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A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
Joe McCauley retired from United States Fish and Wildlife Service after a 32-year career that included serving as assistant refuge manager at Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southern New Jersey, deputy refuge manager at Back Bay NWR in Virginia Beach, and refuge manager at Rappahannock River Valley, James River, Presquile, and Plum Tree Island refuges in eastern Virginia. Joe is currently a Chesapeake Fellow with the Chesapeake Conservancy, where he serves as a mentor to the Conservancy staff and enhances the organization’s conservation efforts in Virginia.
In the early 1990s I was working at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach, when I heard about a proposal to establish a new National Wildlife Refuge on the Rappahannock River. From that moment on I tried to get as much training and experience with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as I possibly could to position myself to be a competitor for the job at Rappahannock. In 2000 the Refuge Manager position became available and I was able to get it. It was a long process, but I had my eye on that prize for about seven or eight years before I landed there.
There is something captivating about the Rappahannock and a lot of people share that notion. I think there is an underappreciated set of recreational opportunities at Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Over the 10 years that I worked at the Refuge we were able to open up refuge lands to all six priority uses of the Refuge system: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, environmental education, interpretive programing, and nature photography. Over the years USFWS has established some great wildlife observation trails that are fully accessible, as well as places where you can launch a canoe or a kayak and observe wildlife and go fishing—there are two great fishing ponds as well as a fishing pier on Mt. Landing Creek. There are interpretive signs around the trails to tell visitors about the management work USFWS is doing, why they are doing it, and the species that are benefitting from it. The Refuge also has an environmental education building that is geared toward small groups.
I’m most familiar with the middle section of the River, beginning at Port Royal, Virginia running just south of Tappahannock, where the freshwater and the saltwater meet. That part of the river is very special because it is so diverse; areas where fresh and saltwater mix are often the most diverse parts of a river system. It’s always changing with the seasons and the climate. There are hundreds of plant and animal species to observe and study and enjoy.
It’s also on the quiet side. It hasn’t been developed as intensely as some of the other river systems in the Chesapeake. Often times when I’m out there I will see maybe one or two other boats all day. It’s a place where you can escape the hubbub of every day life.
When you are on the Rappahannock and you are in a boat, which I think is the best way to see and experience it, you really can get a sense of what it was like in the past. There are places likes Fones Cliffs where you are paddling or motoring by sites that are almost exactly as they were hundreds of years ago. When you think about the fact that you are less than 100 miles from Washington D.C. as the eagle flies, it is astounding that there is a place where you can go back in time and experience what it must have been like for early European explorers and what it must have been like for the Rappahannock Indians, who were there then and are still there today. It’s amazing that places like that still exist here on the heavily developed East Coast. The Rappahannock is certainly one of them and Fones Cliffs are the epitome of that. We know what happened there. It is one of the few places—archeologists have told me—that you can be 100 percent certain that you are at the exact spot where John Smith encountered the Rappahannock Tribe in 1608. It’s just a magical place with so much history.
It’s amazing that in two hours the scenery can be transformed from the craziness of rush hour in Washington DC to a very quiet place that is reminiscent of the 17th century.
The fishing is great. I would have to say fishing is probably number one for me. I caught my very first rockfish on the Rappahannock. In the spring and fall you can catch keeper-sized rockfish and any time of the year you can catch catfish. If you cannot catch catfish then you are not trying. The big catfish are fun to catch and the nice 15-16-inch fish are great to eat.
Port Royal has a new fishing pier and kayak launch and every time I drive by it I always see people fishing. There is also a boat launch at Carters Wharf right next to Fones Cliffs.
If you’re into birding, the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail has many great stops on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, including several refuge stops. Westmoreland and Belle Isle are two outstanding state parks with lots of outdoor opportunities. History abounds too, with George Washington’s Birthplace Monument and Stratford Hall in close proximity to each other on the ‘Neck. You could easily spend a three-day weekend travelling the back roads and seeing the sights, and when you get near water, you shouldn’t have to look too hard to see a bald eagle.
Though I am partial to the dozen-plus National Wildlife Refuges throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, most of which I have been to, I think a very cool place to go is Great Falls National Park. We went there as a family when I was growing up and as I started getting around on my own I would continue to go there. When we first started going there, they had a carousel where you could reach for the gold ring and get a free ride! It has really spectacular falls and I like the history of all the locks and dams and the plaque that shows the height of some of the fiercer floods that have happened. It's very wooded, so it is a great place to hike, and you can also fish and rock climb. It’s one of many “great” places in the Chesapeake!
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.
Just 15 miles from the Nation's capital, Great Falls is considered the most spectacular natural landmark in the DC metropolitan area. The park providing a series of trails and overlooks from which to view the falls and the gorge.