Footprints 2016

It’s that time of year again! We’re now accepting applications for the 2016 Footprints on the James class. The class this year will begin on May 23rd and conclude on the 10th of June. Some readings and pre-trip meeting will be expected from participants 2-3 weeks prior to beginning the class.

To apply, please send a 1-2 page personal statement and a CV to Daniel Carr at carrdf@vcu.edu. Please let us know why you think that this experience would benefit you and what you would gain from a month on the river. Applications will be accepted until at least April 1, 2015, but we may consider later applicants on a case-by-case basis. While the course is geared towards Biology and Environmental Studies majors, students of all disciplines are encouraged to apply. While some experience in the outdoors can be helpful, it is neither necessary nor expected. Please include Footprints 2016 in the title.

If you’re interested, or you or someone you know would like to know more about this unique experience, please stop by and speak to Daniel Carr, LFSC 234, or Edward Crawford, LFSC 125, in the Biology Department at 1000 W. Cary St. Please take a look at www.footprintsonthejames.vcu.edu for more information on the previous years.

This year’s class will be an exciting collaboration between the VCU Departments of Biology, the Outdoor Adventure Program, the Center for Environmental Studies, the VCU Rice Rivers Center and faculty from a wide variety of academic and research backgrounds. See you on the river,

Dan

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Footprints 2015 is around the corner!

It’s that time of year again! Footprints on the James 2015 is up and running, and we’re now accepting applications for the 2015 class.

To apply, please send a 1-2 page personal statement and one letter of reference to Daniel Carr at carrdf@vcu.edu. Please include Footprints 2015 in the title. Applications will be accepted until at least April 1, 2015, but we may consider later applicants on a case-by-case basis. All students are encouraged to apply. There are no prerequisites for the class this year, and students of all disciplines are encouraged to apply. While some experience in the outdoors will be helpful, it is not necessary.

If you’re interested, or you or someone you know would like to know more about this unique experience, please stop by and speak to Daniel Carr, LFSC 234, or Edward Crawford, LFSC 125, in the Biology Department at 1000 W. Cary St. Please take a look at http://www.footprintsonthejames.vcu.edu for more information.

This year’s class will be an exciting collaboration between the VCU Departments of Biology, the Center for Environmental Studies, the VCU Rice Rivers Center and faculty from a wide variety of academic and research backgrounds. We will have experts from the VCU Department of History, the College of William and Mary Department of Geology, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and more!

See you on the river,

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Local NPR Science Matters covers “Footprints on the James”

In case you missed it last week, here is the link to the NPR Science Matters article on the “Footprints on the James” class, with link to video produced by VCU Brand Center. Follow the Footprints!

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Footprints on Nat Geo Young Explorer blog

See Nat Geo Young Explorer Andrew Shaw’s blog about his roll in the Footprints class posted on the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Journal.DSC_0532

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Footprints on the Mary Marshall

DSC_0391In the 1700’s before the railroad and the canal, and when roads were muddy wagon tracks, the best way to move tobacco and other goods to and from the interior of the westward expanding colony was by James River batteaux.  These long, narrow vessels  were designed to maximize load capacity while maintaining the maneuverability and low draft necessary for navigating Piedmont rivers. They could transport as many as 12 hogsheads of tobacco to downstream markets (hogshead is a large wooden barrel, ~145 gallons & 1,000 lbs when packed with tobacco). One Footprints student described batteaux as the “Mack Trucks” of colonial Virginia.  At James River State Park the Footprints team rendezvoused with Andrew Shaw, captain of the James River batteau “Mary Marshall” which would join us as far as Maidens Landing about 30 miles west of Richmond.

Shaw, a carpenter and history graduate, built the Mary Marshall for an audacious repeat of the 1812 survey for the James River and Kanawah Canal line led by Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall. This survey traveled up the James River and Jackson’s Creek, over land across the Alleghenies, down the Greenbrier River and finally down the New River. In his  Marshall Expedition blog, Shaw writes, “With this project, our aim is to celebrate the Bi-Centennial of Marshall’s journey, paying tribute to Marshall’s courage and vision by retracing the length of the intended canal line. … A batteau ascent of this length has not been attempted in at least 150 years and is bound to be an extremely arduous undertaking. Our region’s rivers are tremendous historical and ecological resources and we hope to inspire people to become more engaged in utilizing and protecting them.

From Shaw, the Footprints team learned about the history of batteaux on the James, their construction, and how to maneuver them up and down stream using long poles and bow and stern sweep oars. Poling the batteau consisted of paired teams of 2 – 6 students walking to the bow, synchronously planting their poles on the river bottom at the call “pole!“, and then pushing against the poles as they walked toward the stern. We averaged about 300 circuits up and back each hour. While the dimensions of the Mary Marshall are 43′x7′, the length we were able to walk when poling was probably about 50′ per circuit. Given this pace and the boat dimensions we estimated that we walked more than 15 miles each day up and down the boat. With this effort and the benefit of the current we maintained a speed of 3-4 mph down river, even on sluggish stretches, and covered 15 – 20 miles each day.

