On Tuesday afternoon, as I wrote in the previous post, it took most of the day to get free of the FDA, finish packing the car, and get to the river. We had to re-plan the trip, since instead of a full two days, we had more like a few hours in the afternoon and another full day. So we decided to canoe the Rivanna river instead, which is closer and meant we would be on the river a full hour sooner than the Rappahannock. It was about 5 by the time we finally were at the boat launch with the canoes fully packed, ready for some paddling. Despite the delays, spirits were definitely high as we hit the river.
The Rivanna river flows along the edge of Charlottesville, underneath a couple of major highways, and close to shopping malls and neighborhoods. However, from the river, you can’t see many buildings or roads, just a couple of bridges, and a few places where you can see houses through the trees. We did see lots of water birds that first day, including several great blue herons, one of which I managed to get a decent photo of.
Before long, the river passed underneath the Highway 64 bridge, covered with booming semi trucks and stop and to traffic (oh how thankful I was to be on the river in a canoe and not in a car on the highway!) and we were out of the city. Along the way, I was able to spot a few mushrooms growing on the waterlogged trunks strewn along the bank; the oysters below were the best of the lot, and they made a tasty addition to dinner that night.
I’ve done a fair amount of canoeing in my time, although the vast majority of it has either been in Maine, on lakes and ponds, or in Florida, on swampy flatwater rivers. I hadn’t done a lot of paddling on rivers that actually had rocks and rapids, and during that first day, I had to do some fast learning. The rapids on the Rivanna aren’t anything too terrible, mostly class I and II, with one drop that was rated class III (although my more experienced friend in the other canoe was skeptical of that rating). Whatever the rating, there were definitely some thrilling moments, as I tried–sometimes successfully– to navigate our canoe between and over the rocks and through the frothy bits. The rapids in the picture below weren’t the most impressive ones we encountered, just the ones I managed to take a picture of (mostly, I was far too focused on not sinking the canoe to take pictures).
And as the afternoon wore on into late afternoon, we started looking for a decent sandbar or bank to pull up on and camp, only we weren’t finding anything but steep, muddy banks, covered with thick vegetation. As the sun started to set, we began looking for anything that would serve as a camp, even an uncomfortable gravelly one. Fortunately, just as I was starting to worry that we would have to spend a wet night in the canoes, we came across a perfect campsite, a bar of soft dry sand with plenty of driftwood for a fire. It was clear that we weren’t the first people to have camped there, and we were very thankful to find it. Fortunately, there was a full moon, so we had no problem making camp and cooking dinner at night.
The next morning, after a sandy night of drifting in and out of sleep, I got up soon after dawn to the sight of mist rising off of the river, and the delightful knowledge that we had a full day of paddling ahead of us.
The sandbar provided plenty of space for sleeping and morning meditation. I’m not sure what the ground cover plant was– it looked like cucumber plants, and had scratchy stems that would catch at your skin or clothes, but wasn’t actually thorny.
And then we were back on the river. Most of the time, both banks were forested, with occasional fields and even more occasional houses, ridiculous mansions spread out over acres of lawn. For most of the way, the banks were pretty low on both sides, but occasionally (as in the photo below) one side or the other would rise in wooded hillsides.
The day passed as through in a dream, lovely and warm. During the middle of the day, it was hot enough to enjoy frequent dips in the river, but never so hot that paddling was uncomfortable. Puffy clouds alternated sun and shade, and a gentle breeze stirred the air, making for near-perfect canoeing conditions. By the middle of the day we had all achieved a state of complete relaxation and contentment.
We saw plenty of critters, mostly birds. There were a surprising lot of raptors along the river, hawks, eagles, and what I believe to be osprey. Several times we saw the flash of white feathers that made me think we were seeing bald eagles. Then we came across this individual in a treetop, its unmistakable profile confirming that we were indeed seeing bald eagles. It was hard to tell when we were seeing different individuals, or the same one flying up and down the river, but it seemed like we were seeing lots of different hawks and eagles; for much of the trip we were coming across one or more of them at nearly every bend of the river.
On several occasions, we saw birds diving from the trees to catch fish, and came upon one successful hunter with a large fish in its talons. As we drifted closer, I tried to take a photo, only the zoom on my camera could only do so much. This bird looked like an osprey to me, it definitely wasn’t a bald eagle (wrong profile, too small), and it was quite pleased with itself.
Other animal encounters on the river included many many dozen turtles, sunning themselves on logs. Some of them were quite big, and we also saw a number of cute baby turtles, no bigger than a silver dollar, sometimes perched on the backs of the bigger ones.
And a family of geese, which for the better part of the day stayed just downstream from us. They would float on the river until we had almost caught up, then loudly fly away for a half mile or so, then start floating again until we were nearby. They repeated this for most of the day, then just before our pull-out point, they gave up on the game and calmly let us pass them.
The pull-out point at Palmyra came all too soon, and I was sad to see the boat ramp. In total, it was about 25 miles on the river, from Darden Towe park to Palmyra. There’s already talk about doing a day trip this fall on the remaining 17 miles of the Rivanna to where it empties into the James river. Hopefully, I’ll be part of that trip. I’m pretty convinced that observations of Virginia nature and wildlife, when done from a canoe floating gently down the river, are the most pleasant observations of all!