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Journey on the James

Journey on the James: Three Weeks through the Heart of Virginia

Earl Swift
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 239
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  • Book Info
    Journey on the James
    Book Description:

    From its beginnings as a trickle of icy water in Virginia's northwest corner to its miles-wide mouth at Hampton Roads, the James River has witnessed more recorded history than any other feature of the American landscape -- as home to the continent's first successful English settlement, highway for Native Americans and early colonists, battleground in the Revolution and the Civil War, and birthplace of America's twentieth-century navy.

    In 1998, restless in his job as a reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Earl Swift landed an assignment traveling the entire length of the James. He hadn't been in a canoe since his days as a Boy Scout, and he knew that the river boasts whitewater, not to mention man-made obstacles, to challenge even experienced paddlers. But reinforced by Pilot photographer Ian Martin and a lot of freeze-dried food and beer, Swift set out to immerse himself -- he hoped not literally -- in the river and its history.

    What Swift survived to bring us is this engrossing chronicle of three weeks in a fourteen-foot plastic canoe and four hundred years in the life of Virginia. Fueled by humor and a dauntless curiosity about the land, buildings, and people on the banks, and anchored by his sidekick Martin -- whose photographs accompany the text -- Swift points his bow through the ghosts of a frontier past, past Confederate forts and POW camps, antebellum mills, ruined canals, vanished towns, and effluent-spewing industry. Along the banks, lonely meadowlands alternate with suburbs and power plants, marinas and the gleaming skyscrapers of Richmond's New South downtown. Enduring dunkings, wolf spiders, near-arrest, channel fever, and twenty-knot winds, Swift makes it to the Chesapeake Bay.

    Readers who accompany him through his Journey on the James will come away with the accumulated pleasure, if not the bruises and mud, of four hundred miles of adventure and history in the life of one of America's great watersheds.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3721-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-XI)
  3. DAY ONE On which the journey’s protagonists wander hypothermic and disoriented on Lantz Mountain, birthplace of the James
    (pp. 1-9)

    Five minutes into the journey, and already I’m lost.

    I’m trudging through dew-soaked grass on Jacob Hevener’s farm in the Alleghenies of western Virginia. My quarry, the beginning of a mighty river, is reputed to be somewhere on this windswept ridge out back of Hevener’s farmhouse.

    Only my third-generation photocopy of a twenty-one-year-old government topo map doesn’t do this mountainside justice. On paper the river’s black on treeless white, a narrow but plain line that wanders an inch or so across a couple of contour lines, then dead-ends next to a tiny, hollow square—a barn. What actually greets me...

  4. DAY TWO On which the expedition follows the infant Jackson through the Alleghenies, and a gantlet of vicious pets
    (pp. 9-19)

    From the Hevener farm the Jackson River, little more than a foot wide and an inch deep, burbles south across rolling pasture. I set off along its banks on trails tamped into the tall grass by processions of cattle, beginning my downstream journey from the river’s headwaters to that far-off place where it becomes the James and rolls across Virginia to the sea. I pass limestone outcroppings laid bare by the stream’s meanderings; descend into scrubby, breezeless hollows thick with the smell of manure; climb barbed-wire fences that are the only signs of man’s presence. Herds of cattle eye me...

  5. DAY THREE About which the less is said, the better
    (pp. 19-26)

    Over a lavish breakfast at Warwickton, Ian and I work out the morning’s logistics. A system of trails follows the river from U.S. Route 220 to the mansion, so that Ian need only drop me off where we ended yesterday’s hike, drive back here, and wait. I should show up by lunchtime. But after two days in the car, he’s eager to do some walking himself, so we ask Pam Stidham if she’d consider driving us over to our hike’s beginning either now—in which case we can leave the Volvo here—or at midday, to pick up the wagon...

  6. DAY FOUR On which we reach navigable water, traverse Lake Moomaw, and reflect on the high cost of recreation
    (pp. 27-38)

    The sound a mountain stream makes as it swirls through rapids approaches speech, at times. Water falling over limestone ledges, splashing against rocks, churning over gravel, makes a hiss studded with consonants. Its rhythm speeds and slows, its tone lilts with doubt, anger, glee. Sometimes it seems to possess distinct, recognizable voices. Close your eyes on the riverbank, and you find yourself in the company of a little girl asking questions, two hollering teenage boys, an arguing couple.

    I’m eavesdropping on the Jackson shortly after daybreak as I hike the onelane road that follows its bank through Richardson Gorge, straining...

  7. DAY FIVE Of whitewater and wolf spiders, and the Jackson’s first brush with industry
    (pp. 38-51)

    Waking half an hour later than expected, I cram my sleeping bag into its stuff sack, deflate my sleeping pad, gather my gear, and crawl outside into the predawn gloom, eager to begin my first day canoeing on actual river. Ian buffaloes from his tent at the same time, and together we fire up the stove, boil water for coffee and instant oatmeal, and discuss our plan for the day.

    Roughly nineteen miles separate Gathright Dam from the U.S. Route 60 bridge in downtown Covington. I figure that if I make decent time, I’ll be in town by mid-afternoon. We...