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Card game at night on batteau

The batteau quickly became the focal point for Footprints during this period. We traveled with 6-8 people crewing the batteau followed by 3 support canoes. For snacks and lunch we would raft up and pass food around. Sometimes one student would read assigned course materials out loud as others poled. In the evenings we often sat along the beached batteau as dinner was prepared on board, either using our propane stove, or sometimes over a fire on the “built in” brick fire pit. At night, the class camped riverside, but Shaw and crew-mate Sebastian Backstrom slept on board under tarps rigged over drawn up sweep oars.

IMGP4955As we made our way down river Shaw and Daugherity pointed out relics of the batteaux and canal eras. We saw the wooden ribs of drowned batteaux buried in muddy river banks and observed a number of aquaducts over tributaries joining the James. At first appearance these aquaducts  looked like train bridges. However, in the early 18oo’s it was the James River and Kanawah Canal line, not train tracks, that these supported. As we ate lunch sheltered from the sun under one such aquaduct, we imagined horse drawn 90 foot packet boats passing along a 6′ deep channel suspended above us. At other locations we had to carefully navigate the Mary Marshall through the rocky remains of long washed out wing dams designed to direct river water into the adjacent canal.

Although the James between the Tye River confluence and Maidens Landing is generally pretty mellow, there were numerous shallows that had to be negotiated and a few Class II rapids we had to run. For the bigger rapids we paused to scout the best route, and two  were tricky enough to catch a canoes off guard.  With its flat hull and large sweeping oars on bow and stern, the Mary Marshall, like most batteaux, was surprisingly nimble in swift water. Indeed, on his earlier Marshall Expedition, Shaw (also an avid kayaker) navigated her through serious Class IV-IV+ whitewater in the New River Gorge.

The chance to float this section of the James with the Mary Marshall and her crew was an unforgettable experience, bringing the history of the river alive, and providing insight into how the challenges of navigating the James helped drive the development of canals and rail systems.

 

 

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Upper James by canoe

After traversing the Blue Ridge highlands by foot, the Footprints team began the float back to Richmond on the James River, putting in just below Lynchburg. We had originally planned to paddle down the Tye River, but water levels were too low for our heavily loaded canoes. Over two days we paddled down to James River State Park (JRSP), camping the first night on a gravel bar on a small island. That evening after setting camp and an excellent dutch oven dinner, students performed skits to teach each other the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) camping by campfire light (LNT campfire – in a fire pan and we packed our ashes out). While at James River State Park we had several lectures from guest experts who came in to rendezvous with us.  Dr. Ed Crawford (VCU Biology) gave a lecture on wetland biology and conservation in the campground using our portable battery-powered projector and then took us “owling”. Using recorded calls and his voice, he coaxed a number of screech owls in up close. We also heard about 19th century industry and transportation from Dr. Jim Watkinson (VCU History)  and Monacan Indian history from anthropologist Karenne Wood (Director of the Virginia Indian Program at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities).

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Watershed by foot

Luke reaches Spy Rock campsite

Luke reaches Spy Rock campsite

The second half of our Footprints expedition began high in the Blue Ridge Mountains exploring the upper reaches of the watershed and some of the headwater streams that feed the James. This included three days of backpacking along the Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock and The Priest Mountain above the Tye River. In the mountains one can forget they are still traversing along the James River watershed, but there were a few moments where nature reminded us the river was not far away. On the third day of the trip, as we made the long descent from The Priest, the sound of a babbling brook slowly became louder and louder. We turned a bend and were all frozen for a brief moment with the beauty of a small waterfall and natural water slide which must have been about nearly a quarter mile in length. It was fascinating to see how the forest vegetation changed as we descended from Spy Rock bald at nearly 4,000 feet to the riparian forests in the Tye River valley.

Luke gets his zen on

Luke gets his zen on

I was excited for this portion of the trip because I had never been backpacking before. However, I had no real idea how physically challenging the trek would be for me. At the end of the steep climb on the first day, as a stood atop Spy Rock, taking in its 360 degree panorama of the Blue Ridge, I felt my muscles trembling from pushing myself as hard as I ever have before. After three days of carrying 1/3 of my weight on my back, I experienced a heightened awareness of each joint and muscle, and a profound sense of accomplishment . I am not sure I’d want to strap a pack back on today, but this part of Footprints has opened me up to backpacking and will not soon be forgotten. I know before long I will seek out the forests and cascading streams of the mountain trails again.

Luke Murray

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Mountain top raindrops to Richmond

After a well earned weekend off, the Footprints team hit the trail Monday for the second half of the their journey. They rendezvoused at o-dark-thirty (okay, really just 6:30am) at VCU OAP, loaded into vans and headed west on I-64.  Guided by VCU fish biologist Dr. Steve McIninch and Dave Hoppler, they spent the morning near Crabtree Falls comparing the fish community they had studied in the tidewater James with that of the upper Tye River, a tributary of the James. In the lower James last week they observed 10 species, 4 of which were non-native. On the Tye they observed Brook Trout, Rosyside Dace and Mountain Redbelly Dace, and a large American Eel. Check out Freshwater Illustrated’s  “Hidden Rivers” for a further taste of how spectacular the fish communities of Appalachian streams can be. In total, they saw eight fish species in the Tye, none overlapping with the lower James, all native. From there the course traveled to Montebello State Fish Hatchery where approximately 60,000 pounds of brook, and non-native rainbow and brown trout are grown each year in outdoor raceways that are supplied with water mostly from on-site springs.

