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.


Mike said...

Hi Steve! I discovered your blog from a URL link on another kayaking blog! Funny how that works sometimes! I see you paddle the James River. Have you ever paddled the Pamunkey River? I believe the Pamunkey is a tributary of the James? My wife and I paddled the Pamunkey River in July http://www.durhamblogger.com/2010/08/paddling-on-pamunkey-river.html

I also saw that you use a "truck extender" to transport your kayak. Me too! It works real well for me especially since I have a full size pick-up truck bed.

BTW, I am now following your blog! Hope you keep paddling and blogging! - Mike

Steve said...

Thanks, Mike! I have not paddled too much in the eastern part of the state or eastern NC. My time in the coastal plain is typically in South Carolina.