At the request of their guide, John Mays of Twin River Outfitters, the paddlers pulled over to a scrap of beach on the James River just below a short cobble-strewn rapid. Across the river, a floodplain abutted the steep rise of a mountain.
Buchanan, VA, was only a few bends upriver, but it already seemed like another world.
Here on the beach, a loud flock of wild turkey hopped and fluttered into the thick woods.
Above them, a pair of bald eagles circled. One swooped down and grabbed a small animal in its talons. The second eagle gave chase, and the first dropped its prey, leaving it for the second to pluck from the ground and fly with it up to a tree branch.
Bald eagles are no longer a rare sight here, Mays said, and if he has his way, more people will share these rich views of mountains, river and wildlife.
With a broad gesture of his hand that took in the entire narrow river valley, Mays said, “We’re working with landowners to expand the options for overnight camping along the trail.”
The trail is the Upper James River Water Trail. The “we” included not only the canoe livery he and his brother own, but also committed members of a committee that started meeting in 2007 at the invitation of Botetourt County to see how they could promote the river that bisects the county.
Seven years later, their signature creation, the Upper James River Water Trail, has succeeded. This section of the James is on the map — literally and digitally — as a destination for paddlers seeking both flat and white water and outdoor enthusiasts seeking encounters with bears, beavers or bobwhites.
Two main headwater tributaries, the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers, combine to make the James River at Iron Gate, just southeast of Clifton Forge in Allegheny County to the north of Botetourt. The James flows generally south here, twisting through the Alleghenies to Buchanan, where it bends sharply northeast up the river valley into Rockbridge County and the town of Glasgow. The river course is a result of the ridge-valley geologic formations on the eastern flank of the Allegheny Mountains that, for paddlers, translates into breathtaking views of the mountains around each bend of the river.
The Upper James Water Trail is wholly contained in Botetourt, which was named after Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, royal governor of the colony of Virginia from 1768 to 1770. The French pronunciation has long since given way to the more casual version, which is pronounced, “Bot’-i-tot.”
Flanked by pastures and forests as it wends through the county, the river offers a taste of wilderness and the opportunity for quiet reflection in the company of flowing water. The 14-mile stretch between Eagle Rock, where Craig Creek comes in from the west, to Springwood, is designated a Virginia Scenic River.
It’s been well-known to anglers after smallmouth bass and musky for some time. Since the 1980s, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has established five launch sites here.
Even so, in 2007 Kevin Costello, former director of tourism, knew that the county could do more to promote the river. He assembled a committee, made a plan, and together, the group “started by going after the low-hanging fruit. Developing a water trail seemed like the logical next step.”
Genevieve Goss has been part of the planning team since the early days, when she represented the Upper James River Resource & Conservation Development Council on the committee. “The partnership has been successful because it’s drawn from all walks of life, from recreation-based business owners to local fisherman and conservationists concerned about the quality of life along the river.”
It also included landowners with riverfront access and Twin River Outfitters, which was already established downriver in Rockbridge County and had recently set up a new shop along a flat stretch of the James in Buchanan.
Goss and others credited the outfitters with being a major driving force behind the water trail development. “John and Dan Mays are so knowledgeable,” she said. “And it helps that they are such all-around nice guys.
“The development of the water trail has been a catalyst for all kinds of things,” Goss said. The railroads provided property for one of the access sites. A local company provided gravel for a take-out. A dairy farmer agreed to a new primitive camping site on his property for water trail users. The DGIF agreed to let the access points they managed be publicized as part of the water trail.
Pete Peters, who succeeded Costello as the county director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said the original money came from a Virginia Tourism Corp. grant. Soon after, the county received funding from the Chesapeake Bay Program and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to improve access sites. The trail became part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network, which linked it to the wider Chesapeake Bay. In 2012, it was recognized as an upriver component of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail.
The new partnerships have helped build the water trail, adding access sites, kiosks and information for river users. “We’ve tried to pick off a project a year,” Peters said.
Over the last few years, the James River Association’s “Envision the James” project has brought particular focus to the upper reaches of the river. With its partners, the Chesapeake Conservancy and National Geographic Society, the river association has provided resources and online tools that identify critical aquatic and terrestrial habitat along the river’s corridor that will help partners prioritize conservation goals. Visitors can access these maps before getting on the river, adding to the experience of what they might encounter.
For thousands of years, the James was a corridor for wildlife and native peoples. It provided them sustenance and routes for transportation and commerce.
Elk and bison once roamed here, and today the river valley is home to black bear, white-tailed deer and other mammals. VGIF wildlife biologist Dan Lovelace said that paddlers are likely to encounter beaver and mink with maybe a glimpse of the shy river otter. Wood duck, great blue herons, kingfishers, waterfowl and songbirds also use the river corridor.
Today, transportation is purely recreational, and fishing, floating and history drive the commerce.