  8. DAY SIX On which the expedition battles its way past all manner of obstacles to reach the James
    (pp. 51-56)

    Early morning, and we’re again on the urban desert under the Route 60 bridge. Just above here a wide creek, Dunlap, dumps into the Jackson’s gurgling brown stream. Downriver, their combined flow surges southward through Covington. Right in front of us, it splashes noisily over a small ledge, perhaps eighteen inches high. “I’ve been thinking,” I announce.

    Ian is nervously eyeing the ledge. “What?”

    “I’m no good at this,” I say.

    He makes no attempt to contradict me. “And I’m thinking that Balcony Falls could be a real problem,” I continue. “So sometime this morning I need you to get...

  9. DAY SEVEN On which we paddle through a furnace, and among boomtowns gone bust
    (pp. 56-64)

    It’s hot by midmorning, so hot that I pass two hundred cows or so bellydeep in the water beside me. Some are spooked as my canoe approaches. They bound gracelessly up the banks, the bells around their necks clanking, glancing back with wild eyes as I glide past. Most, though, seem too eager for relief from the broiling sun to care much.

    I’m on the James now, having left its parent, the Jackson, at a lonely confluence a couple miles downstream of the Rainbow Gap, just outside of a narrow roadside settlement named for the gorge—Iron Gate. Most descriptions...

  10. DAY EIGHT Of oxbows, old stone, and the ghosts of a frontier past
    (pp. 64-74)

    The James River swings through a series of oxbow bends in Botetourt County, some so looping that after four miles of hard, hot paddling, I’m within a few hundred yards of where I was an hour ago.

    It’s 10:00 A.M., and already it’s been a long morning. Awake at dawn, I walked uphill from camp to the showers, doused myself with scalding water, strolled back outside through the empty game room to a chorus of bleeps from idle video and pinball machines, and loped back to our campsite. From fifty yards away I could see that Ian was holding court....

  11. DAY NINE On which the expedition braces for big excitement and the prospect of crippling injury
    (pp. 74-85)

    Awake before daybreak, I crawl from the tent and shuffle up the hill to the campground’s showers, aim closed eyes into the spray, and head back to find that Ian is up and has water boiling on the stove. Over coffee we review the day ahead. For me it’s a short one, a nine-mile paddle from the roadside at Alpine to Glasgow, at the head of the James River Gorge. Ian will call the canoe livery people back and finish lining up a guide for the run down Balcony Falls. We’ll meet just once along the way, at Natural Bridge...

  12. DAY TEN On which we risk soaking and arrest in the foam of Balcony Falls, then behold a river robbed
    (pp. 85-95)

    The James has meandered along a lazy northeasterly course since Buchanan, sidling up to the flanks of the mountains along the way, bending around them, nosing its way deeper into the foothills of the Blue Ridge, seeking a path downhill. But at Glasgow it abruptly bends to the southeast, leaving the city at the point of one of its many zigs. Swollen with the waters of the Maury, the river punches through the Blue Ridge’s highest heights in a steep-sided gorge, its water falling some 11.5 feet per mile through the gap, twice the rate of the streambed between Buchanan...

  13. DAY ELEVEN Fleeing Lynchburg
    (pp. 95-105)

    Early morning finds us on the Lynchburg riverfront, seeking a place to put the canoe in the water. We’ve looked forward to our arrival in the city: here the last foothills of the Blue Ridge melt into the relatively flat uplands of the Piedmont, a broad stair step that in Richmond will give way to the coastal plain; the river’s rapids calm to riffles, its bed broadens, its current slows. And the ghosts of two hundred years of busy river history wait. Lynchburg was a major station on the James River and Kanawha Canal, the largest on the Upper James,...

  14. DAY TWELVE Thirty years after the river’s worst night
    (pp. 105-121)

    At daybreak we leave the tents standing, jump in the Volvo and drive the seven miles upriver to Bent Creek, planning to rendezvous at the campsite for breakfast. A month ago, this hour of day would have been as stultifyingly close and hot as the noon to come, the sort that brings sweat-soaked sleeping bags and an exhaustion unrelieved by sleep; but now, with October coming on fast, the fields around the road are enveloped in chilled blue mist, and the wind whipping noisily into the car’s open windows is bracingly cold. We pull up to the putin, goosebumped, imbued...

  15. DAY THIRTEEN An old carving, an old ferry, and an old town at the horseshoe bend
    (pp. 121-128)

    Hidden among the boulders and roiling rapids below the James’s Goosby Island Falls is a dark slab of bedrock that bears a hand-chiseled inscription, “1774.” Who the determined carver was who crouched at the head of a stormy three-foot cascade to chisel it is long forgotten, but it’s there still, a hardy survivor of more than two centuries, at the tip of a tiny island that splits a remote stretch of the James in Albemarle County.

    It’s midmorning, little more than an hour downstream from the day’s start at Howardsville, where this time Ian and I parked the car in...

