A few years ago, on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation mission in late October, I found myself cruising the Rappahannock from Leedstown toward Tappahannock in my 17-foot skiff. The air was clear and still. Afternoon sunlight streamed downriver from behind me. The long reach below Layton’s became a flaming corridor of glowing deep reds, scarlets, oranges, and yellows from the sweet gums, maples, tulip poplars, oaks and sycamores on each side of the river. At the end of the reach, four miles downstream, the sunlight reflected softly off the tawny diatomite and sandstone of Fones Cliffs. The view was so stunning I stopped the boat and turned off her outboard. A mature bald eagle drifted down like a falling leaf to land on a nearby vacant osprey platform whose summer occupants had headed south six weeks before. It was the most heart-stopping visual feast my eyes have ever experienced.
Photo by Hill Wellford
Rivers are live things. No matter the time of day or the season, there is something going on. The diatomite of Fones Cliffs was formed of the bodies of zillions of microscopic diatoms 10 to 20 million years ago when a shallow sea covered this part of Earth. The Rappahannock has been flowing down 150 miles or so from the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge past Fones Cliffs for several million years, through multiple glaciations (or so the geologists tell us). Over that time, it has carved away the diatomite and sandstone, grain by grain, as it accelerates on the outside of this meander curve. When sea level was much lower during those glaciations, the river cut deeply into the sand and gravel of its bed. At our current sea level, that narrow channel now is 40-to-50-feet deep at the base of the cliffs. Its powerful tidal currents provide food and spawning habitat for a range of fish, including rockfish (striped bass), white perch, American shad, hickory shad, river herring, gizzard shad and Atlantic sturgeon. Bald eagles and ospreys (in season) have for millennia perched in trees along the cliffs, to look out for and dive onto the smaller of those fish.
On the opposite side, sediment suspended in the river’s flow has settled out on the inside of the curve (where that flow slows down), creating a broad tidal marsh. The water here, about 50 miles above the Rappahannock’s mouth, is mildly brackish, but the guts that cut through the marsh carry rainfall from the adjacent land, so they are much fresher, and their plant community reflects that fact. The result is a diverse resource that sustains a wide range of plants and animals through the year, from great blue herons and migratory waterfowl to muskrats, raccoons, river otters, and even bobcats.
Aerial of the Rappahnnock River, with Fones Cliff in the background. Photo by Hll Wellford.
About a thousand years ago, when sea level had come within 10 feet or so of where it is today, the Rappahannock Indians who lived along this stretch of the river began to farm crops and settle into semi-permanent communities. The soils along the spine of the Northern Neck, including the cliffs, allowed them to cultivate corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. They had doubtless already figured out that the cliffs provided ready lookout points for monitoring who was coming up or down the river, and that the wooded land offered game, like whitetail deer and turkeys, in addition to trees for various uses, from bark and saplings for structures to logs for dugout canoes. Thus, they could fish, trap furbearers and birds in the marsh, and forage for edible plants there. Rain falling onto the cliffs over the millennia had cut ravines that led down to natural landings for their canoes. Those ravines also offered springs for fresh water seeping out from rain that had soaked into the soil. The conditions were ideal for human settlement along the cliffs.
Fast forward several hundred years. Imagine in August of 1608, Rappahannock watchmen spied a strange vessel moving slowly up the river like a big, six-legged (-oared) insect. It was filled with strangely-clothed, pale-skinned men whom they suspected to be friends of the Moraughtacund Tribe downriver, with whom they had a serious grievance. Assuming friends of enemies to be enemies themselves, the Rappahannock took action, strategically using both the cliffs and the marsh. Archers on the heights shot down on the boat, forcing it to the inside of the river’s curve, where another group of warriors hid in the marsh’s big cordgrass stands. As the boat came their way, the warriors rose, shouting and loosing their bows. However, shields prudently mounted along the boat’s gunwales blocked the arrows. The boat escaped damage and continued upriver.
We have a description of this encounter through the words of the skipper of the boat, the Englishman Captain John Smith, who later made peace with the Rappahannock tribesmen. Smith included the sites of Wecuppom, Matchopeak and Pissacoack, three of their settlements on the cliffs, on the remarkably accurate map of the Chesapeake he published in 1612. Unfortunately, as so often happened in 17th-century Virginia, English settlers pushed the Rappahannock people from Fones Cliffs a few decades later. The land lay fallow for much of the intervening three-and-a-half centuries.
Today, the river and Fones Cliffs look much as they did in the early 1600s, and it’s easy to “walk the battlefield” of the Rappahannock/English skirmish in a boat, launching from Carter’s Wharf, a Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources landing with a concrete ramp and pier. Descendants of the Rappahannock Tribe regard the whole territory as sacred ground. In 2017, the Tribe acquired a small parcel on the top of the cliffs beside the access road to Carter’s Wharf. In 2019, the middle section of about 250 acres, possibly including the site of Matchopeak, was added to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. And in a joyous celebration on April 1, 2022, the Tribe acquired 465 acres of the lower section of the cliffs, including the site of Pissacoack. It was the culmination of years of work by multiple partners, led by the Chesapeake Conservancy.
However, more than 900 acres of the upper Cliffs, including the site of Wecuppom and possibly Matchopeak, remain in private ownership. Chesapeake Conservancy and its partners hope to conserve it and protect it from development.
For a modern explorer, there’s no bad time to visit Fones Cliffs, whether launching an outboard skiff, kayak, canoe, or standup paddleboard, or just visiting Carter's Wharf with a pair of binoculars. The cliffs form a major roosting/nesting center for bald eagles on the Rappahannock. They host many birds from the south in the height of summer and more from the north in the depths of winter, many of them juveniles. That’s in addition to a sturdy colony of residents. (It was certainly no surprise to see an eagle appear during my October afternoon there.)
In addition, the marshes and farm fields along the river still attract large numbers of waterfowl, especially migratory Canada geese that have come to the Rappahannock for winter from breeding grounds on the glacial lakes and tundra of the Ungava Peninsula in far northern Quebec. Other waterfowl we’ve seen around Carter’s Wharf in winter include common mergansers, attracted by the river’s abundant stock of forage fish like gizzard shad.
Geese near Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock. Bill Portlock photo.
Fishing this part of the river means mostly soaking cut bait for blue catfish, a non-native species introduced in the early 1970s that have proliferated and grown, in some cases to prodigious sizes. They are plentiful, fun to catch, available year ’round and great to eat in sizes of 12-to-25 inches.
A note of caution about boating the Rappahannock around Fones Cliffs: Remember that this is a powerful river whose flood and ebb currents frequently run at a couple of knots. Moreover, its northwest-southeast orientation can make it a wind tunnel. When wind and current oppose one another, the surface can build into nasty, steep, choppy waves. If you venture out to look for geese or angle for blue cats, dress carefully for the weather and water temperature, wear a life jacket, plan to take advantage of, rather than fight, the current and make sure someone knows where you are.
The section of the Rappahannock around Fones Cliffs is one of the true jewels of the Chesapeake. Learn to enjoy it in all seasons – and help the Chesapeake Conservancy make sure it’s conserved for years to come.
Established in 1996 to conserve fish and wildlife habitat along this vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the refuge focuses primarily on protecting and managing tidal and inland wetlands, and adjacent uplands, to benefit wildlife.