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 scorecard.org, 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.

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