One river

Published 7:06 pm Friday, July 22, 2011

Expedition: A group of high school students and recent graduates stopped in Suffolk on Thursday during their 28-day canoe expedition on the James River.

Group finishes educational James River trip

After spending a month paddling down the James River in canoes, one group of high school students will have one heck of a “what I did on my summer vacation” story to share with classmates.

Twelve students and four teachers took part in the James River Expedition, which was sponsored by the James River Association.

The 28-day, 340-mile voyage began in Iron Gate, where the James begins, and the group traveled an average of 12 miles a day, camping each night in different areas that relate to the James.

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On Thursday, the group landed on the shores of Chuckatuck Creek to spend the night in Suffolk. The stop brought them one step closer to their final destination of Hampton, where the journey ended Friday.

The Nansemond River Preservation Alliance welcomed the weary teenagers into the Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson Ruritan Community Hall after a 24-mile journey.

Karla Smith, NRPA vice president and co-chair for the education committee, said the alliance members talked to the group about the Nansemond River and how it fits into the greater James.

The expedition might sound like Virginia’s version of “Survivor,” but expedition leader Gabe Silver said JRA has been hoping to host the trip for the past few years to promote the importance of the health of the James.

The trip was finally possible this year with the assistance of a $50,000 grant from Dominion Power.

JRA contacted high schools in all of the communities that border the James to find four schools to send representatives.

Students, ranging from rising 10th graders to recent graduates, and teachers were chosen from E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Open High School in Richmond, Albemarle High School in Charlottesville and Bethel High School in Hampton.

Silver said these schools were selected because they represent different communities that are affected by the James.

“We have a very good geographic diversity (in the group) and a good diversity of ages, as well,” he said.

During the expedition, the students learned about the history of the river and the communities that rely on its waters.

Silver said he wants the students to understand the James affects so many lives, and many of those people don’t realize it.

He said the students are learning that one river impacts hundreds of communities.

“The cool thing is it’s all one river,” Silver said. “Theoretically, the students learn that in school, but now, they are seeing it firsthand.”

Silver said arriving in Suffolk brought lessons the students learned earlier in the trip full-circle.

When they saw industry and pollution on the river farther north, Silver said, the students asked why they couldn’t see the immediate effects.

“I told them, ‘You don’t see the effects here, but wait until we get down to the tidal zones in the Hampton Roads area,” he said.

Rising Bethel sophomore Rebecca Henderson said the expedition has changed her perception of a river she thought she knew.

“It’s a very important river that supports things we don’t think about every day,” she said.

Henderson said she recommends everyone who lives near the James should paddle at least a portion of it to gain a better understanding of the river.

Her classmate Isaiah Ralph said participating in the expedition taught him the importance of maintaining the James.

“It’s our founding river, and it’s the water supply for lots of cities,” Ralph said. “Water is life, and we can’t afford to lose this water.”

Silver said he is pleased with the way the students have taken ownership of the James and now strive to protect it.

He said they take it personally when they see things that are negatively impacting the river.

“I wouldn’t want to mess with the river if they were around,” he said.