If you want to experience the James River the way the American Indians and English settlers did, you’ll want to follow in their footsteps, or more accurately, in their wakes.
Through the efforts of the National Park Service and its many public and private partners, the trails of our earliest English explorers are being made visible to those who wish to see the Chesapeake and its rivers through their eyes.
You might wonder how, or even if, this is possible. After all, in the last 400 years, our landscapes hardly look the way they did when the Susan Constant first navigated the James River in 1607.
Along Virginia’s lower James River, much effort has gone into identifying the places that remain unspoiled or have been left alone long enough to become what we think they may have looked like when the Jamestown settlers encountered the native peoples of Chief Powhatan’s confederacy.
It is these special places — like the cedar swamp, the freshwater marsh and the brackish bend in the river’s oxbow — that are now linked by the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Although it is the first water trail so designated, the John Smith trail joins the ranks of other well-known national historic trails, such as the Lewis and Clark, Nez Perce, Trail of Tears, Pony Express and the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
The John Smith Trail was created by Congress in 2006. Its most visible mileposts are a series of 10, bright yellow “smart buoys” deployed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Bay’s mainstem and major tributaries. These buoys can be accessed online or by cell phone (1-877-BUOYBAY). They provide local climate and oceanographic data along with information about Smith and what the Bay was like in the 1600s.
One of these buoys is located right off Jamestown Island in Virginia where the stockade of the original Fort James has been unearthed by Historic Jamestowne Foundation archeologists.
Trail planners decided that because John Smith’s voyages started and ended at Jamestown, it made sense to develop this part of the historic trail system first. To park planners, though, it’s not so much about starting anew. The Jamestown-Yorktown-Williamsburg historic triangle is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
As Jonathan Davy of the National Park Service said, “it’s all about trail visibility, connecting with existing venues and events,” and especially about getting people outside and on the water.
Jamestown Settlement provides outdoor living history and indoor exhibits for interpreting how the three main cultures — Native American, English and African — collided in The New World of Virginia.
Interpretive signs at parks and boat launches such as Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park and Dutch Gap Conservation Area remind visitors that they are traveling in the wake of history. “A Boater’s Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail” provides information about other launch sites, recommended trips, tidbits of natuåral and cultural history.
But sometimes you just need a human guide to help you get on the water and feed your imagination.
Capt. Mike Ostrander started the James River Fishing Service in the late 1990s, taking people out on the James on the tidewater below Richmond to fish for sunfish, smallmouth bass and flathead catfish.
Ostrander started to notice that many folks were hungry to experience what he calls “the best parts of the fishing trip — the scenery, the wildlife, the moving water.”
Ostrander now offers tours focused on bald eagles, river wildlife and Smith and the Virginia Indians. On his Atlantic sturgeon tour, Ostrander says it’s not uncommon to see Virginia’s biggest and oldest fish breach during August and September from his 24-ft covered pontoon boat.
Gabe Silver, environmental educator for the James River Association, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the nation’s “Founding River,” has been involved in developing the James River segment of the trail since planning started in 2007.
“JRA does a lot to get people on the river, but we also want to help local entrepreneurs thrive in getting people on the water in ways that will help them get to know the river and why it’s worth protecting,” Silver said. He added that Ostrander’s discoverthejames.com is great for those who want to enjoy the ride.
For those who want to get up close and personal with the river, a kayak is best. The number of public access launches and outfitters along the lower James has been steadily increasing.
Eco Discovery Park at the Jamestown Yacht Basin rents kayaks for exploring the nearby Powhatan Creek Water Trail, which takes paddlers into a near-pristine landscape teeming with the sights, sounds and rich smells of the tidal marsh.
It’s just this kind of experience that trail planners want to encourage, said Davy, “one that evokes a sense of what it was like at the time of first contact (between Europeans and American Indians). What did John Smith see back then? What did it look like from the water?”
Another way to get a sense of the scale of the river is to take the Jamestown-Scotland ferry that connects “Southside” Virginia to the terminal just above Jamestown.
The James here is a mile and half wide, and it is just as important for commerce now, as it was then, to keep goods and services, commuters and travelers moving between the two shores.
Just as Jamestown, the Chickahominy River and the James River oxbows anchor the historic trail on the river’s north side, Chippokes Plantation State Park, Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, the Pagan River and Smithfield form the backbone of the historic trail on the south side of the river.
Ultimately, the Park Service and its partners hope that linking these special landscapes — and linking people with the landscapes, will instill a greater appreciation for the Bay and its rivers — and the need to take care of them.
“It’s really true,” Davy said, “What people love, they protect.”
One of Ostrander’s favorite sayings is, “A man can fish his entire life and never realize that it’s not the fish he is after.” One could say that you could explore the James River historic trail for a lifetime not knowing exactly what you’re after.
No matter the point of entry — an interest in history, or fishing, or the quiet of a freshwater marsh at sunrise —opportunities for experiencing the James as Smith once did are growing thanks to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Hit the Trail
For details about the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, visit:
http://buoybay.noaa.gov/ (Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System)
To download or order the official guide to the trail, “A Boaters Guide to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail” by John Page Williams, visit www.smithtrail.net/things-to-do/water-trail-adventures.aspx#boaters.
Adventures on & off the Trail
Exhibits, archaeology on the site of the original James Fort settlement.
757-253-4838 or tollfree: 888-593-4682
Indoor, outdoor living history exhibits highlight the 1600s cultures present in the area. Replica shallop, sailing ships.
Chippokes Plantation State Park:
firstname.lastname@example.org or www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/chi.shtml
Living historical exhibit, one of the oldest working farms in the United States, located in a rural area in Southside along the James.
Trailhead of the Virginia Capital Trail:
Chickahominy Riverfront Park:
River access, camping, boat rentals.
Eco Discovery Park:
Steve Rose or Kim Berry at 757-565-3699 or email@example.com
Bike, kayak, canoe, stand-up paddle boards for rent; boat launch; marina services.
Discover the James:
Capt. Mike Ostrander at 804-938-2350 or Mike@DiscoverTheJames.com.
Guided fishing, wildlife, history on the James tours on a 24-foot covered pontoon boat.
Free, 24-hour, year-round auto ferry across the James River.
Virginia’s largest canoeing and kayaking club.