Henrico students begin James River journey

Every student in Virginia should have a meaningful watershed experience before graduating, but the James River Association is taking that experience one step further with its second James River Expedition program, said trip leader Gabe Silver.

“Our goal is really to take someone when they’re young and give them an experience that really stands out in their memory, to take someone not necessarily who is going to go into conservation or environmental field, but someone who is going to go far in life and is going to be a leader, and show them how important and core our water resources
are,” he said.

Last year, 12 students and four teachers from Virginia high schools participated in a 28-day canoe trip down the 340-mile James River. This year's trip schedule has been separated into three sections to allow five more schools to participate, including Varina High School and J.R. Tucker High School from Henrico County.

Each trip will be eight days long and students, teachers and JRA officials will be canoeing between 10-24 miles a day, Silver said.

“This is not by any means an easy trip it is a physically challenging trip and intentionally so,” Silver said. “It gets everyone out of their comfort zone.”

The opportunity is sponsored by a $50,000 grant from The Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion Resources.

Varina Biology II teacher Melinda VanDevelder received an email in January from the Henrico County secondary science education specialist, Libby Kitten, about the program and immediately applied.

“A weeklong vacation on the James River, are you kidding, it’s awesome,” VanDevelder said. “If there’s a river, I’m getting in it.”

Students on every leg will stop to talk to experts about history and the ecology of the river and its conservation challenges, Silver said. VanDevelder will be teaching about endocrine disrupters, water testing and fisheries to her group, which travels from Lynchburg to Richmond July 7-14. Students will snorkel to look at the fish before learning about the problems facing their species, she said.

“I’m looking forward to watching them experience the river in a completely different way,” she said. “It’s not every day you get to see clear water, especially in Varina. I’m ready for some light bulb moments.”

Silver said, the trip would help to build leadership skills as students rotate jobs including a trip leader in charge of researching what is coming up the next day, trip scientist in charge of recording GPS coordinates of any potential ecological problems they see along the river, the trip reporter who will take photos and write an article, and the camp leaders who will cook and set up camp.

Most of the students are rising 10th and 11th graders, Silver said. When they return they will put together a project to demonstrate what they learned, said J.R. Tucker Biology teacher Jane Selden, who leaves July 21 for her trip down the last section of the James from Richmond to Hampton.

Students and teachers prepared for the trip the first weekend in June with safety and camp training, Bodary said. Despite being an avid kayaker, Bodary said that for this trip she has had to prepare herself for the length and cooperation involved in the expedition.

“I’ll have to buy a whole new wardrobe, some synthetic shorts, not the usually holey cotton ones I wear,” she said. “I’ll have to be putting on sun block all day. I’ll probably be a crispy little critter. But I think the biggest thing is planning to pack for seven days.”

Seldon said she’d been going to the gym to strengthen her upper body to prepare.

“I’m not a camper, so this is going to be a little new to me,” she said. “I’m really wanted this experience for my students. They’re so excited.”

The first group left June 23 and will return June 30. You can follow its progress on Facebook and at http://jamesriverassociation.org/expedition.
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