By John Page Williams
Photographs by William Portlock
A hardcore sailing friend of mine once remarked that he had traveled "a long way" up the Rappahannock River in Virginia. I assumed he meant at least as far as Tappahannock, where the 50-foot-high Route 360 bridge marks the end of the line for a lot of sailboats. But no, he meant Urbanna. Urbanna! I answered with a snort. You can practically see the Bay from Urbanna! You barely got started. To be sure, it's a great little town with a long maritime history, but the Rappahannock is navigable all the way to Fredericksburg. Why not farther? Right in character, he replied, "Well, the wind dies there. Why would anyone want to go farther?"
Well . . . okay. Everyone cruises on his or her own terms, and, to be fair, my friend is no slouch; he's put a lot of Chesapeake miles under his pretty little sloop. But for others--powerboaters and sailboaters who don't mind firing up the iron genny when necessary, there's a lot of Rappahannock to explore beyond Urbanna.
I remembered that conversation last December as I explored part of the Rappahannock between Tappahannock and Port Royal in my trusty 17-foot Boston Whaler, First Light, with friends Jim Rogers and Bill Portlock. Jim is a Richmond businessman and vice-chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Board of Trustees. Bill is a longtime friend and colleague on the CBF staff, who also happens to be a superb photographer (indeed, the photos accompanying this article are his). Bill lives near the Rappahannock, in Sparta, Va., and prowls it often in his own 17-foot Whaler. This section of the Rappahannock is special to me because a much-loved family friend introduced me to it way back in the 1950s--after he'd built a small cabin on the north shore at Leedstown--and took me fishing for largemouth bass along its creeks. Ever since, I've found as many excuses as possible to visit this stretch of the river. It's an easy two-hour drive from my house near Annapolis to the launch ramp at the Leedstown Campground. On this day, First Light and I ran a mile upriver to pick up Jim at the home of a mutual friend on the south side, in Essex County.
A Treasured Landscape
The Rappahannock's watershed drains a broad swath of land from the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains through central Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay, so it carries plenty of fresh water seaward. This particular 30-mile stretch, from Port Royal down to Tappahannock, is the midsection of the river's tidal portion, with low land along its floodplain, a fertile valley between ridges that are 100 to 150 feet above sea level.
As is true on other long tidal rivers throughout the Chesapeake watershed, the Rappahannock here flows through a long series of looping meanders before widening out significantly at Tappahannock and adopting a comparatively straighter southeasterly path. In the twisty upper reaches, the current accelerates on the curves, chewing into the land and creating steep banks--as well as adjoining deep water. On the insides of those same turns, it slows, allowing sediment to settle out and collect in broad marshes and wooded swamps.
The water is nearly fresh at Port Royal but grows progressively brackish downriver. Several large creeks--especially Occupacia, Cat Point and Mount Landing--contribute additional fresh water from the ridges that parallel the big river's main stem. The combination of fresh and salt water, strong currents, marshes and deep water close to shore gives this part of the river a rich biological community of plants, fish, birds and mammals. Combine that with fertile floodplain soils, and it is no surprise that this region has served humans well for several thousand years. Archaeologists have documented multiple cultures of Native people before Captain John Smith and his crew came exploring up the Rappahannock in August 1608. English settlers staked claims along the river beginning in the second half of the 17th century, and many of today's local families trace their ancestry to them.
Two features in this section of the river stand out spectacularly. These are Fones and Horse-head cliffs, where the twisty river has cut into the ridges on the sides of the valley, exposing high sandstone bluffs, many of them deeply divided by densely wooded ravines. Over the centuries, these bluffs have played key roles in both the human and the natural history of the river.
Eagles and Patriots
That combination of histories provides a great perspective for exploring this section of the Rappahannock in a sturdy, trailerable skiff with shallow-water capabilities. Though Jim Rogers is an experienced racing and cruising sailor who knows the lower Rappahannock well, he had never visited this part of the river. On this chilly but calm day in early December, it didn't hurt that he is also an experienced waterfowl hunter who is used to prowling around outdoors in all weather.
We bundled up appropriately, carried food and stainless thermoses of coffee to keep our internal fires lit, and, to keep windchill and windburn to a minimum, kept First Light cantering at moderate speeds instead of galloping flat out.
