James River - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip
Day Trip Report
October 4, 2006
Bacon\'s Castle, VA
David J. Mack
Ghost Fleet and Burwell Bay on the Tidal James River
The plan was to paddle out to the middle of the James River, drift downriver with the tide past the ghost fleet, swing past a few miles of the wild shoreline of the Ft. Eustis military reservation, then return near slack tide and beachcomb where it was legal to do so. Unfortunately, despite maps, aerial photos, and tide tables, the plan ran afoul of ground truth as Iíll explain later.
The weather was clear skies with a light SE wind, expected high the low 80ís with almost zero chance of rain. This trip required a long window of safe weather and I got it. Leaving the Lawnes Creek landing in the early morning with the tide dropping fast, there was a short paddle out the creek with marshes on the right and wooded shores on the left. When I got out to the river it was unrecognizable: slick-smooth and undulating like warm jello. The ships of the James River Reserve Fleet (a.k.a., ghost fleet) already looked big from a mile away. As I got closer the ships grew and the river bounced awake.
My shallowest goal for the day was to see the ship from the movie Virus before it got scrapped. Virus would have been a forgettable science fiction movie except Jamie Lee Curtis needed the work. I had decided to drift past the ships on the Mulberry Island side so I wouldnít be taking pictures into the sun. This side is however much busier due to the shipping channel and cross-traffic from Ft. Eustis. A crane was removing excess mooring balls from the river, a good sign that at least a few ships had gone to that big scrapyard in the sky. Small tug-barges were running errands to and from the fleet.
Although some vessels looked ready to sink at any time, some still looked gorgeous. As I began taking pictures, the expected security boat motored into view. Taking care to keep their wake down (drowning kayakers must involve a lot of paperwork) they played the role of sheepdog until I got the message: not only did I have to stay outside the 500í exclusion zone, it couldnít even look any of my descendents would penetrate the exclusion zone. Once I was running parallel to the invisible line, they puttered off but kept me in sight.
Paddling perhaps a mile downriver, the vessel I wanted finally came into view (l-o-n-g name in Cyrillic alphabet, Akademic somebody), covered with large satellite dishes. She was pretty rusty at the waterline. I would have liked to have gotten closer but didnít want to play boat-charades with security again.
I have mixed feeling about the ghost fleet: awe for the majesty of so many large vessels, disdain for the ongoing environmental and shipping hazards, and sadness at the waste of resources needed to babysit this junkyard on the James. But thereís no question the world will be a better place when itís gone. Besides the load of bunker oil some of these vessels still carry, if one of these turkeys breaks loose during a hurricane, it could float downriver with the outgoing tidal surge and hit a major bridge. Putting one of these bridges out of service for weeks to months would be devastating to the communities of Hampton Roads. I think of this field-trip to the ghost fleet as akin to my mid-80ís visit to the Berlin Wall, except that the fleet is proving harder to get rid of.
Next I headed toward the shoreline of the Mulberry Island. Fort Eustis is a good neighbor to our community, hosting a half-marathon, swim meets, an excellent transportation museum, etc. Nevertheless, they take security seriously. Since they virtually take my car apart every time I enter the gate, so this is not the place for an illicit picnic on the beach.
The island is quite attractive with marshlands alternating with isolated pockets of woods with small sandy beaches. Where the veneer of sand is washed away, the reddish clay core of the island is exposed. Salinity in this areas was about 2/3 that of the ocean with visibility varying from 1í to a surprising 3í. Although there was little fish activity, I noted busy kingfishers, a shy pair of bald eagles, and three species of helicopters (all drab Army females except for the bright orange male visitor from the Coast Guard). Helicopter school was evidently in session, and one would loop over the island every few minutes.
In Mulberry Islandís interminable 6 mile length, youíll find the small pockets of shoreline woods in every stage of attack from erosion: from healthy woods, to eroded and salt-poisoned forest, to bare dead trees standing in the water, to photogenic stumps in the water covered with full heads of grass. Near the middle of Mulberry Island there is a string of offshore marshy heads that watermen use, so I took a break there.
I had long since paddled off the water-proofed map I brought. I neglected to mention that once I got out in the river, I found that most of the shoreline of Lawnes Neck had been sloped and rip-rapped. Take a moment to mourn with me. Only last Fall, there were miles of sandy beaches fronting low cliffs topped with thick forest. These beaches were covered with prints of deer, raccoon, and bobcats bigger than I wanted to meet. It was probably Tidewaterís best one-stop rock collecting site, and I had planned to take photos of items too big for souvenirs: some fossil tree stumps made of iron minerals, and a beautiful pudding stone the size of a carís engine block. These items speak of powerful ancient floods in the James River basin.
Almost as unusual were the enormous and diverse boat-bumpers ripped by storms from the ghost fleet, which made the beach resemble a Titanís toy box. The smallest were dense wooden cubes the size of a car and the longest were like giant hoses 3í wide and 30í long. Feeling almost sick to my stomach, I decided to paddle to the end of Mulberry Island, cross the river, and return along the shores of Burwell Bay. But unaccustomed to the clear Fall air, I significantly underestimated the distance.
