The author goes up the Chickahominy to Colonial Harbor and discovers she may have been there all along.

by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

If I ever decide to run away from home, it's not going to be to join the circus. I have a better plan. When I flee the world that's too much with us late and soon (sorry, Wordsworth), I intend to get on a boat and make a beeline for a special  place I found last year on the Chickahominy River. It was the kind of place where everybody makes you feel as if you've been friends for years, where the turtles are on a first-name basis with the residents and show up like clockwork for their three squares a day, where there's a catfish named Clarence, and where the cheese grits are out of this world. Nope, no high-wire act or lion's cage for me. I will be heading up the Chickahominy to a place called Colonial Harbor Marina. And there I'll stay.

It was only by chance that Skipper the dog and I found our future haven from the wicked world at all. We had been traveling up the James River last summer and decided that we could just fit a trip up the Chickahominy into our busy cruising schedule. We were aboard one of the Chesapeake Boating Club's Albin 28s, touring the lower Bay, enjoying ourselves immensely, catching up with friends and cousins and visiting new places. Eventually we were going to have to return the boat, since that's the way it works, and now we were running out of time. But I wasn't ready to head home quite yet, so I flipped open CBM's Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay and found a place called Colonial Harbor located far up the Chickahominy. Just right, I decided, and gave them a call. Owner Taylor Smith answered and then laughed softly at my request for a slip. "We'll see you when you get here." What did he mean by that, I wondered briefly.

Skipper and I had left Back Creek just off the York River at dawn that morning and were humming along at about 10 knots, creating just enough of a breeze to keep us comfortable in the cockpit. We had passed through Hampton Roads and turned into the James just as the world began to stir. We could see only a few cars on the usually busy James River Bridge as we passed beneath. We had the river pretty much to ourselves, despite the fact that this was a summer Saturday morning. That would change soon enough, I thought, pouring myself another cup of coffee from the thermos. We soon passed the Mariners' Museum Park on the right and a few minutes later the Pagan River to port. Soon we had left the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Newport, Portsmouth and Norfolk behind. Now we were nearly to the old James River, the James River of our ancestors. Beyond the Pagan, though, we passed what remains of the once mighty Reserve Fleet, the unwanted and mothballed vessels of the U.S. Navy, packed away in Burwell Bay, within Howitzer-shot of the Surry Nuclear Power Station, located between Gravel Neck and Hog Island. The mothball fleet has been greatly diminished in the past decade as the ships have been carted off one by one, usually headed for the scrap heap, though at least one Liberty ship was towed off to become a museum in Greece.

Then we were on the old James, passing Cobham Bay and Jamestown Island, before coming to the entrance to the Chickahominy River. In fact, the channel to the Chickahominy splits from the main James River channel at the far side of James Island at red and green marker "SP". From there you just put your faith in the system--as you so often have to do when crossing the broad, trackless shallows into the mouth of one creek or another--and stay between a series of closely placed daymarks until you reach red nun "8" at the tip of Barrets Point. In fact, according to the charts, the water is not really so very shallow along here, except close to shore, and a more adventurous approach would probably not get you into trouble. But I'm a born marker-follower, so I followed the channel, where the water was nice and deep, with 7 to 12 feet throughout.

The Chickahominy is comfortably deep as well, often with depths more than 20 feet in the center--and in some places, right up to the shore. There is an impediment to this cruising paradise, however, for cruisers whose rig stands higher than 50 feet. Recently the old Barrets Ferry Swing Bridge was replaced with the Judith Stewart Dresser Memorial Bridge, a fixed span with a vertical clearance of 52 feet. Which is why I'm determined never to buy a boat that can't pass under that bridge. Otherwise, I'd have to reconsider that whole circus thing. But to get back to story at hand, with no clearance issues to worry about, I turned the Albin north to enter the river, passing a couple of boats anchored just off the channel in the bay to starboard before the bridge, a popular spot for boats headed up and down the James.

