Lessons From the Falls - A Story of Rivers Paddled over the Past 30 Years

The river has always been a teacher. From the time I first dipped a paddle in the Rappahannock, to a recent paddle on the Shenandoah, the lessons continue.

That old aluminum Grumman taught me a few things about rocks and hydraulics back in the day. When we threw a wee young boy in the boat and flipped it just before the first rapids in Fredericksburg, l learned about that survival instinct that kicks in for a mother protecting her young. I also learned how to use a paddle to avoid a spill. Many teachers, many lessons.

I’ve heard some real whoppers from sitting around a campfire with old decrepit liars, cried a more than a few tears when a fellow paddler took his last breath on the James in the rapids at Hollywood. Gained a life long friend at the funeral. The river has its gifts and its payments.

Among the best lessons have been scenes that no land lover observes from an overlook on a parkway. Gorges in the glacier fed rivers of Quebec, skinny dipping in nipple freezing water, and multi-colored meteor showers under a million star lit night are pictures that don’t come on roads with pavement. Lyrical French localisms spoken in tents, farts from fellow chili eaters, and the sounds of well earned snores are the rewards (?) of a trip taken North in black fly season as sleep comes to the weary. So too is the excitement of seeing the fins of whales, spouting spray in the seaway of the St. Lawrence from the deck of a sea kayak as well as the funk of the door opening to a van packed with week old boating gear. Pleasure and pain, blessings and curses.

Belonging to the Coastal Canoeists has taught me trust and respect for the river and its travelers. Had I not followed path of a paddler and an old friend through rapids new to me, I would not have learned so quickly or been so relieved to feel a rope hit my helmet when I took the line less traveled. Women in open boats who have shown such fearlessness in surfing holes on the Ocoee under a bridge in Georgia, and led me through big water using the finesse of a paddle twist and a hip movement to allow the river to take my boat where my muscles couldn’t, are the mentors who have shared their lore over the years. There is a learning in the safety of this crowd, where the group is a collective, a critical mass of knowledge, experience, years of seeing what the river will yield and then retract.

This is the village that has raised my children. A unique assemblage of all manner of humans, young and old, of many occupations and skills, shared on the river, by a fire, and in the backyard of my home. We’ve raised roofs, broken bread and said prayers over sleeping children in rain soaked sleeping bags. Kids have stolen quarters to play pool in a cabin near the Nantahala, eaten lunch watching their parents play in boats, and suffered through enibriated renditions of Puff the Magic Dragonwhile sneaking sips of home-brew. They don’t know how lucky they are… or maybe they do. They certainly drink better beer than we did.

That last trip on the Shenandoah, I was honored to spend the day with a group of young scholars who have traveled the James from the first raindrop in the Appalachians all the way to the Atlantic. Their passion and enthusiasm for its history and biology is engaging. My hope is that they will carry that into the future, preserving our beloved waterways and keeping the old stories alive, improving the wrongs and bringing new energy to an ancient watershed. A vibrant young fellow shared a meal with me, as his father begins that journey of sharing the river with his children. He has no idea how much he has to look forward to… either of them.

The lessons are still there, waiting for the teacher to appear. 

• Read about Footprints on the James - a collaborative, experiential learning opportunity that combines faculty from the Biology and History departments and the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program, exposing students to the importance of the James River watershed and to the residents of Virginia in the present, past and future.



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