earthen dam. Water cascades down the viaduct on its way out of the lake and down an outflow stream. View a short, 15 second, video clip of water flowing down this viaduct, with a bonus waterfall on the left side of the video:

Rock outcrops encroach on the lake in spots (mostly sandstones). Groundwater can be seen dripping from one outcrop near the dam, in a nice shady spot. View a short, 15 second, clip of this natural spring:

Sherando Lake may be small, but it's scenic and pleasant for paddlers of all types. View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

James River at Gala - May 2009

Primitive access to the James River is available via a small dirt road on the north side of the natural gas depot in Gala, Virginia, just off Route 220. I chose to explore this access point on a cloudy, cool May day with occasional raindrops. Access to the river is via a small path from a parking area suitable for a handful of vehicles, noting that one must also cross railroad tracks. The path is relatively short, and my fat kayak wheels made short work of the distance.

For paddlers putting in, talking out, or passing by here, there is also a small convenience store within short walking distance of this access point, just to the south of the gas depot.

Recent rains have swollen the James River resulting in high water and a fast current. Swirling eddies in these conditions can play havoc with boat stabilty, so I stuck to the side of the river on my way upstream, where the current was moving slowest, in my 14' Heritage Sea Dart.

I was pleasantly surprised to come upon Sinking Creek, a small tributary, just upsteam of the Gala access. Passing under the railroad and Route 220, this tributary had deep enough water to venture upstream several hundred yards.

Sinking Creek provided relief from the James' unyielding current, and as a bonus, it was quite beautiful, with deep holes, overhanging trees, and interesting siliciclastic rock outcrops (for a geologist like me, that is).

I was able to venture upstream until the water shallowed out and I hit the first sizable rapid. I wonder if there'll be enough water to explore this creek later in the summer.

In all, I spent about an hour on the water today fighting with the strong current on the James and exploring Sinking Creek. Although I didn't get the chance to paddle too far upstream, there appears to be a fair amount of flatwater along this stretch of the James. I'll be to sure to visit this access point again, perhaps after water levels have dropped enough to permit upstream travel.

View this location in Google Maps by clicking here.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pedlar River below Lynchburg Reservoir - May 2009

Just below Pedlar Dam, which impounds Lynchburg Reservoir - Lynchburg, Virginia's primary water supply, lies a small stretch of flatwater on the Pedlar River. I arrived this afternoon to explore this part of river after scouting the location during yesterday's rain. The available flatwater here is limited to a 400 yard section between two rapids, just beneath the Appalachian Trail suspension bridge that crosses the river at this point.

Today I chose the use the first kayak I ever owned - an inflatable 10' Sevylor Tahiti K79 kayak. It's been years since I used this kayak, but I've been wanting a boat that is easier to carry and smaller than my 14' Heritage - a boat that I'm able to carry a moderate distance over variable terrain to get back and explore small creeks & streams. The Tahiti fits that bill perfectly.

With relatively high water levels, the Pedlar was about 1-2 feet deep through here and crystal clear. The short section of flatwater allows for a couple of 'laps' between rapids and some poking around space, but that's really about it. I spent about 30 minutes on the water before packing up and leaving.

While the inflatable Tahiti makes it easy to get into and explore creeks like the Pedlar, it offers a different paddling experience than a traditional kayak. It's very lightweight and easy to carry, it holds a lot of gear, and it's the most stable kayak I've ever paddled. The kayak turns on a dime, much faster than my Heritage kayaks are capable of turning, and it has an extremely shallow draft, maybe two inches at most. I'm always amazed at the amount of shallow water I'm able to explore with this kayak.

On the downside, the boat is more susceptible to wind gusts and water currents. Without the optional skeg, the boat weathercocks very easily when you stop paddling. You also sit down closer to the waterline in this boat, and with the large sponsons, your padding stroke is not as efficient.

As I mentioned earlier, the Appalachian Trail crosses the river here via a wooden suspension bridge.

Parking is available near the bridge for only two vehicles.

This is a nice stretch of river for a little bit of poking around, but it's too limited for any serious paddling, and I wouldn't recommend anyone drive too far to find it (swimming is not allowed). Persons should also be prepared to travel several miles on narrow, rocky, and sometimes muddy gravel roads to reach this location.

Watch a short, 15 second, video of water cascading over the first downstream rapid from the bridge:

View this location in Google Maps clicking here.