August 10, 2014. Day One, Sunday.
On Sunday morning, August 10, Lynda Richardson, my wife; Bob Jones Jr., a good friend; Warren Foster, my paddling partner; and I met at Jones Landing (a small fishing and boating club on the south shore of the James in Richmond) to pack for the Great Return … a 16-day paddling adventure from the headwaters of the James River back to Jones Landing. Not sure of the exact mileage but a bit over 200 miles total would be safe to say.
We left Richmond for Iron Gate, VA about 8:15am and arrived shortly before noon.
Upon packing our vessel, we left on our adventure at 12:50pm. Warren and I paddled “up” the James, working our way through a class II rapid going as far as we could go by canoe. Wading the last 500 yards we arrived at our first destination, the headwaters of the James River. A spot where the pristine Cowpasture River and the not–so-pristine Jackson River converge to form the historic James River.
During our time at the headwaters, I fished and caught a four nice smallmouth bass, all tucked within the eddies along the opposite bank. The river was narrow and the far shoreline was in casting distance.
We waded back to our canoe, the Tripper, which was loaded to the gills with supplies for the next 16 days. The Tripper held eight fishing rods, four dry bags full of fishing tackle and one tackle box. We also had camping gear, cooking gear, a large cooler, tools, clothes, raingear and number of other important items for fishing and discovering of the James. The Tripper is a well-used Old Town, 18-foot canoe owned by good fishing friends Jason and Roger Flora. They let us use the canoe and our ‘rental’ payment was a four pack of the best beer in Richmond … the Great Return. A west coast IPA brewed by RVA’s own Hardywood Brewery.
Once back into the Tripper, we began our journey into the unknown. The scenery from the very beginning was stunningly beautiful. Mountains in all directions and clear, low water to experience the James’ fishing at its best.
The first town to pass would be Glen Wilton, which came and went with literally no sign there was a town at all. We made it through a few riffles and small rapids until we were a mile or so past Glen Wilton and our first real test of the trip. The “Squeeze” or the “Narrows” was our first challenging rapid. The river cuts hard to the left and narrows down to less than 40 feet and then the “Squeeze” sets in … A sharp right turn with water churning up from both sides of the river. After scouting the “Squeeze” we paddled upstream, turned the Tripper and worked our way back. The water whisked around as the river turned hard to the left towards a steep bank. The river swirled with water pushing back from the bank and we caught the large boil of water which carried us about three feet from the bank and past a large tree along river left and two big rocks on river right. We made it. The “Squeeze” got our hearts pumping as we wondered what was next. I had heard about many kayaks and canoes flipping in the “Squeeze” so I began to feel confident we could handle the others.
Now it was onto the small town of Gala, VA. At Gala we were going to restock on ice and grab any items we may have forgotten.
It took a while to find a good campsite this first night, but it was a fine location. Our first campsite was on river left, about a mile from Gala. The opposite shore was lined with rock from the Blue Ridge Mountains … almost a sheer wall of rock going up about 1000 feet. Just downriver on our side of the river was another rocky bank shooting up at a steep incline. The river was shallow and fast moving with a class I rapid just upriver offering the soothing sound of water rushing over rocks. A calming influence as the rain continued, occasionally taking over the sounds of the river.
The rain stopped offering us a chance to cook uninterrupted by precipitation. Warren did a masterful job starting our first campfire with wet wood. The fire burned long enough for us to cook four smallmouth bass, potatoes and onions. After dinner, we sat by the campfire, reflected upon the day and looked at the river maps to see what lays ahead for tomorrow.
While looking at the maps, a strange sound came in from deep in the woods. One that I had never heard before in the wild. At first, it sounded like a woman giggling far off in the distance. I began to think we were not alone there deep in the woods, next to the River. Suddenly, the noise became recognizable. It was a screech owl. I heard my wife play the sounds of a screech owl many times while calling in birds, but there it was out in the wild. A most beautiful sound that slowly faded off into the distance after ten minutes or so.
Campfires are memorizing. After a long silent time of listening to the woods, mountains and river, I asked Warren what his highlight of the day was. Without hesitation, he said, “Going to the headwaters. That was on my bucket list.” Bucket list items are few and far between I thought. Good stuff. That was about the time the rain set in and forced us into our tents. That first day was a great beginning of what was to be some of the best days of my life.
Lying in my tent I reflected on what we had seen that day … osprey, red shouldered hawks, mallards and a muskrat. We saw more green heron and great blue heron than I thought was possible. Large mayflies were flying around the campsite after dark. Knowing their lives were quite short at this point, I hoped they would survive the night to turn on the bass and create a little feeding frenzy on the surface. But most of all, I thought of the scenery. Paddling down river though the high banks of rock and mountains in the background, the river was so different from what I was used to in Richmond. Riffles and rapids created wave trains, which we rode down, each one offering to carry the Tripper giving us time to hold our paddles and take in the moment of being there, in the mountains, on the James. True discovery.
Top Left Photo: Getting ready to leave on the Great Return. One mile below the headwaters. Photo by Lynda Richardson.
Top Left Photo: Warren was pulling and I was pushing the canoe upriver, through a class I-II rapid about a half mile below the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers. The location where the two rivers meet is the headwaters of the James River ... our destination and official starting point. Photo by Discover the James.
Center, Panoramic Image: The Headwaters of the James River. The Jackson is coming in from the left, while the Cowpasture is coming in, directly across view. The two form the headwaters of the James River, which is heading out the right side of the image. Love this place. Photo by Discover the James.
Lower Right Photo: Our canoe, the Tripper, pulled into shallow water as we scouted the first major rapid we encountered ... The Squeeze. The view is looking upriver, while the rapid is the right of the image, out of view. Because of all the technical aspects of running the rapids, the last thing I was thinking about was taking photos of the actual rapid. Big mistake, I will do that next time! Photo by Discover the James.
Bottom Left Photo: Our Day 1 meal consisted of pan fried bass, with potatoes and onions being cooked in each package of aluminum foil. This was the only day we pan fried the bass. Every time from here forward, we cooked them on the grate, directly over the fire. We tried to 'smoke' them, but flames did hit the fish as we cooked them. I think it only made the fish better. Wish I had some right now! Photo by Discover the James.