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…


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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Fishing for perspective

Footprints "fish Friday" lecture by Dr. Greg Garman about changes in fish communities in the James River in the last 200 years

Footprints “fish Friday” lecture by Dr. Greg Garman about changes in fish communities in the James River in the last 200 years

This morning began with an oatmeal breakfast under a cotton candy sky that hovered above the river. Eventually I’ll get used to these early morning wake up calls… till then, more coffee. Dr. Greg Garman, the Director for the Center of Environmental Studies and Research Director at the VCU Rice Rivers Center at VCU gave the class an intriguing lecture on his perspective on the past 400 years of the James River as a Fish Biologist. Walking us through a time line of the river and its life, we were shown how human induced changes have had an extreme effect on the river’s function and flow, and on the life the dwells within its waters. Dr. Garman discussed his belief that the river has changed more in the last 400 years than during all other periods of the Holocene Epoch. Our arrival in Jamestown in 1607 provided the first-hand accounts that helped shape our view of what the James may have been like only 400 years ago. Those who documented what they saw and understood of the river, like John White and John Smith, give us important details on both plant and animal life that existed in the river. Some of the species they recognized, and some they attempted to make up along the way often giving incorrect names or very aloof description of what they had seen. The major mention of sturgeon in their work though provides a reality shock in that in only a short period of history we have all but depleted a species that created an entire subsistence for many settlers and those who were already dwelling along the shore. Through pursuing our own fleeting interests such as trade or economic opportunity, we have completely diminished a population that deserves credit for much of the early success of our nation.

Our construction of dams to make easier trade routes or access routes for industrial use have completely shifted the aquatic subsidies that have supported the areas life for longer than we have been present within its borders. How could we be so shallow-minded when it’s now 2014! We have finally recently begun to deconstruct these massive river obstructions, but have yet to restore many of the spawning routes at-risk species had historically traveled year after year before we destroyed them. Dr. Garman also discussed the introduction of non-indigenous, non-native and invasive species to the river in previous years. The Blue Catfish, introduced into the Chesapeake to mimic the hunt and gaming experience of catfish occupied waters of other areas has led to massive destruction of both other fish species and the plant-life they might otherwise survive off of. In only one month (April-May 2012) over one million Atlantic Menhaden were consumed by the Blue Catfish. This being an at-risk species, depletes the limited population even more, and at a rapid rate too. For our own recreation and sport we have destroyed entire ecosystems of life. Alongside introducing foreign species, we have allowed heavy and dangerous pollutants to run into our river. This dates back to the Civil War when we destroyed much of the war material that took up our fields and dumped them into the river. We need to learn to take responsibility for the effect we have had on our environment and make moves to preserve the life that has sustained OUR existence. Dr. Garman’s insightful lecture addressed all aspects of why this should be done, and should be done as soon as possible. Again, I am so privileged to be able to experience these lectures and consume this information first-hand alongside the river that is in question.

Following our lecture, we went out into the water to conduct some common fish research. The James River actually currently holds the record for the largest Blue Catfish caught. 150lbs! How wild. Thinking about how much biomass this catfish has to consume to survive almost makes you cringe when you realize the destruction it has employed to survive in the James. After the electrifying experience on the water, we traveled to the Harrison Lake Fish Hatchery. At the location, they are conducting research to breed and help survive species that have been otherwise hindered by either our construction of dams or the many other ways we have effected negatively the life below the water. Both shad fish and freshwater mussels were being breed at the location and then being released. The musseDSC_0064l, in order to travel upstream, as it is consistently pushed back into less nutrient water by the tides, actually will attach to a passing fish to make this movement. It will release a mucus that it shapes into a lure for the passing fish. These mucus forms can resemble something specific as a small fish that might attract a larger fish. When the fish goes to take the lure, the mussel will release a cloud of glochidia. This causes the fish to pull in as much water as it can to retrieve the oxygen it needs. The larval mussel glochidia will then attach to the inside of the fish gills and then travel with the fish, feeding on the fish and dropping off when it is content with arriving at a proper habitat. These processes almost sound like fantasy, but here they are happening in my own backyard.

This evening we had our first class discussion about the Powhatan Nation and will tomorrow morning begin our official discussion on Natural History and the roles it play in preserving our own species and those species that support our life around us. This trip, in only a few days has already expanded my understanding of this massive world of life around me… I can only imagine where I might find myself by week 5.

– Hannah Zainophoto

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In the footsteps of Ann Woodlief

After checking and packing field gear at the VCU OAP in the morning, we kicked20140519_162305 off the academic side of “Footprints on the James” with a lecture by Ann Woodlief and discussion of her book “In River Time: The Way of the James.” Dr. Woodlief joined the VCU English faculty in the early 1970s and published “In River Time” in 1985. This was a pivotal time in the history of the river. Her writing was heavily influenced by American transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden.” Noting this source of inspiration she commented that “I did not have a pond, but I did have a river!” Her book, we learned, had its origins in a VCU Honors class she taught nearly 35 year ago. Like the Footprints class, this course was a multidisciplinary look at the James River watershed. The class provided  a forum where she and her students started “making connections” between what they were learning from expert guest lecturers from diverse fields. Dr. Woodlief became interested in viewing history from the lens of the river and capturing how the use of language has shaped (or misshaped) the reality of the river over the years. The resulting book provides a reflection on how the river shaped the peoples and events within the watershed, and how the people, in turn, shaped the river.

2014 FOTJ class: Bottom row - Katherine Spencer; Brian Daugherity (History); Ann Woodlief (English); Wes Owens; Top Row - Maya Walters; Luke Murray; James Vonesh (Biology); Ryan Levering; Dan Carr (Biology); Taylor Price; Martin Edwards; Hannah Zaino; Lelia Overton

2014 FOTJ class: Bottom row – Katherine Spencer; Brian Daugherity (History); Ann Woodlief (English); Wes Owens; Top Row – Maya Walters; Luke Murray; James Vonesh (Biology); Ryan Levering; Dan Carr (Biology); Taylor Price; Martin Edwards; Hannah Zaino; Lelia Overton

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Footprints on the James: Ready to make tracks!

Luke becomes one with kayak. Next "water".

Luke becomes one with kayak. Next “water”.

Bright and early @ 7am this morning the Footprints on the James team turned out (mostly on time!) to the VCU OAP HQs for a gear check and packing session. Everyone emptied out their gear on the floor for inspection and thumb’s up by VCU OAP trip leaders. Students had a chance to ask OAP leaders about gear selection choices and make final decisions on what goes and what stays. Not trival for a 4-week outdoor learning adventure involving camping, sea kayaking, hiking, canoeing, “batteauing” and rafting. Oh, and don’t forget your 450 page (2 lb) course reading pack and notebook! By 9am all the kayaks were packed and ready to be loaded. Next on the schedule this afternoon, students get to meet Ann Woodlief, and discuss her course inspiring book of essays  “In River Time: The Way of the James” and VCU English Department emeritus faculty! Then tomorrow bright and early we start paddling the tidewater section of the muddy James!

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First footprints!


OAP Director Joey Parent walks students through route and schedule

Tuesday evening witnessed the first gathering of the (hard)core “Footprints on the James” team including instructors, trip leaders and students for a pre-trip orientation. Important topics covered included the course itinerary and route, packing and reading list, and critical personal background information, e.g., names of any metal bands you may have been in. Looks like its going to be a fun group. The official kick-off is this Monday.


Students and trip leaders meet for the first time.

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