As my kayak slipped quietly into the Chickahominy River in Virginia one early spring morning, my mind was on a winter day in 1607.
In December of that year, Capt. John Smith — a leader from the English colony at Jamestown — launched a canoe into this river from an Indian settlement near present-day Providence Forge. Smith traveled with a handful of men, including two Indian guides, hoping to find the source of the river and possibly a new route to the East Indies.
There’s every chance he passed this way, I thought, as I nudged my kayak into the river.
Smith had already made several trips on these waters, trading for corn from the Chickahominy Indians who lived along the river that came to share their name. This time, his trip ended differently.
Smith was captured by a group of Indians and marched through the region for several weeks before being taken to Werowocomoco, the seat of the influential leader Powhatan on what is now the York River. There, Smith met Powhatan and, by his account, also met Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter.
Today, the Chickahominy River is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. I wanted to become better acquainted with “the Chick,” especially the upper section above Walkers Dam. I’d launched at the base of Grapevine Bridge, in eastern Henrico County, which is the only official public access point for paddling the upper reaches.
Here, the Chickahominy is more forested wetland than river, so my first challenge was to locate the main channel.
I noted a likely spot between two hummocks, each anchored by upright but very dead bald cypress trees, with a decent flow of dark water between them. I edged up to the quickening water, only to find that the current flowing over a small, partly submerged log was surprisingly strong. I’d forgotten that, upstream, the river had swelled to fill much of its floodplain. That large amount of water was now passing through a relatively small channel.
Getting out and dragging my kayak up and over the log was an option, though I’d have to watch my step. Some places were a mere foot deep. Other places, I could barely touch bottom with the tip of my 7-foot paddle.
Instead, I decided to drift downstream under the bridge, taking in the soft green of budding maples blushing with pink seed wings. The channel carried me past stumpy islands, whose banks were littered with fresh mussel shells, left open and empty by elusive river otters.
The landscape was an open tangle of rotting logs and tight shoots of arrow arum poking up from last year’s peat. The branches of bald cypress trees, fringed with olive-green needles, rose gracefully toward the low gray clouds, while the knees — those distinctive knobby roots found at the base of cypress trees — squatted shoulder to shoulder like toy soldiers marking the way. The vibrant green moss at the base of the trees brightened the overcast morning.
I heard woodpeckers — pileated, red-breasted and hairy — announce the spring mating season. The sounds of their beaks drilling into hollow snags resonated in the watery neighborhood.
The Chickahominy River springs from its source near Hyla, VA, just 16 miles northwest of downtown Richmond, and flows 90 miles roughly east then south to meet the James River 5 miles above Jamestown.
Like the James and the other Western Shore rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay, the Chickahominy drops over the “fall line” of granite outcrops — in this case, about 15 miles above the Grapevine Bridge. This provides 3 miles of mostly Class I and II whitewater that, at the right water level, gives determined paddlers with local knowledge a fun ride past suburban housing developments and shopping centers.
But unlike the James, the Chickahominy does not immediately become tidal below the fall line. Instead, it widens into a swampy expanse tucked between Chickahominy Bluffs to the south and gentler slopes to the north.
The swampy nature of the river is one reason it remains a delight to explore, with largely undeveloped shores reminiscent of the landscape that Smith traveled in the early 1600s. Jamie Brunkow, the lower James Riverkeeper, calls the Chickahominy, “one of the jewels of the lower James — and surprisingly pristine and undeveloped.”
The soggy shores that help protect the river have, in the past, made it a poor geographic marker and, at times, an obstacle. In 1634, it served as the boundary between colonial counties. As the river rose and fell during the seasons and decades, its channel shifted, resulting in persistent boundary disputes.
During the Civil War, the upper Chickahominy was a significant impediment to Union troop movements. The river and its mile-wide swamps northeast of Richmond provided an effective defense for the Confederate capital from Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the late spring and early summer of 1862.
McClellan’s troops built 11 bridges across the Chickahominy, but rainfall swelled what was ordinarily a sluggish stream into a wide and “very serious obstacle” to the Union soldiers. McClellan ultimately retreated under pressure from the news that Stonewall Jackson was on the way.
In 1864, Union troops eventually traversed the swamp using pontoon bridges to move troops and equipment for what later became the siege of Richmond.
Today, the upper river is trapped behind Walker’s Dam, built in 1943 to provide drinking water for the Newport News Shipyard. About 5 miles above the dam, the river is wide, reaching into coves dotted with fishing piers and marinas on a stretch known as Chickahominy Lake.
Ambitious and careful paddlers can put in at one of the marinas along Chickahominy Lake and paddle into the swamp. For now, Grapevine Bridge is the only official launch on the upper river. Planners hope that more will follow.
But ease of access doesn’t promise easy paddling. The Smith Trail sign at Grapevine Bridge warned me to be prepared to explore “a swamp like wilderness, with natural obstructions that may require disembarking to portage around.”
I encountered some of these challenges, including channels that became increasingly smaller until they came to a quiet dead-end surrounded by hummocks and no apparent route to the open water beyond.
But my reward was an eye-level encounter with the pale ivory flowers of the fetterbush, lined up along branches as though ready to decorate a wedding cake. And crayfish “chimneys” were everywhere, pellets of mud laid like bricks at the top of crayfish burrows.
I flushed a mallard from her nest and watched as she feigned broken-winged flight, splashing down the river before me. Deer startled by the sound of my paddle flashed white-tailed warnings as they trotted away. Patches of morning sun streaking through low clouds lit up the bark of river birches, just as the shadow of a bald eagle passed overhead. As I turned to paddle back to the bridge, a blue heron stood stark among rotting roots.
Modern paddlers often enjoy these remote, wild moments in a way people from earlier times did not.
One Union soldier, commenting on his 1864 march along the Chickahominy, wrote, “I think I never saw a more horrible looking stream than this... slow, sluggish, black, villainously treacherous looking... one of the most gloomy and unpleasant scenes we have yet met with.”
But paddling the Chickahominy is wholly different than trying to traverse its wide swampy floodplains. The morning paddle downriver and back offered more than enough chance for intimate encounters with a river that becomes abundantly wild mere yards from the highway.
Resources for exploring the upper Chickahominy River
The Grapevine Bridge canoe and kayak access has benches, a picnic table, parking and interpretive signage. You’ll find it at N. Airport Drive (VA 156), 0.75 mile east of I-295, Exit 31 (Henrico County).
Water levels in the upper Chickahominy are best for paddle trips in the spring and after fall rainstorms. The U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Providence Forge was reading 4.25 feet on the day of my paddle. Flood stage is 10 feet. Check here for flow information.
The Chickahominy River Atlas, available here, is a wealth of historic details of the waterway from its fall line 75 miles downriver to the James. The Atlas notes bridge crossings that have been used by paddlers. Treat these informal launch sites as privately owned. Using them can result in a ticket, a tow or both.
Article originally published on the Bay Journal website on May 2, 2016.