Paddling event raises funds, spirits

First finishers and door prize winners posed at the picnic that followed the event.
Three-year-old Kindred Worrell, the youngest participant in the 19th Annual Varina Lions Canoe-a-thon, didn't have much choice when it came to attending. But she enjoyed the 10-mile cruise, looking at kayaks and fishing a feather out of the James, just the same.

Her father, Sgt. Timothy Worrell of the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, visited Kindred frequently along the way as he escorted several dozen canoes and kayaks from Rocketts Landing to Osborne Landing.

And Kindred's mother, Jennifer, pronounced the journey a relaxing and much-needed episode of "tornado therapy" for herself and fellow teacher Angela Paust.

Paust teaches sixth grade at Page Middle School in Gloucester County and Jennifer Worrell is a reading specialist. On April 16, a tornado destroyed roughly half the school building, and Page teachers and students had to transfer to another county middle school. To accommodate the double load, home students and faculty now attend a morning shift, and the contingent from Page attends from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

In addition to the stress of being uprooted and adapting to the new schedule, Page faculty are also coping with reams of lost and destroyed records.

"My dad found a GED test in his yard," said Worrell, "four miles away [from the school]. And letters to the chorus teacher were found two counties over in Deltaville."

Andy Edmunds (in rear of canoe) and Jody Boyd
were among the 80 paddlers who enjoyed the 19th
Annual Canoe-a-Thon.
All of which made a leisurely paddle down the James sound pretty appealing to Worrell and Paust when they learned of the canoe-a-thon through Worrell's husband.

Pick your pace
Unlike the two teachers, Will Harlan has been coming to the canoe-a-thon for years. His neighbor, Buz Snyder, is the event's founder and a long-time activist in the sponsoring organization, the Varina Lions Club.

Asked to name his most memorable canoe-a-thon, Harlan said it would have to be his first, when he was still a new member of the Lions Club.

Assured by Snyder that the event was not a race, Harlan took his two young sons, whose ages he estimated at seven and ten.

"I had never paddled flat water before," Harlan recalled, anticipating a relaxing cruise with his boys. "We brought coolers, fishing rods, radios, and lots of food.

But from the moment Snyder and his son hit the water, said Harlan, they never stopped paddling.

"What do you mean, 'It's not a race?' he asked Snyder after his loaded-down boat finally arrived at the take-out and picnic.

The following year, said Harlan, he and his sons arrived in a stripped-down boat. "And we started getting competitive!"

That's the beauty of the canoe-a-thon, say its fans.

Paddlers can challenge themselves to try and beat their time from earlier years, challenge family members or buddies in a friendly wager, or even vie to be the first canoeist or kayaker to finish.

Or they can sit back and enjoy nature, the river, wildlife, and all the history floating by.

River's heritage
"Views from the river have not changed that much in over 400 years," pointed out Stephen Winks, the canoe-a-thon sponsorship chairman.

Noting that the 17th century Wilton Farm in Varina was called “World's End,” because there was no known European habitation beyond that point, he added, "You can not only see the unchanged views . . . but imagine the history of native Americans, and at Wilton, with it literally being the end of the world as we knew it."

Both the put-in and take-out sites are historic spots, said Winks. Rocketts Landing was the largest seaport in the country prior to the advent of railroads, and Thomas Jefferson's grandfather and namesake lived at the town of Osborne, across from Osborne Landing, where he operated a ferry.

Just half a mile from Osborne Landing also lies Snyder's residence of Aarrahahatteck.

"It is the only named spot on Captain John Smith's 1610 map of Virginia," said Winks, "other than James Towne."

Although the canoe-a-thon may have originally been organized as a fun club activity and fundraiser -- proceeds contribute to community scholarships, middle school reading programs, after-school YMCA programs, and assistance for the sight and hearing impaired -- Winks views it also as a means of raising awareness about Varina.

Most people think of Varina as nothing more than a sleepy rural suburb of Richmond, said Winks. The canoe-a-thon gives organizers a chance to promote the community's beauty, as well as its "extraordinary history [as the] second oldest spot in North America, in the most historic city in North America: Richmond, Va."

‘Family reunion’
In addition to the opportunity to get close to nature and history, the canoe-a-thon also provides what Harlan calls a "family reunion" atmosphere. Snyder returns with sons and grandchildren every year, and Harlan's two boys -- now in their twenties -- come back to town annually for the event.

For Dave Whyte, who paddled with Snyder because his usual partner couldn't make it, the event was a chance to spend a few hours with a role model and good friend.

"I keep coming back every year because Buz is like a father to me," said Whyte.

Whyte met Snyder in 1994 through his friend Billy Waldecker, who is a great nephew of Snyder's wife, Nelda. "Billy and I were big bass fishing nuts," said Whyte, "so naturally Buz’s pond was a great place to visit."

In return for the chance to fish at Arrahatteck, Whyte would help out with tasks such as clearing brush or repairing the dock. Eventually, Whyte began attending the Waldecker family reunion each July -- a tradition he has continued since he married and had children.

"Over the years, Buz and Nelda fell in love with my family and vice versa, and we feel like part of their extended family," he said. "Arrahatteck is a place that my kids have grown up with and our memories there are very fond."

Since his own father's death in 2007, Whyte said Snyder's role in his life has taken on an even more special significance.

"I have great respect and admiration for Buz," he said. "[He is] someone I can model myself after in terms of attitude and integrity. 

"It was an honor to paddle with him for the first time this year."

No tornadoes needed
As canoe-a-thon participants reached the take-out location at Osborne Landing and gathered for the barbecue lunch, it was clear that even the prospect of a few sore muscles would not deter anyone from returning the following year.

One woman, climbing stiffly from her canoe, managed a smile as she groaned, "I don't think I'll do this tomorrow, though."

Another woman, who seemed to take perverse pride in finishing last -- even with a helpful tow from the "sag wagon" boat -- showed off several treasures she had found along the journey.

"Look at this burly piece of driftwood!" she exclaimed, adding, "There were too many interesting things to see [to paddle fast]."

On the bus ride back to Rocketts Landing to pick up cars, Angela Paust was already nostalgic as she reminisced, "It was so nice to be out there on the river."

Her fellow teacher, Worrell, confirmed that it won't take a tornado to get them to another canoe-a-thon.

"We'll be back next year," said Worrell. "It was awesome."
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