  16. DAY FOURTEEN On which puny-brained geese outsmart us, and the fist of an angry God swings oh so close
    (pp. 128-134)

    Ballooned with mammoth, artery-clogging Lumpkin’s breakfasts, Ian and I pack our gear, empty the rooms, and stagger to the car, bound for the boat ramp at Bremo Bluff. We pull onto State Route 6, which wends its way to Richmond on the looping path of an ancient Indian trail, enjoying the bright coolness of the early morning sun, the damp blast of wind buffeting the Volvo’s interior.

    We lose a few minutes when we spot an old fire tower o ¤ the highway and set out to climb it. Its height might give us a vantage to eyeball Bremo, a...

  17. DAY FIFTEEN On which the expedition escapes State Farm in a hell-for-leather dash
    (pp. 134-146)

    West View is still a mass of puddles as we pull up in the Volvo, bleary-eyed after a tough night in camp. We had a hell of a time finding a campground anywhere near the river, even considered doubling back to Scottsville to hole up for a third night at Lumpkin’s. Eventually, though, we spotted a commercial campground on the map, about fifteen miles south of the James, and steered that way. The choice seemed auspicious: halfway there, we pulled into a gas station to fuel up the wagon and found that its convenience store boasted not only an impressive...

  18. DAY SIXTEEN On which our faith in all things Swedish is tested
    (pp. 146-150)

    Our journey down 325 miles of the Jackson and James rivers has been studded with milestones, points along the way by which Ian and I have measured our progress. The McClintic Bridge, where we first found water deep and wide enough to canoe, was one. So was Iron Gate, where the Jackson met the Cowpasture. Balcony Falls. Lynchburg, the first major city along the James’s banks. This morning promises to bring the most exciting yet: I’m to put the canoe in at Watkins Landing, roughly eighteen miles west of Richmond, and paddle into the capital.

    So Ian and I bound...

  19. DAY SEVENTEEN Risky business in Richmond
    (pp. 151-161)

    When Captain Christopher Newport left England for the New World early in 1607, he and the 103 souls in his command were fortified with the advice of their bosses back home. “Do your best Endeavor to find out a Safe port in the Entrance of Some navigable River making Choise of Such a one as runneth furthest into the Land,” the advice ran. Once they did that, they were to discover whether the river they chose sprang from mountains or a lake—for a lake might well have a river running from its far side to the East India Sea....

  20. DAY EIGHTEEN In the wake of the first European settlers—and against the tide
    (pp. 161-174)

    Ancarrow’s Landing, mid-morning: Ian and I stand on a concrete parapet overlooking the river, which flows green and sluggish on an outgoing tide. The James’s edge is cool and leafy, its surface calm; our vantage offers no hint that we’ve bounced through a sun-baked canyonland of industrial towers, storage tanks, and hissing pipes to reach this old boat-building site on the right bank, just a mile or so below downtown Richmond. We are surrounded by industry, a hodgepodge of gravel pits and rusting water towers, tobacco barns and cigarette factories and sewage-treatment plants. A half-mile behind me, traffic on busy...

  21. DAY NINETEEN What’s that smell?
    (pp. 174-187)

    Well before sunup, Ian and I strike the tents and pull out of our campsite at Pocahontas State Park. We waste no time: high tide’s on the way. Yesterday afternoon made clear that the lower James will be less a river, in the traditional sense, than a sloppy, wind-raked finger of ocean. Not only are its banks already veering apart—the James is close to a quarter mile wide now—but for half of each day the tide robs it of a single-minded drive it has displayed since spilling from the rock pile in Hightown: to run downhill. To reach...

  22. DAY TWENTY On which we find Jamestown not at all like that Disney movie
    (pp. 188-199)

    Morning comes at Jamestown. Ian and I crawl out of the tents shortly before sunup and cook a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal at the picnic table, shivering in a chilly wind that sweeps across the river and into the campground, talking over the whoosh of our stove’s blue flame and the chattering of the trees. As we pore over the maps it now becomes clear that taking the ferry is much quicker than driving all the way back to the Benjamin Harrison Bridge. With little time before the tide tops out we load up the car and, leaving the...

  23. DAY TWENTY-ONE On which the expedition suffers one last blow
    (pp. 199-211)

    Sailors know that the longest hours of any voyage are its last. Minutes and miles stretch in inverse proportion to the distance from journey’s end, until, as a ship makes its final approach to port, it seems it might never get there. The navy calls this torturous blend of excitement and frustration “channel fever,” and I feel its twinge an hour before dawn.

    Ian and I are up early, eager to ride the tide around the river’s last great bend and into its final long straightaway to Hampton Roads. We’ve come more than four hundred miles from the James’s Highland...

  24. DAY TWENTY-TWO At the James River’s mouth
    (pp. 211-220)

    Drizzle is tapping a tattoo on my tent’s nylon roof when I wake before daybreak, and I lie in the dark for a few minutes, listening to its rhythm, thinking: This is the day.

    Three hours left. After three weeks on and beside the water, after 425 miles of hard, hot hiking and paddling, I have just three hours left. I kick off my sleeping bag, unzip my tent, crawl outside. The drizzle is intensifying into a cool, steady rain, so I hunt by flashlight through the back of the car for my dry bag, and from its bottom pull...

  25. NOTES
    (pp. 221-240)
    (pp. 241-242)