After lunch the students loaded the last supplies into their backpacks and hiked the short but fairly steep trail up Spy Rock, at ~4,000 feet above sea level. This rocky outcrop provides a 360 degree panoramic view of the Blue Ridge.  Tuesday the Footprints course will traverse along ridge tops through a  wilderness area to the summit of The Priest, which rises above Crabtree Falls and the Tye River. From The Priest the students will follow the path of a raindrop falling on the ridge, down first and second order streams to the confluence with the James River, and down the James to Richmond and home.

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Resting our feet…

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Upper tidewater James

After 11 days in “the field,” the Footprints group broke down camp at the VCU Rice Center in Charles City County and headed home on Friday. The group will spend 2 nights at home resting and recuperating. I imagine this will entail copious amounts of non-camp food, time with friends and family, and a fair amount of time lying in a comfy bed… It will certainly include unpacking and doing laundry, changing batteries, and repacking for leg two of the class, which starts on Monday with a backpacking section in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Camp at Rice Center

Camp at Rice Center

I hope the weekend includes time to reflect on all of the things we have seen so far. I think it will. Undoubtedly some friends and family will be curious about the experience, and I believe they’ll enjoy hearing about it, and seeing pictures on our Instagram feed (check out #fotj2014) or Facebook page. Like how we sea kayaked down the river, followed by bald eagles, osprey, and heron; how we camped out at Presquile Wildlife Refuge, with the place virtually to ourselves, and watched a Christmas-like lightning bug show; how we learned about James River fish from some of the most electrifying biologists in Virginia; how we ran into Bill Kelso, the famed archaeologist who discovered the original Jamestown fort after 350 years; how we learned from Matt Balazik, a premier sturgeon researcher, and heard a 7-footer pass near our boat; or how we talked for an hour with Charles Carter, a member of 12th generation of the family that owns Shirley Plantation. I could go on…

Shirley Plantation from James River

Shirley Plantation from James River

As a professor, the course has regularly exceeded my expectations. I have found the intersection of history and biology to be the most fascinating part. The two disciplines inform each other in integral ways, and overlap in ways that I didn’t expect. I believe it’s made teaching this course a real learning experience for everyone involved, and I’m glad to have been a part of creating a novel way of studying the Humanities and Sciences. I’m looking forward to leg two! Can you tell?

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Paddling, Henricus, and Herons

Yesterday, we began our journey winding down the James at Rockett’s Landing. Traveling in sea kayaks, we gained the rare opportunity to witness turtles, cormorants, heron, osprey, and our nation’s pride and joy: the bald eagle, all within their natural habitat. After paddling along 11 miles of lovely river we arrived at a replica of the colonial settlement of Henricus. Established in 1611, it was home to John Rolfe and his future wife, captive Powhatan princess Pocahontas, proving the establishment to be a place of relative intercultural complacency. While the Native Americans and English were somewhat peaceful exchanges, things would eventually take a turn for the worse.

In 1622, tensions boiled over between Pocahontas’ uncle Opechancanough and the English. He led twelve sequential attacks against them, one of which wiped out nearly two-thirds of Henricus’ population (according to a Henricus re-enactor). Shortly thereafter, the settlement failed and was abandoned.

While exploring the replica village[s], we discovered many aspects of the everyday lives of both Virginia colonists and the Powhatan Indians. The colonists subsisted mostly on homegrown vegetables, herbs, and livestock brought over from England. Being more skilled in surviving off of the land, Powhatans grew squash, corn, and beans, all from the Americas, hunted for their meats, and foraged for a plethora of plant yields such as berries. Despite their methods of acquiring food being drastically different colonists and natives had one thing in common- they wanted to trade goods.

I absolutely loved my experience at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.  The afternoon we arrived, we set up our bunks at the Presquile NWR Ecology School and were given an introduction to the James River NWR Sytem by Wildlife Refuge Specialist Cyrus Brame.  We then took a walking tour, ending up at a small, pebbly beach while a great view of the historic town of Hopewell.  I took many pictures of the Arum plant, Peltandra virginica, a wetland plant that looks quite like an elephant-ear plant.  My fellow student, Taylor, a Biology major,  found a shark’s took in the beach’s mud with ease.  That evening, we attended a lecture by Biology graduate student Nick Moy on bird migration, behavior, and ecological niches followed by a flashing terrestrial constellation of lightning bugs.

– Lelia Overton

Exploring along the James River in sea kayaks.

Exploring along the James River in sea kayaks.

Three of my fellow students: (l to r) Ryan, Katie, and Taylor  travel away from the educational building to embark on a nature walk in Presquile.

Three of my fellow students: (l to r) Ryan, Katie, and Taylor travel away from the educational building to embark on a nature walk in Presquile.

 

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