Deep, dark and still mysterious, the Chickahominy River
reveals itself as a beautiful and isolated tributary of the
James River. No wonder John Smith liked it. [November 2005]
By Paul Clancy
Photograph by Starke Jett
As soon as we cleared the swing bridge and entered the Chickahominy River, we were confronted by extravagance. Even on a cloudy July morning, the marsh along the river's east side was a vivid, almost gaudy green, and my wife Barb couldn't get over it. "That's probably one of the healthiest marshes anywhere," said she, who is rarely guilty of overstatement. Soon after, raking the shoreline with binoculars, she handed them to me as she would a gift and pointed to a huge heron perched on a cypress that is standing knee-deep in water near the shore. "That's the biggest great blue I've ever seen," she said in an urgent whisper.
Ah, yes, I remembered, the ever-enthusiastic John Smith said something like this when he first encountered the "Checka Hamania" shortly after arriving at Jamestown in 1607. I've since looked up his first description of the river: "More plenty of swannes, cranes, geese, duckes, and mallards, and divers sorts of fowles, none would desire: more plaine fertile planted ground, in such great proportion as there, I have not seen." I hadn't expected to make an immediate connection with the first white man to explore the Chickahominy (or at least the first one to write about it). Most of his pronouncements about this river, like those about the Bay, are useful only as contrast to the vastly different Chesapeake of the present. But the goode captain's observations seem right on the money today. Especially here near the entrance, where a state wildlife area sprawls along high banks on the left and marsh grasses and lily pads sweep away to the right as far as you can see, where osprey and eagles and heron rule the roost, you get the sense that this vast wilderness has been blessed by neglect.
The Chickahominy, named for the tribe of "coarse-pounded corn people" who inhabited its shores, is a beautiful, many-branched river that begins way west of here, on the swampy, boggy northern outskirts of Richmond. Slow and meandering at first, it deepens and broadens along the way until it empties full and lusty into the James River a few miles above Jamestown. Its mouth is nearly as wide as the James itself, and far deeper—50 to 75 feet. It is mainly fresh water, brimming with bass, and because of its relative isolation and lack of development, as well as an abundant number of anchorages, it's a favorite destination for boaters from the lower Bay.
This month (November) the Chickahominy is receiving perhaps more attention than ever before because the movieThe New World, about the Jamestown settlement, filmed up and down the river, is being released in theaters. An Indian village and an English fort were constructed on opposite banks of the Chickahominy, and a band of Native Americans were hired to portray the Indians—including Powhatan and Pocahontas—in the movie roles. It remains to be seen how much the moviemakers succumbed to the temptation to make the Smith-Pocahontas relationship a love affair (she was not much more than a child when they met). Luckily, we arrived here long after the filming ended.
Our trip started with a lucky accident. Thinking that we wanted to paddle some of the many deep, narrow branches of the Chickahominy, we towed our trusty Old Town canoe behindOde to Joy, our sailboat. She rode beautifully all 30 miles or so to Jamestown, but after that, when the river kicked up in growing winds, the canoe suddenly swamped. I succeeded in righting it once, but after it happened a second time, within sight of the entrance markers for the Chickahominy, we were running out of options. The darned thing had become a huge sea anchor.
My chart showed a tiny protected finger of water just shy of the river's mouth on the northern shore of the James near Barrets Point, and we motored in, dragging our ridiculous anchor. Just ahead, we began to see sailboat masts. What was this place? When we arrived and approached a long dock, we realized it was Governor's Land, a luxurious waterfront community that we had wanted to check out—and we had accidentally stumbled right into it.
Two men approached and I thought, uh oh, here's the unwelcoming committee. I couldn't have been more wrong. They turned out to be residents of the community and eager to help. They helped right the canoe, asked if we'd like to spend the night—either at the dock or one of their homes—and invited us to a party down on the beach. When we arrived at the beach a little later, a small band of locals was playing 1970s music, and we, so miserable an hour before, found ourselves socializing and dancing in the sand. At first light the next morning, we left the dock and, this time, made it around the corner and into the Chickahominy.