At some marshy somewhere near the end of Mulberry Island, I rigged for open water and started what I thought would be a 2 mile crossing. But after a mile of paddling, the view in front of me hadnít changed. It was a Twilight Zone moment, but fortunately GPS clarified the situation. Call me a wuss, but a 3.7 mile water crossing is qualitatively different from 2 miles. My only companion in the middle of the river was a monarch butterfly who quickly abandoned me, and the dying tide and stiffening wind had plenty of time to turn my path into a scimitarís curve. Itís not something I want to do twice in a day. But after 1.5 hours of sensory deprivation, I was greeted just west of Ft. Boykin Historical Park by two eagles sparring over the water.
After the eagles fled (they really, really hate us), I drew near a shore where my mind was still struggling with scales. What I had assumed were low clay embankments turned out to be 20 foot cliffs. A condemned home was teetering on the edge; a forgetful step out the back door would guarantee at least a broken leg. A large log that the owners had propped between beach and cliff face was like using a toothpick to keep an alligatorís jaws from closing. The entire first half of Burwell Bay proved equally interesting: more cliffs with wet sand and fossils at their feet, attractive homes and piers and interesting breakwaters, as well as unusual hanging gardens of mosses and ferns where water weeped out high in the cliff.
Despite the fact that this shoreline was more developed than most of Mulberry Island, there was much more fish activity. There are some monstrous terrapins in the James, and I saw one old girl poke out her head which was the size of a womanís fist. In the middle of the Burwell Bay coastline there are miles of wild low woods fronted by a low beach of white sand and fossil shell hash. This is an area where storms long ago punched through the cliffs and it still overwashes frequently. I passed several homes, both old and new, destroyed by storms, and snapped some pictures. But I also saw other things, too poignant and private for pictures. Rich or poor, it hurts to lose a home, but what the poor have to do to cope is hard for some of us to imagine.
Except for the increasingly reddish glow as dusk approached, the view of the ghost fleet ships seemed to barely change from hour to hour. The ships are that enormous. My cruising speed had dropped by almost by a third, but it seems that no matter how tired you get, you can always paddle another pair of strokes. Fish activity increased toward sunset with a few of the jumping fish being scary-big.
The Baileyís Beach area was a popular access point for fishermen, and Rushmere Shores had a lot of boat piers serving medium-sized homes on moderately high ground. One of the last things I remember before nightfall was a beach littered with large boulders of coquina, with gnome-like pedestals of gray clay covered with deep, drying cracks.
The water got choppier as I drew abreast of the ghost fleet, then calmed until returning to the slow undulations of the morning. With the coming of night, the wind and the jumping fish had gone to bed. As luck would have it, the moon was over half full. I had heard wonderful stories about nighttime paddling, but like first sex, hadnít planned to try it so soon and so unprepared.
Owls hooted from the remaining thin screen of trees behind the rip-rap. Plump bats whirled overhead using me as mosquito bait. The ghost fleet, ever a hazard to navigation, was lit by moonlight and a few faint red light bulbs. The security boat continued to putter among its charges. A small section of Lawnes Neck turned out not to be armored, but this fact was academic at this point; I just hoped that Iíd find the landing on the first pass and have enough strength left to get my kayak on top of my car.
While there had seemingly been enough moonlight on the open river to read by, in Lawnes Creek I was almost blind. The sublime moonlight paddling experience had soured for want of a flashlight. Distance covered became hard to judge. I crept along. It seemed even odds that I would pass the landing and have to backtrack, or begin backtracking too early for fear I had already passed the landing. Happily, I found the landing on the first try, and got the slippery kayak on the car after 3 tries to the amusement of any watching night creatures.
This insane trip was 25 miles in 11 hours with lots of stops along the way. The ghost fleet part of this trip is of significant regional interest for its infamous collection of large vessels. Waves reflect from the steel walls of the ghost fleet and produce chop, so go in excellent weather when there are minimal waves. (Your plan B could be a tour of Lawnes Creek or the few remaining wild beaches of Lawnes Neck or Hog Island WMA.) A father and two young sons died on a fishing trip in the area early last winter. In deteriorating weather, their large powerboat flipped. The two boys were in lifejackets but couldnít survive hours of immersion in the 45 degree water before search parties began.
The Mulberry Island part of this trip is of minor local interest. Unless youíre doing research on river erosion, I wouldnít bother. You can more freely visit the similar but shorter shoreline at Jamestown Island for which the nearest legitimate put-in is at the Jamestown Yacht Basin.
The Burwell Bay part of this trip is a trip of significant local interest for geology, beach-combing, sight-seeing, and perhaps fishing. It may make an easily accessible trip for beginners from the tiny town of Burwell Bay at the end of Rt. 621. (The buildings at lower elevations of town are heavily damaged, so I donít know what services if any are currently available.) The wash-over stretch of beach and low woods is to the SE of the community of Burwell Bay, as are the hanging gardens. Check map for alternate, more distant, put-ins such as Tylerís Beach Ramp at the end of Rt. 686. There is allegedly a hand-carry put-in at Ft. Boykin Park as well.
No facilities. Plenty of parking space.
With a map of Surry and Isle of Wight Counties, VA, in hand, take Route 10 to Hog Island Road. Turn right to Lawnes Creek Landing Drive (there will be a big sign at that intersection giving the open/closed status of the two sections of Hog Island WMA, but the section containing Lawnes Creek landing appears to be open most of the time).
Aerial photos and topo maps from http://www.terraserver.microsoft.com
I use http://tbone.biol.sc.edu/tide/
for tide predictions.
The CBOFS wind forecast for the Chesapeake Bay area can be found at http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/ofs/cbofs/wind_forecast.shtml
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