2010-11-10 / Family

Exploring nature by kayak

By Mark Battista

Elijah Schiarelli kayaks the tidal lagoon at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Elijah Schiarelli kayaks the tidal lagoon at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Kayaks are more than vessels to ply waterways. They let you explore and encounter aquatic wildlife and plants.

Just in Chesterfield County, kayakers can paddle the tidal and non-tidal waters of the James River. They can float along the Appomattox River, a designated state scenic river. They can meander through swamps and tidal creeks along the lower Swift Creek. For paddling lakes, kayakers can explore Swift Creek Lake in Pocahontas State Park, the larger, 1,700-acre Swift Creek Reservoir, Chesdin Lake and the tidal lagoon at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area.

“We see wild rice at White Bank [in lower Swift Creek] in the wetlands and at Dutch Gap,” says Phyllis Brumfield, 66, who paddles a variety of waterways.

“There are cypress trees with knees at Dutch Gap and lotus plants that have waterproof leaves,” she adds about the variety of plants observed while paddling. “There are a lot of blue herons, ospreys and snowy egrets. The snowy egrets roosting at dusk are impressive. We saw an osprey dive for a fish at Dutch Gap, and there were deer island-hopping.”

She recalls a trip when two deer startled her and another paddler. “Two deer jumped in the water right in front of me. They turned around and swam back to the bank and jumped out. I scared them as bad as they scared me.

“I love being out in the wild,” says Brumfield. “We always have fun. Every trip is memorable.”

“The button bush is one of my favorites, the ‘dandelion on steroids,’” says Dee Ragland, a trip leader with Chesterfield Parks and Recreation.

Paddling for five years on a variety of waterways has given Ragland insight and appreciation for aquatic plants. “Lots of flowering plants out near the water are so delicate,” she says, listing some notables such as swamp rose, swamp iris, ironweed and cardinal flower.

Her encounters with wildlife are many. “We have been spotting our resident eagle [at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area] almost daily now,” says Ragland. “The deer running through the islands are always a treat to see, and the occasional raccoon always brings a smile. They are just too cute.”

Ragland remembers observing a “young beaver and being able to watch him playing and eating and not even realizing I was there.”

Another time, “I was escorted up the creek for a good ways by a beaver at Pocahontas State Park. I am certain he knew I was behind him, but he never submerged,” says Ragland.

Ragland muses about the time she reached for a branch to pull her kayak through a tight spot. The branch turned out to be a snake. “Lesson learned: Always look before touching a branch.”

Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, great egrets, otters, muskrats, dragonflies and bats are some of the wildlife seen while paddling Swift Creek Lake in Pocahontas State Park, notes Christen Miller, park naturalist. The lake was created in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. “I love the rose mallow and swamp rose as well as the button bush, sweet spire, fragrant water lilies and pickerel weed,” says Miller about the variety of plant life found along the shoreline.

Paddlers just never know what they may see. On a recent trip at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, participants witnessed a tussle between some ospreys and a bald eagle over a fish. After a group effort, the ospreys triumphed, and one was rewarded with the fish.

During a late evening paddle, a beaver cruised nonchalantly in front of the group. Minutes later, a great horned owl screeched from the treetops. His silhouette winged away and quickly faded into the darkness.

The advent of sit-on-top kayaks has enabled more people to explore aquatic environments. While canoe sales are still stable, sales of sit-on-top kayaks have been increasing, partly because of their novelty, but mostly because they are user-friendly and affordable.

“They are more stable than canoes; they’re, generally speaking, less expensive than a good canoe,” says Tom Detrick, general manager of the Appomattox River Company.

“You [can] get on it, and in an hour feel like you are good at this,” adds Detrick about the simplicity of sit-on-top kayaks.

Canoeing can be quite demanding with about 32 different stokes to learn. With siton top kayaks, a novice can learn about four stokes and be proficient.

If you don’t have a kayak and want to explore some local waterways, call Pocahontas State Park at 796-4472 or Chesterfield Parks and Recreation at 748-1623.

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