I had planned to make this trip without bringing John Smith along as baggage, but I failed. He explored, it seems, every inch of this river, not once but several times and, depending on which version of the story is to be believed, almost lost his life as a result. At any rate, his presence can be felt everywhere.
Having explored the James all the way to the falls near present-day Richmond, the colonists thought that perhaps it was the Chickahominy that offered an inland passage to the Pacific. But the most compelling reason for him to set off in December 1607 to fully explore the promising tributary was the sorry state into which the Jamestown settlement had fallen, with most of the so-called gentlemen apparently accepting starvation rather than lifting a finger to help themselves. Smith was, once again, off in his sturdy shallop to trade with the "salvages," the friendliest of them being the Chickahominies, for corn.
He and his comrades got a lot more than corn—they also got in a passel of trouble. One of the party was captured and skinned alive (I'm not kidding) and others were ventilated with arrows. Smith himself, on an island on the Chickahominy, was "struck with an arrow on the right thigh, but without harme." He scared off his attackers with his pistol but then, much to his embarrassment, forgetting to look where he was backing up, fell into a marsh.
"Thus surprised, I resolved to trie their mercies," he wrote shortly after. This is where two versions of his story diverge. In the first, written to a friend in 1608, he is escorted all over the Powhatan kingdom, but generally treated well and eventually released. But the second, written 16 years later in England, is radically different. That's where Powhatan condemns him to death, and Pocahontas, "the king's dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death."
You know the rest. The story has been freely embellished and Disneyfied ever since. No matter that Pocahontas was a mere child at the time, or that she later married tobacco planter John Rolfe. Could the Pocahontas story have been invented, as some have suggested, to justify the later all-out warfare against skull-crushing "salvages"? Or was it, as some historians have speculated, an elaborate Powhatan ritual that Smith misinterpreted? In any event, it will be interesting to see howThe New Worldtreats the myth on the big screen.
The film crew constructed an elaborate Indian village in the dense woods along the western shore of the river in the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area, and a Jamestown-like fort a few miles upriver on the opposite shore. They hired one of the Jamestown ship replicas and imported another. They staged fights and fired cannons and generally transformed the pristine river into a movie set for several months. Now, although an Indian guide might have no trouble finding the footprints of the filmmakers, nature seems to have erased their traces.
It has erased, too, the Revolutionary War shipyards that lined the shores. We passed Shipyard Creek and Shipyard Landing several miles upriver, where it's still 40 to 50 feet deep. And it has covered the thousands of footprints of Union and Confederate soldiers who got bogged down in the Chickahominy's backwaters, and thousands of broken spirits from the sickness that fell like an evil blanket on the troops during the crucial Peninsula Campaign of 1862. I had done some searching before the trip and found an amazing account by a Union soldier who had marched off to war with fellow students from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.: "I have not seen a single man who is perfectly well," he wrote. All were complaining of dysentery. "I think it must be occasioned by the excessive heat, bad water and poisonous miasm[a] which is constantly coming off the swamps which surround the camps . . . an almost infinite number of flies, beetles, bugs, wood ticks, lizards" and "the real genuine body lice."
Fortunately, we weren't going camping in the swamps, just cruising the beautiful river. Ospreys by the dozens flew overhead and dive bombed the water. At one point, my ever-watchful companion thought she'd spotted the white head of a bald eagle but couldn't confirm it. We kept looking. One thing we noticed was a lack of watermen, now mostly gone from the river. In their place now are hundreds of sport fishermen, and we began to have a dozen or more small, sleek boats fly past like very swift water bugs, usually carrying two guys and lots of fishing tackle. They waved, we waved and they were gone.