One element in the appeal of the Bay's upper tidal rivers is that there is something interesting going on at virtually every season of the year. Springtime brings spawning rockfish, white perch, American and hickory shad, catfish, and two species of river herring. In summer, the river's shallows teem with juvenile fish that make its great blue herons and ospreys fat and happy, while the marshes burst with seed-bearing plants like wild rice, rice cut-grass, smartweed and tearthumb. Fall brings blackbirds and then waterfowl, while the hardwood trees along the river turn to blazing colors. Winter brings concentrations of Canada geese and bald eagles.
Many of the latter are juveniles in their first four years of life, moving down from northern birthplaces to spend a relatively milder winter roosting and feeding here. This section of the Rappahannock is actually a critically important piece of habitat for the eagles of the Atlantic coast. Bill Portlock has counted them each winter since the late 1990s for the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Society of Ornithology. Over that time, his count along a prescribed 35-mile course has ranged between 150 and an astounding 370 birds (the latter in a year when the large winter eagle roosts on the Potomac's midsection were frozen). The two sets of cliffs are especially important for them as roosting habitat.
Jim and I didn't find anything close to those numbers as we headed upriver in the morning, "only" a dozen or so. Geese were another story; just upstream from Leedstown, we jumped several thousand of them as we glided past Drakes Marsh and the Mothershead property of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have performed significant habitat restoration. A little farther upstream, beyond the Westmoreland Berry Farm, Jim was awed by Horsehead Cliffs and their wild midpoint, Owl Hollow. So was I, actually. The sight never grows old. Here the cliffs squeeze the Rappahannock into a narrow, hairpin turn where the big river scours a long, 60-foot-deep hole with powerful eddies at the surface when the current ebbs. Inside the curve is a wooded swamp bordered by wild rice that bursts with greenery in summer, but in winter, its bare bones show.
At the upriver end of Horsehead Cliffs, approaching Tobys Point, is the site of what was known as Wilmot Wharf, once a bustling Colonial port with a brick kiln and a nearby mine for crude iron ore and later a stop for the steamboat that ran between Baltimore and Fredericksburg. But today all that is left at the spot is a state-owned public launch ramp, at the terminus of what is still called Wilmot Road. We turned around not far beyond this, where the Rappahannock widens out into Green Bay, and headed back to Leedstown, watching more eagles perched in the trees at the top of the cliffs or soaring over them.
We ate lunch at Leedstown. Though the campground was closed for the season, the ramp was open. I had put the modest fee into an honor box, and it was a good place to stretch our legs. Here too, we examined the foundations of Old Brays Church, which lay beside the campground's store. For the past 50 years, Leedstown has hardly qualified as a village, but it has been a valuable place for human settlement for at least 500 years. When Captain John Smith visited the site in August 1608, it was a significant Native American settlement called Pissaseck (or Pissasec), a chief's town, neatly sited on the outside of a deep curve, with clear sightlines for several miles up and down the river. Surrounded by fertile soils, it lay opposite a huge, rich marsh that supplied winter furbearers and waterfowl to trap, plus edible plants in warm weather. At various times of the year, the Rappahannock provided plenty of fish, including Atlantic sturgeon.
By the mid-17th century the English occupied the site. In 1678, Edward Bray built a wharf, a ferry, an ordinary [inn] and a brick Anglican church. The place became known as Bray's Wharf or Bray's Church, but the Virginia House of Burgesses renamed it Leedstown and incorporated it in 1742. By then it had become a busy port, serving surrounding plantations for shipping tobacco to England and grain to the West Indies, and receiving manufactured goods, sugar and rum in return.
In 1765, the British Parliament passed a Stamp Act that set a stamp duty on legal documents, academic degrees, newspapers, and bills of lading clearing ships for ocean voyages. This duty clearly represented taxation of the American Colonies without representation, and the planters of the Northern Neck refused to pay it. When a merchant of Tappahannock announced that he had bought stamped paper to clear his ship for a voyage to the Indies, the planters resolved to stop him from setting such a dangerous precedent.