Archeological evidence of human habitation dates back more than 20,000 years ago. Just over the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Buchanan in Amherst County, the Monacan Indian Nation claims Bear Mountain as the last remaining piece of the tribe’s ancestral lands. Monacans are one of the 11 Virginia-recognized tribes.
Artifacts discovered at sites in Botetourt confirm what the present-day Monacans know. “We say we were created here from the beginning of time,” Monacan Chief Sharon Bryant said. “We don’t have records showing that the James upriver in Botetourt was our homeland, though John Smith recorded contact with our tribe in the early 1600s.”
Already squeezed and splintered by three centuries of land grabs by colonial and U.S. settlers and severe racial oppression in the early 1900s, the 1,700-member tribe is reclaiming its heritage and sharing it at annual spring powwows and fall homecoming events. Near Bear Mountain, visitors can see artifacts and learn about tribal history at the Monacan Ancestral Museum.
Nearby Natural Bridge has featured an interpretive Monacan Village for more than a decade. The bridge, a 215-foot arch carved by a stream out of limestone is said to have been a sacred place for Indians. Monacan tribal members have showcased the ways of their ancestors to visitors through living history demonstrations at the private park.
February’s announcement of the sale of Natural Bridge sent ripples of excitement through the conservation community in Virginia. The bridge, once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and the surrounding 1,900 acres was sold to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, a nonprofit spearheaded by its CEO, Roanoke businessman Tom Clarke.
With behind-the-scenes help from the Valley Conservation Council, Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, Friends of Natural Bridge and others, an agreement was reached to give the nonprofit five years to operate the Natural Bridge and related concessions to recoup its investment, at which time the Natural Bridge will become part of the Virginia State Park System.
Clarke bubbled with enthusiasm and a near-endless flow of ideas when asked about his plans for the site. A father of two young children, he hopes to transform the inn and the tourist site – a latter century, high-end tourist destination that has become more shabby than chic in recent decades – into a family destination and model for environmental literacy and healthy choices.
“I see this whole area as a mecca for nature-based tourism,” he said. “We are planning the restoration of the Monacan Village experience [so that we can] proudly and extensively display the Monacan presence in the region, in history and in the present.”
Bryant hopes that working with the new owners will bring new opportunities for the Monacans, too. “We’re still a vital community of native people remembering our history and trying to maintain traditions into this new generation and into the future, without living in any kind of false way,” she said. “There are vital traditions and values among our people that we want to maintain and that we’re willing to share.”
The Natural Bridge property doesn’t have river access, but plans are in the works to create a way to access the James nearby and make the Natural Bridge property a link in the ever-expanding Upper James Water Trail system.
Back on the river, Justin Doyle, JRA’s outreach manager, doubled back to one of his favorite rapids on the stretch of river aptly named Horseshoe Bend. A short distance away, Pat Calvert, the Upper James Riverkeeper, cast his line hoping to snag a smallmouth bass in a dark pool.
When they reached the take-out at Springwood, everyone helped Mays load the boats on the trailer. The group lingered by the river, reluctant to depart.
“The beauty of this water trail,” Mays said, “is that each of the sections is different, and there’s something for everybody. Fast water, slower water. It’s good for fishermen. Good for families.”
And like the river itself, the water trail is always changing. With the Botetourt County team continuing to add amenities and information, it will pay to check back often, first online, then on the water.
To be safe, check the Gathright Dam Lake Moomaw release information before any paddling trip: Call 540-965-4117.
- Upper James River Water Trail: Visit www.upperjamesriverwatertrail.com
- Envision the James: History, natural resources, fishing, paddling. Visit www.envisionthejames.org
- James River Association: Seasonal index of fishing, paddling swimming conditions for the river & its tributaries from volunteer observations. Visit www.jrava.org/jrw/
- Natural Bridge of Virginia: Natural Bridge, VA. Call 1-800-533-1410 or visit www.naturalbridgeva.com
- Monacan Ancestral Museum: Call 434-946-0389 or visit www.monacannation.com/aboutus.shtml
- “Virginia Indian Heritage Trail”: This book, edited by Karenne Wood, is available at http://virginiahumanities.org/virginia-indian-program/virginia-indian-heritage-trail/
- Twin River Outfitters: Buchanan, VA. Call 540-261-7334 or visit www.canoevirginia.net/
- Riders Up! Outfitters: Clifton Forge, VA. Rentals, shuttles, guided fishing & paddling trips. Call 540-862-7999 or visit www.ridersupoutfitters.com
- Confluence Outfitters: Natural Bridge, VA. Guided float fishing trips for smallmouth bass on the James and Maury Rivers. Call 434-941-9550 or visit www.confluenceoutfittersva.com/
- Botetourt County Annual Fishing Carnival: June 7. Buchanan Town River Park. Call 540-473-8326 or visit www.townofbuchanan.com/event/botetourt-county-annual-fishing-carnival/
- 21st Annual Monacan Indian Powwow: May 18–19. Call 434-946-0389 or visit www.monacannation.com/powwow.shtml