As we rounded a bulge of land called Old Neck and went into a big S-turn, there were clusters of waterfront bungalows and docks. There is a cut-through shown on the chart, with five to seven feet of depth. We could have saved maybe two miles, cutting behind Big Marsh Point, and it was tempting, but I chickened out. Around a couple more curves now and the bungalows had grown to mansions, with steep stairs dropping down a cliff to waterfront docks. On the left there was a motel and what seemed to be a new marina, River's Rest. Meanwhile, I'd called ahead to Colonial Harbor Marina, near the town of Lanexa, because it's directly across from Smith Island where the wily captain is said to have been captured by a band of Chickahominies. At last, we rounded yet another bend and motored up to the long fuel dock—and ran into mud. The marina is primarily for shallower powerboats, although there were a couple of tall masts nearby. I had to make a couple of trips up the dock with a fuel can.
There was a funky mix of boats, several houseboats and a big old ferro-cement ketch on one of the piers. But there was also a magnificent sloop at the end of the fuel dock—belonging, I was later told, to the veterinarian who comes from down south every year to care for the horses at nearby Colonial Downs Racetrack. Aside from him, though, there were almost no transients. We headed up to the marina's restaurant for lunch as a flurry of growling go-fast boats pulled up to the gas docks.
The marina restaurant (which has no formal name)—especially the outside part, with its awning, Japanese lanterns and plastic chairs—is down-home comfortable. It was a hot day, and we could spend it, as others seemed to be doing, chatting over iced tea. Then the sky opened up and rain pounded the awning. We sat and talked with Taylor Smith, who had a perfectly good job in Richmond when he succumbed to the temptation of owning a marina 35 years ago. Maybe it was the old boat railway and the big open yard, maybe the sounds of the CSX freight trains going by, maybe the people who like the beer, burgers and fries at the small restaurant, maybe the quiet winter months when he and his wife, Carol, can get away.
Smith (no relation to the original) had a great time during the movie filming. He supplied pontoon boats and a barge and got friends to run them, carrying cast and crew, including director Terrence Malick and star Colin Farrell and a small band of Oklahoma Indians—the same ones who were in the movie version ofLast of the Mohicans—up and down the river. When fully costumed and appropriately ferocious, the Indians, Smith says, were pretty authentic-looking. "You would not want to be by yourself around them. They looked mean." Virginia game wardens had no authority to keep boaters from zooming through while scenes were being shot, but "they had the guns and the blue lights, so nobody got in the way," he said.
Bob Simpson, a big friendly man who was having his afternoon beer and cigarette at the bar, said he was hired as captain of the barge and worked some days from 7 a.m. to 2 or 3 the next morning. It was good money, he said, but he was paid by the day and those were awful long days.
"We didn't get rich out of it," Smith put in, "but it sure was fun."
Simpson, a retired operating engineer, divides his time between a mobile home at the marina and the cement ketchPetit Tyrant, a 52-foot boat that he bought on a whim. "I needed it like a hole in the head," he said. In 10 years it's never left the dock, but he swore he's going to fix it up and sail it—although he acknowledged he's never sailed anything before—to the Caribbean. But there's one advantage to keeping the boat, which had rotted woodwork and sprouted some kind of weeds at the water line, in poor condition. That, you see, discourages women, and he'd had enough, what with two failed marriages. "No decent woman is going to move onto a boat like that," he said, deadpan. And life at the marina isn't bad. "They don't make better people than Taylor and Carol," he said.
We were introduced to another marina regular, H. L. "Chick" Haynes, who grew up near the swing bridge. During the Hoover years of the Depression, "it was mighty thin around here," he said. "Hadn't been for fish and wild game you'd a starved to death." Haynes, who had just turned 89, recently built a houseboat and was looking forward to his next birthday, he said, because Smith promised a free paint job to anyone who turns 90.
The rain slowed to a mist and we decided to explore Smith Island, if we could, by canoe. It isn't listed on the chart, but it's right across from the marina at Lanexa. At least, it was. When we got over there we discovered that either rising water or beavers had all but obliterated it. Just about the only features were cypress knees and lily pads, and we could find nowhere to land. In fact, we were able to paddle right through the island in one spot. No wonder John Smith fell into a quagmire. The most interesting thing about the island now is that it's become a rookery for great blue herons.