On February 27, 1766, 115 of them met in Bray's Church in Leedstown to sign a document that became known as the Leedstown Resolutions--drafted by Richard Henry Lee of nearby Stratford Hall, who 10 years later would make the motion in the First Continental Congress that the 13 American Colonies secede from Great Britain. The planters then crossed the Rappahannock by ferry and rode to Tappahannock, where they successfully faced down the merchant and forced him to destroy the stamped shipping document. This was the first of a dozen such incidents of civil and mercantile disobedience that took place in the decade leading up to the Revolution.
Bray's Church remained standing at Leedstown until 1932, but all that remains today are the foundation and an historical plaque. After the Revolutionary War, Leedstown declined as a port, losing stature to Tappahannock, Port Royal and Fredericksburg, though its wharf handled steady steamboat traffic until the 1930s. Indeed, until the 1950s the Chesapeake Corporation of West Point, Va., shipped lumber from a large wharf here, the remains of which can still be seen just upriver from the campground. On this cold day, Jim and I marveled at all that had taken place in this now-quiet place.
Of Geese, Steamboats and Ambushes
After lunch, we picked up Bill Portlock and his camera for a run downriver to Fones Cliffs. His sharp eyes immediately picked out nine young eagles feeding on a deer carcass at the edge of a cove of the big marsh opposite Leedstown. Without the white heads or tails of adults, they blended into the drab color of the marsh, and the two thousand or so Canada geese rafted in the cove diverted attention from them. They bumped our eagle count so far to around 30--the most Jim had ever seen in a day before--and we would see at least 10 more downriver.
We rode First Light through the curves at Leedstown and Laytons Landing, which is a steamboat wharf site on the Essex County (south) side. Laytons Landing had been connected by ferry to Leedstown and stayed busy until the highway bridge at Tappahannock was built in the 1930s. Here the Rappahannock opens up into a long, straight reach that extends for four miles down to Fones Cliffs. I told Jim about an afternoon 15 years earlier, when First Light and I had entered this reach on a clear, calm late-October day. With the sun low behind us, light streamed down the river, illuminating a corridor of blazing yellow, orange, scarlet and purple colors in the sycamores, maples, sweet gums and black gums before lighting up the tawny sandstone of the cliffs at the far end. I remember stopping the engine and drifting, drinking in the scene. Partway down the reach, I drifted past an empty osprey platform. As I watched, a mature eagle drifted down out of the sky and perched there. The view was the most stunning I have seen in all my years on the Chesapeake.
On this winter day, we had no such view, but there was still plenty to see and think about. Bill and I told Jim about the ambush that a group Rappahannock warriors visited on Captain Smith and his crew as they rowed up the river on August 18, 1608. These Indians lived at Pissacack, Matchopick and Wecuppom, three villages on the heights of Fones Cliffs that afforded them strategic views of comings and goings on the river, as well as fresh water from springs in the ravines and riverside landings for canoes.
For the ambush, the Rappahannock chiefs stationed archers high on the cliffs to fire out at Smith and crew, forcing them to steer their shallop close to the opposite bank, where the main body of warriors lay in wait to attack. The canny Smith, however, had anticipated the ambush, rigging shields along his boat's gunwales to protect his men. The ambushing warriors' arrows simply bounced off, and while the shooters laughed in derision at what they judged to be the Englishmen's retreat, Smith made for the friendlier chief and people at Pissaseck, where he and his men spent the night at a feast. Today, more than 400 years later, it's easy to "walk the battlefield" by boat and see how the attack played out.
While we were talking about the ambush, Jim spotted something large swimming across the river. It proved to be a six-point buck deer that probably had been chased to the water by dogs from the big farm on the south bank. We watched it briefly, marveling at its strength and swimming ability, before Jim's sharp eyes picked out yet another huge raft of geese, this one down by Carters Wharf--once a stop on the steamboat route but now a public launch ramp maintained by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. As we approached, the geese took flight in a cacophony of honking exclamations. Bill estimated their numbers at more than fifteen thousand, a number confirmed a couple of weeks later by the Christmas Count conducted by the Virginia Society of Ornithology. By then, the light was beginning to fade and a deep chill was settling on the river. We ran back upriver, where I dropped off Jim and Bill at our friend's landing before heading back to the ramp at Leedstown. It had been a cold, mostly gray day, but never dull. That's the charm of this part of the Rappahannock. I pulled First Light onto her trailer, poured a mug of coffee from the thermos, and headed the truck back to Annapolis, smiling all the way.