Journey on the James

Inside a conference room at J.R. Tucker High School recently, students Meredith Jaroneski, Kristin Schaefer, Lev Looney and Hunter Goff laughed and spoke over each other, displaying such easy camaraderie one would think they’d known each other for years.

“What are you guys doing this afternoon?” Kristin asked. “Anyone like to go to the movies?”

“Me,” Lev exclaimed.

“I will,” Meredith added quickly.

A few weeks before, all but Meredith knew each other, but only by sight and from the occasional class. From July 21-28, the four set out with biology teacher Jane Seldon, students and teachers from two other Virginia high schools and officials from the James River Association on canoeing and rafting trip down the lower James River
from Richmond to Hampton.

“I sort of didn’t know anybody at all,” Lev said. “We became close with everybody, like I’ve been texting people a lot.”

Around the table the four students and their teacher compared blisters and sunburns and shared how what they learned was often unexpected as they came to trust each other.

“You had to trust the person in back to know that they’ll steer you, because the person in back steers and the person in front is the power,” Kristin said. It was difficult, she said.

Each day they were paired with a new boat mate and had different duties, such as pitching tents or being the camp reporter. On the day that Meredith had camp duty, Kristin helped – sort of.

“Both of us together, it took us like 45 minutes to put up one tent,” Kristin said.

Meredith interjected: “Lev tried to help.”

Kristin said: “He was like, ‘This is really easy, guys.’”

The group entered the James upriver from Belle Isle and white-water-rafted down to an area around 14th Street.

“What was a lot of fun was everyone would jump to the front and so there were times when the water was like shooting into everybody’s face,” Lev said. “It was intense.”

Lev and Kristin both flew out once, but no injuries occurred.

“I mean, Ms. Seldon you like saved my life,” Kristin said, recounting how her teacher grabbed her when she was slipping.

Going down river the group spent one rainy night on a pontoon boat, a flat bottom boat historically used to transport goods from plantations to market.

“They put up rain flies, that didn’t really work that well,” Lev said. “Hunter’s sleeping bag was on the side and when we woke up there was just a puddle under him, but none of us were wet. He’d physically blocked all the rain from the guys.”

Meredith said she woke up and her body was dry, but not her head.

“It felt like I had been like dunked in a pool of water on my face,” Meredith said.

They received an unexpected wake-up call when the horns from a triathlon that was starting there went off at 5 a.m., Seldon said.

The weather was a problem again later in the week, when it stormed while they were near Fort Pocahontas. They stayed in President John Tyler’s grandson’s garage for shelter, after he offered them the space.

“It was so bad that the caretaker said he had to cut down all the trees to check on it,” Lev said.

But there were some beautiful rainbows afterward, Kristin said.

Part of the purpose of the trip was to learn about the river, and how to protect it. One day they stopped at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Center to hear a talk about algae, and another day they learned about the blue catfish from college scientists who shocked the water to bring the fish to the surface.

They gave the group pounds of catfish, which Lev said he threw in the cooler behind him in his canoe to fillet later. Hunter explained that the catfish are harder to fillet because they have skin and not scales. Lev said he had filleted fish before using an electric knife, but not without.

“Yeah, that was not fun,” Lev said. “It was hard because whenever you messed up it was so hard to get the next piece of skin. We ended up just sort of cooking it ... We were just kind of cooking it to have fun and then I sat down and ate everything.”

The quality of the fish and the river were surprises to Hunter.

“The river is different than what we’re really taught,” he said. “At least me, all I’ve heard about the river is, ‘Take your boat out, it’s a little dirty but you can still get a fish here and there. If you go out at night there’s going to be more fish.’ But we constantly saw fish during the day, and the litter, yes, there was litter, but it wasn’t as bad as we were taught.”

One area in particular – where bald Cyprus trees formed habitats for ospreys and eagles – was particularly impressive. “That’s nature,” he said. “That’s what nature should be.”

Seldon, who said she was very familiar with the upper and middle James, had tried to anticipate what it would be like.

“I was just amazed at how broad it is and how much power the river has,” she said. “It’s so much cleaner than it used to be. I remember when it was so awful and it’s really, really been cleaned up, but they were counting the tires on the bank.”

In one day they counted 196 tires in about 10 miles, Lev said. They also found an abandoned car.

“If everybody just picked up like one piece of trash and didn’t throw one piece of trash in, the difference would be like insane,” Lev said.

As part of the expedition, the students are required to give a presentation to their peers about what they learned. Kristin said that a big part of what she would tell her peers is that one person can make a difference.

“I feel like a lot of people ... throw a can on the ground and they’re just like, ‘Oh whatever, it’s just what can I do,’” she said. “But you really can make a difference.”

Meredith, who said she was looking forward to doing the project, said that she was surprised at how much she learned about how important the river was.

“I just thought it was like a camping trip and I was like, ‘Yeah, camping,’” she said. “It really hit me when we pulled up to Jamestown that we were actually doing like really pretty much the same thing that the settlers were doing when they just were on the James.”

The long days and irregular sleep hours were difficult, Meredith said, but worth it when she was paddling.

“It was just really cool to just be able to ... lose sense of time and not really know what day it was or what time it was really, but just sort of paddle and get lost in the paddling. It gave me time to think, and then I really realized how important the river is,” Meredith said.

Hunter said he was surprised at how much he didn’t know about the history of the river, including about how the settlers stopped at Richmond because of the fall line there. He also learned about the historic importance of the forts along the river during battles, such as Fort Monroe, where they ended their trip, he said.

Seldon said she was proud of her kids, and said they were definitely not slackers. She also had nothing but praise for the James River Association and their trip leaders.

“I would encourage everyone to volunteer with the James River Association, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and with the James River parks,” Seldon said. “It was absolutely wonderful ... We learned so much about the river and about how to take care of it, and about ourselves.”

To view slideshows and video from the trip, as well as student accounts, visit http://www.jrava.org/expedition.
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