We took time to motor out on the river that afternoon and jumped overboard. The water was silky and tea-stained. We swam against the gentle current just to make sure the return would be easier, and the whole time I was thinking about water running all the way through that incredible marsh on its way here. We settled down for the night, with the blue herons raising a ruckus of gronking and clattering, a cacophony of mating and territorial noises that serenaded us long into the summer night.
We were up with the dawn, and at first headed upstream about five miles to Walker Dam, which impounds Chickahominy Lake, a reservoir for Newport News. There's a self-operating lock there, but no depth information or navigation aids, so we weren't going farther. But in the misty morning light, we spotted something that made this whole trip worthwhile—a pair of bald eagles watching from a cypress tree near the water's edge. Oh, my God, we both said about a dozen times.
Heading back downstream, unwinding like a twisted phone cord, we spotted two more sets of eagles. Now the river straightened and we caught a nice southeasterly breeze. Up went the sails, off went the motor, and we flew, maybe like the intrepid colonists once did, right down the river and out into the James.
Cruiser's Digest: Chickahominy River, Va.
Traveling to the Chickahominy River is, in some ways, a journey from the modern Navy to its very seeds. Starting at the mouth of the James River, you will pass the piers at Norfolk Naval Base, the ships being refitted at Newport News, the ghost fleet of World War II merchant ships out on the James River and then, finally, past the replica ships of the first English settlers at Jamestown. At sailboat speed—about 5 knots—it's an all-day trip. I estimated 40 miles to a likely anchorage on the Chickahominy, and then another 15 miles to Colonial Harbor Marina. (I don't know what made John Smith speculate that the Chickahominy is 50 miles long unless he went way beyond Richmond, and there's no indication that he did.)
Almost all of the trip is in deep water, but be sure to stay inside the markers. Past Jamestown, you must turn to starboard at red-green "SP" and follow the long, narrow channel to the northwest. Some of the depths at low tide are possibly even less than the charts indicate, locals say, so stay within matched red and green markers and follow a series of red nuns around to the right. You'll pass mansions and a golf clubhouse for Governor's Land and then, as you round Barrets Point, you'll see the bridge. You might be tempted to go straight here, but don't. Off to the right, a little hard to see at first, is red nun "14" and you must make that wide swing before approaching the bridge or come to grief.
Barrets Ferry swing bridge, or the Route 5 Bridge, as locals call it, is going to be torn down and replaced by a 51-foot fixed bridge in a year or so, which unfortunately will exclude most larger sailboats from the river. For now, the bridge is just 12 feet when closed, so even many larger powerboats have to ask for an opening. We could not raise the bridge tender on VHF channel 13 for some reason, but as we approached it began, as if by magic, to open. On the way back, he heard us fine and, even though under sail, we were able to make the opening without slowing down.
The oldest marina on the river is Colonial Harbor Marina (804-966-5523). It has limited space for transients, but it offers fuel and has full service with rack storage, a railway and boat lift, as well as the restaurant.
A deeper, closer alternative is River's Rest Marina (804-829-2753), which opened in January. Three old school chums from Colonial Heights, Alden Williams, Charlie Brown and Les Renick, bought what had been Helen's Hideaway—a motel, boat ramp and a couple of docks—and began to make major changes. They've installed a pool, 60 floating double-pier slips—23 of which had been rented by summer—and have drawn up plans for a large restaurant on the water where the office now sits. The restaurant, to be called the Blue Heron, is due to open early next year.
Locals have long known about the marina and the owners are counting on the idea that others soon will. It's the last deep-water place on the river, they say, with approach depths of 15 feet and at least 12 at the dock. Once the restaurant opens, they expect owners of larger boats to discover the marina, as well as the river itself. "It's probably one of the better kept secrets on the James," Brown says. The marina has a laundry, offers gas and diesel fuel and by next year will provide pump-out services.