At the confluence of forgotten history, scenic mountain wilderness and world-class paddling lies the headwaters of America’s founding river: The James.
Nestled deep in Virginia’s rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, we were in the midst of a three-day paddling adventure on the magnificent Upper James River Water Trail. While the lower sections of the James River feature a more developed shoreline, the headwaters are defined by raw and unfiltered natural beauty.
“You’re not seeing house after house out here,” said John Mays, co-owner of Twin River Outfitters and our host on the river. “It has that remote wilderness feel and you can feel the solitude of being out in nature.”
The tranquility of this unspoiled wilderness was impossible to ignore.
The schedules and stress that normally dominate our daily lives were quickly whisked away. In their place was dragonflies dancing around the bow of our canoe and herons swooping majestically along the banks. The constant cacophony of cars and traffic was replaced by the serenade of cicadas and birds. Screen time was exchanged for story time.
Forgotten History Lurks Around the Bend
Beyond the huge variety of trees, plants and wildlife living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, there was something else hiding along the banks of Upper James.
“Ahead on river-left is one of the most impressive examples of the old locks that were constructed on the James,” said Mays. “We call it Last Lock Park.”
At first glance, Last Lock Park was nowhere to be seen. But this was not the type of park with historical markers and carefully reconstructed ruins; park rangers or public bathrooms. As our paddle strokes brought us closer, we began to see a monolithic stone structure appear from the cover of dense forest.
At nearly 100 feet long and 25 feet high, the lock had fallen into disrepair with trees and plants growing from cracks in the stone blocks. But during the mid-19th century, this was the final stone lock constructed as part of the James River and Kanawha Canal System.
“Before they had roads and trains, the rivers were the highways,” Mays explained.
The roots of this old lock and canal system directly trace back to our nation’s Founding Father, George Washington. In fact, the first president of the United States personally surveyed and helped plan this canal route, believing that rivers were key to efficiently transporting goods throughout the young nation.
While canal visionaries originally hoped to connect the Norfolk, Virginia with New Orleans via rivers (and 40 miles of wagon turnpike), the canal system covered about 200 miles by 1851, reaching Buchanan, Virginia. And while the canal company began construction further up river, they never made it past Last Lock Park. Destructive floods and more importantly, the railroad, would dispatch the James River and Kanawha Canal into the archives of forgotten history.
“It’s a whole transportation era that came and went in that 40 or 50 year period and now you don’t see much of it,” said Mays. “That’s the type of history you can see on this river that you just can’t see elsewhere.”
As I stared at that final lock, it was remarkable to imagine 80-foot boats using this complex system of locks and canals nearly two centuries ago. It may have only lasted a few decades, but it was ingenious for its time.
“Looking at these locks really makes you wonder how people were able to construct such a major structure 150 years ago,” said Harry Gleason, Community Development Planner for Buchanan. “You begin to understand why it’s been referred to as the greatest engineering feat ever attempted in the State of Virginia.”
Upper James’ Return to Quiet Wilderness
Highways have never been the cleanest places and river highways were no different. Like most major rivers, the James battled pollution issues for decades.
While the Upper James has always played a major role in small riverside communities like Buchanan for nearly two centuries, the growing popularity of the river’s recreational opportunities placed greater significance on the issue of river conservation.
“In the last 20 years, this region has made a major effort to clean up the river,” said Gleason. “If you travel the James River today, it’s a much more wonderful environment than what you would have seen in the past.”
These local conservation efforts have paid dividends. The Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation recently designated nearly 59 miles of the Upper James River as a Virginia Scenic River.
“James River creates a sense of place, a sense of identity; it’s a cultural asset, an environmental asset,” said Ken McFadyen, Director of Business Development in Botetourt County. “We need to protect this river, but at the same time utilize it for our economic development.”
Twin Brothers Revitalize the Upper James
Two of the main folks spearheading this conservation effort are the twin brothers at the helm of Twin River Outfitters, John and Dan Mays. The brothers regularly host river clean-up events and work to keep the river clear of debris. But John and Dan’s path to the Upper James was not conventional.
In the midst of successful careers in the corporate world, the brothers decided they needed a change and planned to open an outdoor business. After purchasing some property, their plans were immediately put on hold after both John and Dan were deployed to Iraq while serving in the military reserve.
“You’re in a war zone in this unusual circumstance and you start looking back at life and realize you don’t want to sit in an office all day handling insurance quotes,” said John. “You can do something different, something that is meaningful and adds value and enjoyment to people’s lives.”
While deployed, a local canoe outfitter made the Mays brothers an offer to purchase his longstanding business. Despite the fact that they were halfway around the world, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“We negotiated the nuances of the business by satellite phone from Baghdad,” said John.
It’s taken the brothers nearly 15 years to build their business, but these efforts have paid off. Last year they put 11,000 people on the river.
While their riverside headquarters are in Buchanan, they now operate campsites to facilitate multi-day paddling adventures. This allows people to truly immerse themselves in the magnificent wilderness and history offered by the Upper James River Water Trail.
It’s not hard to understand why so many people are beginning to embrace this stretch of river. The Upper James simply has a different feel to it –– the combination of historical importance, breathtaking natural beauty and playful whitewater paddling is both rare and addictive.
Shortly after seeing the historic locks, something caught our eye about a 100 yards downriver. A black bear cub was swimming across the river.
What surprise would be lurking around the next bend? We dipped our blades into the water and took another stroke––it was time to find out.
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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