I fell deeply in love with the Chickahominy from the first moment. Everywhere among us, cypress trees sprouted from the water, looking for all the world like 19th-century ladies in crinoline, hiking their great hoop skirts above their knees to keep them out of the water. Creeks struck out from the main branch willy-nilly--many of them with water deep enough for hours of idle exploration, others leading to a shallow dead end in the marsh. On both sides, the riverbanks looked as they might have during the heyday of the woolly mammoth. As we followed the river north we rounded a bend to find boats anchored just off the channel, with families splashing about in water that came only to the adults' waists--it was an odd feeling to be in 22 feet of water only a few feet away from a party of 15 standing around in the water eating barbecue sandwiches. I waved, they waved. It was like an aquatic block party. 

And for the next seven miles or so, that was the Chickahominy: block parties interspersed with Gone With the Wind cypress trees and woolly mammoth habitat . . . though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to mention the jet ski that followed us for about three of those miles, jumping the Albin's wake again and again. But even he waved thanks when he finally peeled off.

Ten miles or so upriver and opposite the upriver mouth of the Thorofare, which cuts off a large chunk of Big Marsh Point, we passed River's Rest, a favorite marina and resort for cruisers visiting the Chickahominy. It has all the comforts of home, with the added benefit of a very nice restaurant. But Skip and I pressed on. Emerging from the Thorofare (depth about 5 feet), we made a right turn, and then a few more miles of twisting, turning river later we were there. And so was Taylor Smith, who was standing on the dock ready to help us tie up. A mere five minutes later, I found myself seated at a table on the marina restaurant's shady patio, surrounded by a half-dozen of my new good friends, drinking a beer and chatting about this and that as if we'd all gone to the same high school. Skipper made himself equally at home, first taking a quick dip in the river and then shamelessly ingratiating himself with anyone who was sitting in front of a plate of food.

Have we only just arrived? I asked myself, looking around. Impossible! We have obviously entered an episode of Twilight Zone, where in some alternate universe Skipper and I have always been here, idling around by the water with friends we have known for a lifetime . . . only we hadn't, of course. Hmm. Pretty soon I abandoned my struggle with logic and joined my new/old friends as we strolled down the docks, stopping to visit one houseboat resident or another, or peering into the river for a glimpse of a big resident catfish they call Clarence. We talked about how they didn't know what they'd do without this marina community and how everyone always pitches in--for example when Hurricane Isabel hit and everyone helped clean the grease off the kitchen ceiling from the restaurant's deep-fryers. Then it was time to introduce me to Tommy and Tammie and Dirty Britches, the turtle-members of the community, who showed up for dinner.

Colonial Harbor Marina, this paragon of hospitality, is tucked neatly behind a small watery island of marsh grass and mud on the Chickahominy's second southward zig, about 12 miles upriver. From a landsman's point of view it's located near the unincorporated town of Lanexa, Va., and not far from where an old rail line brushes the river. That means it was probably a shipping point at one time, though there's no commercial traffic that I've ever heard of remaining on the river. The marina was once a boatbuilding site--you can still see the canals dug into the lagoon for hauling and launching boats. Taylor Smith and his wife Carol have owned the marina since 1970. Their son Calvert, an EMT, now helps out too.

Carol's domain has always been the restaurant's kitchen, where she prepares much of the food herself. Happily, while I was there, I had a chance to sample more than a little of it, and I must say that the Sunday breakfast buffet is one that will live in my memory possibly forever. Just to give you the barest sample of the affair: a huge bowl of fresh fruits, plus eggs, cheese grits, sausage and bacon, sausage gravy, chipped beef gravy, fresh biscuits, etc. Really, I doubt whether Louis XVI ate any better. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that despite the idyllic location, my old/new friends, the cozy houseboats, the three freeloading turtles, and Clarence the catfish, it was Carol's Sunday buffet that clinched the deal. They can't possibly eat that well at the circus.

A final note: Colonial Harbor doesn't really make a point of providing slips for transients, but I'd be willing to bet that if you wanted to stop by, the Taylors would be willing to make an exception. Just tell them Rod Serling sent you.  

[9.11 issue]