Dutch Gap: Paddling a Rewilded Landscape


I set out one perfect fall evening to visit Dutch Gap's tidal lagoon, formed as a result of 20th-century mining operations. I soon discover there’s no better place to explore the interactions between nature and humans than Dutch Gap, nestled along a bend in the James River about 10 miles south of Richmond. This area was once wooded land and swamps. But from the 1920s to the 1960s, mining companies scoured the site for sand and gravel, leaving behind a large pit connected to the James River through a narrow channel.

This channel connects the tidal lagoon with the James River at Dutch Gap Conservation Area. 

Barges shipped the sand and gravel through the channel for use in construction projects across Virginia. Through that same channel, water rushed in with the tides and currents, forming a unique lagoon ringed by marshes and bottomland forest. This artificial waterway now looks like a natural part of the landscape, and is a popular spot for wildlife, anglers, and paddlers.  

I’m here to paddle the roughly two-mile Lagoon Water Trail. My guide for the paddle is Mark Battista, a naturalist for Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation for the last 26 years.

Mark Battista leads a paddle tour of the lagoon at Dutch Gap.

Driving up to the lagoon isn’t possible without special permission from the power plant, so to reach it you have three options: paddle three miles from the Dutch Gap boat ramp, carry your vessel one-quarter mile from the Henricus parking lot, or join one of the regular guided trips led by Chesterfield County. More details about launching options below.

Since I’m with Mark, guards wave our cars through the power plant site and we reach a county kayak launch on the banks of the lagoon. Having paddled these waters hundreds of times, Mark is extremely knowledgeable about the area’s natural history – and infectiously enthusiastic.

“Even though you come and paddle the lagoon over and over, each time is a different experience,” Mark says. “One time, you'll see a bald eagle chasing an osprey. Another time maybe a beaver slaps its tail, or you catch a beautiful sunset reflecting off the waters.”

A great blue heron explores the tidal lagoon.

While the tides vary about three feet between high and low, there is little current in the lagoon, making it an easy spot to explore for paddlers of any skill level. We launch our kayaks and make for the first white buoy of the water trail.

Soon we reach a cluster of hulking figures in an area ominously marked on the map as “The Graveyard.” When mining operations ended in the 1960s, dozens of large wooden barges were left behind.

The abandoned barges became a graveyard of sunken vessels that from a distance seem to be islands with trees and bushes. Paddling through them is surreal. What at first seems like a small archipelago transforms as old wooden barge timbers emerge from between tangles of bushes.

A decades-old abandoned wooden barge in “The Graveyard” is a reminder of the mining operations that formed the lagoon. 

“Over time, the tides washed sediment and silt over the barges, building up enough soil for seeds to grow trees and plants. You have river birch, buttonbush, elderberry, swamp rose and more on them,” Mark explains. “The barges themselves are great structures for fish to hide in, which brings in fishermen. That also attracts wildlife that like to feed on fish; the great blue herons, the ospreys, the bald eagles, the kingfishers.”

Part of nature’s steady reclamation of Dutch Gap, trees and plants colonize this old sunken barge.

We pull our kayaks next to a sunken metal tugboat with a big “D” painted on the smokestack – the origins of which are unclear. “This one’s a classic. Nearly everyone who comes through takes a picture here,” Mark said, as he snapped a photo of me in my kayak in front of the derelict vessel.

A sunken metal tugboat is a well-known landmark on the lagoon paddle. 

From there, we paddle towards the second white buoy along the water trail, entering an area known as the wetlands. Along the marshy shoreline, the fuzzy tops of wild rice wiggle in the light breeze. A muscadine grapevine blankets a tree along the shore. Acorns fall on the forest floor. It’s a fall bounty for the birds and animals fattening up for the winter ahead.

The forests and wetlands along the shores of the lagoon provide food and refuge for wildlife throughout the seasons.  

Throughout the rhythms of the seasons, the lagoon is an important resource for wildlife. Migratory waterfowl stop over in its waters in the winter. In the spring, prothonotary warblers – a bright yellow songbird favoring southeastern swamps – nest amid the abandoned barges. In the summer, osprey and bald eagles hunt fish in these waters.

We paddle back into the open lagoon, with the smokestacks of the power plant visible in the distance. The evening light turns golden, and we spot a great egret standing along the marshy reeds as a full moon rises over the horizon.

An egret perches along the lagoon’s shore as a smokestack from the power plant rises in the distance.

Making our way past the third and final buoy along the water trail, we enter “the labyrinth.” This is another cluster of abandoned vessels. Because they’re packed more tightly together, with thicker trees and bushes on top, it does feel like I’m winding through a maze as I follow Mark’s kayak closely in the waning light.

Passing through the narrow channel between overgrown sunken barges in the lagoon’s “labyrinth” is a memorable paddle. 

Gliding silently through the water trail, we pop back out onto open water facing a stunning sunset. The sky lights up in shades of pink and orange, and the water is smooth as a mirror. For a moment, the scene dissolved all remnants of weekday stress. 

Sunset colors reflect off the tidal lagoon at Dutch Gap Conservation Area.

While this landscape was heavily influenced by human activity, as a protected conservation area nature has formed something altogether new. A paddle along the lagoon at Dutch Gap is an encouraging reminder that, if you leave nature alone for long enough, life finds a way.


Water Trail Launching and Paddling Notes:

At a little over two miles, the lagoon water trail is an excellent choice for paddlers of all levels. Before you go, check a tide chart for Dutch Gap, as you can explore much more of the lagoon at high tide.

The launch point on the lagoon is only accessible by car on an official Chesterfield County paddling trip, which run regularly from the spring through fall for a reasonable fee. Visit the schedule at this link to find an upcoming trip.

Intrepid explorers can carry their watercraft from the parking lot at Henricus Historical Park to one of two launch points marked on the map at this link as Henricus Dock and Sycamore Dock. Either will require a hike of about one-quarter mile, followed by a paddle of about a mile. Sycamore dock is not accessible during low tide.

While it is possible to launch a kayak or canoe at Dutch Gap Boat Ramp and paddle down to the lagoon, it’s not an easy trip. It involves paddling a narrow part of the James River through heavy boat traffic and strong currents for nearly three miles to reach the lagoon.

Dutch Gap Conservation Area

Dutch Gap consists of 810 acres of woodlands, wildlife and waterways along the James River, a major Chesapeake Bay tributary. It's home to a blue heron rookery, beavers, muskrats and other wildlife of a freshwater marsh.

Kenny Fletcher

Kenny Fletcher grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland and now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He loves fishing and paddling on creeks and rivers, enjoys a nice walk in the woods, and is always on the lookout for a great story.

November 15, 2022

Main image: All photos by Kenny Fletcher
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