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Footprints on the James

Andrew Shaw is adventuring and investigating in the history-steeped rivers of Virginia. In order to better understand how these important natural features were used for mass transit and economics long before cars even existed, he is traveling their lengths the old-fashioned way.

Early this summer, Virginia Commonwealth University launched an innovative course intended to give students a firsthand look at the natural and human history of the James River Watershed. “Footprints on the James” was a collaboration between the Biology and History Departments and the Outdoor Adventure Program. The mission: Bring the classroom out into the real world. For four weeks students and professors traveled the river in kayak, canoe, raft, and a batteau for a truly hands-on educational experience.

Students embark from Richmond in Sea Kayaks down the tidal James
Students embark from Richmond down the tidal James River in sea kayaks. (Photo by James Vonesh)

In 2012, I received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant for “The Marshall Expedition.” Our mission was to retrace the entire intended James River and Kanawha Canal Line in tribute to an 1812 survey by Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall traveled in a James River Batteau—the 18-wheeler of its day. As such, my crew and I built our own replica for the journey. The long, narrow, flat-bottomed batteau was ideal for moving goods through the shallow and rocky rapids that characterize the James as it flows through Appalachia and the Piedmont.

Students pole the Mary Marshall downstream while Sebastian Backstrom runs the rear sweep.
Students pole the Mary Marshall downstream while Sebastian Backstrom runs the rear sweep. (Photo by James Vonesh)

Students and professors joined us to experience how the James served as the interstate of early Virginia. It’s one thing to read about how the boats were used to move tobacco down the river; it is quite another to thrust a pole to the bottom of the river, push off of the riverbed and propel the boat downstream for hours on end.

The crew had to carefully cut away a log jam in order to pass through.
The crew had to carefully cut away a log jam in order to pass through. (Photo by James Vonesh)

The course was planned and lead by biology professors James Vonesh, Ph.D, Dan Carr, and history professor Brian Daugherity, Ph.D. Meanwhile, Joey Parent, head of the Outdoor Adventure Program, coordinated logistics.

Students and professors take a break to talk while traveling in canoes and kayaks down the river.
Students and professors take a break to talk while traveling in canoes down the river. (Photo by James Vonesh)

Early in the course, students traveled by sea kayak through the tidal James to a VCU research center. At the Rice Center they netted massive flathead catfish, collecting and analyzing samples as part of an ongoing research project. While in the Tidewater area, they visited Jamestown. Throughout the course, guest lecturers and local experts visited the group. After the tidewater, students and teachers hiked to the headwaters of the Tye River, just off of the Appalachian Trail in Nelson County, VA. Time in the Blue Ridge afforded the opportunity to study New Deal construction of the Parkway System as well as farm-raised brook trout.

The group poles up the Hardware River to an aqueduct originally built to cary canal boats.  Now it supports freight cars.
The group poles up the Hardware River to an aqueduct originally built to carry canal boats. Now it supports freight cars. (Photo by James Vonesh)

Our journey together began at James River State Park in Buckingham County. We floated about 70 miles, just a few miles shy of Richmond, VA. While journeying downriver through the Piedmont on the Marshall Batteau, students studied the development of transportation networks in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginia. This consisted of the emergence of the batteau, the construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal, and the ultimate triumph of the railroad. Often, one student would read aloud as others poled us downstream. Readings about canal construction were complimented by visiting the incredible stone relics left behind. Those relics include aqueducts built over various tributaries. While initially built to carry canal boats, these stone arches now accommodate millions of pounds of freight via CSX railroads every day.

Time on the batteau afforded us the chance to discuss the history of the James River watershed while traveling on an historic vessel.
Time on the batteau afforded us the chance to discuss the history of the James River watershed while traveling on a historic vessel. (Photo by James Vonesh)

Footprints on the James succeeded in merging exploration with the academic rigor of readings, tests, reports and expert guidance. The primary objective of the Marshall Expedition was to use our journey as a means of teaching people about the historic, ecological, and recreational value of the James and other Appalachian rivers. As such, we were excited to participate in a course whose objectives so closely mirrored ours. Other Universities should take note!

Check out the course video!

Students at the Spy Rock summit in Montebello, Virginia.
Students and Professors at Spy Rock in Montebello, Virginia. (Photo by James Vonesh)

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