This tour, best experienced by water, features two stretches of the Piankatank River explored by Captain Smith—the wooded, lightly developed lower river, and the river’s pristine headwaters, Dragon Run.
After anchoring inside the mouth of the Piankatank (possibly in Fishing Bay), Smith and his men traveled the length of this comparatively short, winding river in a few days during the late summer of 1608. Kayakers following the Piankatank River Trail, part of the Mathews Blueways Water Trail can retrace the lower portion of Smith’s expedition between still-undeveloped Berkley Island and Queens Creek, a tributary near the river’s mouth whose banks are dotted with houses and cottages. Obtain copies of this and other Blueways’ water trails at the Mathews County Visitor & Information Center in nearby Mathews.
Six launch sites are located along the Piankatank River Trail. (Sea and touring kayaks are recommended for most Blueways trails, which feature many stretches of open water.)
The main Piankatank trail is nearly 12 miles long with five scenic creeks offering additional opportunities for diversion. Along the main route, you’ll see imposing old houses and historic estates as you hug the southern shore. You may glimpse bald eagles, ospreys, and great blue herons, although the river no longer sustains the natural diversity it did in Smith’s day. In recent years, the Piankatank has become a laboratory for an experimental effort to restore one depleted resource, Virginia’s now-decimated oyster population. On several protected reefs here, scientists, like nervous parents, are monitoring the growth of baby oysters (spat) planted by conservation groups and individual volunteers.
Head west to the Piankatank’s headwaters, a unique tidal and non-tidal stream that drains a dense cypress swamp. Dragon Run is the stream’s name, but to locals it’s simply “The Dragon,” a prime paddling/fishing destination.
Smith may have first seen the stream in the winter of 1607 while a captive of Powhatan’s war chief before he returned the following summer. The Piankatank would have valued The Dragon as a source of edible plants such as wild rice, which grows there still. And ancestors of the swamp’s stand of bald cypress trees might well have been used by the tribe to make dugout canoes. Several launch sites allow today’s paddlers to experience the mystery of these dark, cypress-stained waters where man has managed to tread lightly over the centuries. Be aware that the Dragon retains its awesome natural beauty because it is remote. Most access points by land require a trek over rugged backcountry. For information and a schedule of guided paddle trips, visit the Friends of Dragon Run.