A small flotilla of canoes filled with “junior rangers” and their parents was floating on the gentle, outgoing tide of Virginia’s Taskinas Creek.
The current pulled the canoes past muddy banks, pockmarked by the holes of fiddler crabs and gripped by the roots of small cordgrass on which periwinkle snails perched. A fish splashed near the opposite bank. The rank smell of the marsh filled the air.
From her canoe, trip leader Ann Hageman called out to the paddlers. “You’ve got two kinds of cordgrass here. Big cordgrass and little cordgrass.”
It was the last day of KidsKamp at York River State Park, and there were still discoveries to make. Hageman, an environmental educator with the park, explained how the marsh grass filters pollutants and provides a nursery for fish and crabs.
Hageman wants the youth and their parents to know how important estuaries are to all manner of fish, crabs and birds — and to people, including the American Indians who once used this marsh for fishing and hunting.
Taskinas Creek, a small tributary to the York River, makes a perfect classroom for these lessons. It lies entirely within York River State Park, less than 15 miles from Williamsburg. The park offers 2,500 acres of marsh and upland forests with a rich variety of habitats that attracts all kinds of creatures and visitors.
The setting includes 3.5 miles of York River shoreline, which includes the much-visited Fossil Beach, and the stunning marsh of Taskinas Creek, all of which can be explored by water or one of the park’s many rewarding trails.
Taskinas Creek is part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve System, jointly managed within the park by the state and the nearby Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Every year, 30 or more research projects are under way in the reserve, making it one of the most studied marshes in the Chesapeake Bay region.
At KidsKamp, Hageman was making the most of every educational opportunity. When paddlers heard the screech of an osprey overhead as they passed an empty nest on a stand about 100 yards from the mouth of the creek, Hageman responded.
“That’s one of the juveniles that left this nest in May,” she said, “but the fishing is good here, so they are sticking around.”
As the channel widened and merged with the York River, several canoes accidentally came together like magnets, at the hands of novice paddlers. Carl Smith and John Fitton, AmeriCorps volunteers assigned to the park, came to their aid.
Hageman quickly soothed any nervousness about paddling onto the wide open water of the York by pushing her paddle straight down into the water to hit bottom. “It’s not deep here,” she said.
In fact, most of the York River is relatively shallow along its southern shore. Hageman used Fossil Beach, located a quarter of a mile downstream, to explain the cause. The cliffs above the beach are slowly eroding, yielding shells and whale bones from strata that date back tens of thousands, even millions, of years.
“Remember the cliffs at Fossil Beach?” Hageman asked. “Those cliffs are made up of soft layers of earth laid down many, many years ago. When the big storms come wailing across the river from the north or northeast, the wind and waves break down the cliffs into the river, making it shallow.”
A short time later, the paddlers pulled out their canoes under a lone bald cypress tree. The youth changed places and adults stretched their legs as they took in the shoreline view. Hageman shared the story of this historic place.
In the early 1600s, American Indians lived on the opposite shore at Werowocomoco, the principal residence of the leader Powhatan. The English explorer Capt. John Smith was brought here as a prisoner in 1608, and Smith later claimed, in a much-disputed account, that Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, saved his life. Smith returned to the Jamestown settlement and later made several return trips by way of this same river. Today, this area is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
In the last decade, archeologists have explored the remains of Indian settlements and the colonial plantation that once stood on the York River parkland. Their findings have added another dimension to the park for visitors. More than 50,000 artifacts have been collected from 28 different sites scattered around the park, some of which can be viewed at the visitor center.
At the boat launch on Taskinas Creek, you can also see the remains of the “corduroy road” that served the plantation — a surface formed by tree logs laid side by side. Preserved by the mud and brackish water, the logs kept heavy hogshead of tobacco from sinking into the mud on their way to ships anchored in the river.
Many people prefer to experience the beauty of this park by land, wandering the shoreline and hiking a 30-mile network of trails. Cross-country runners sometimes use the trails for training, and cyclists pedal the long paved entranceway through cool forests. Mountain bikers and horseback riders have their own dedicated trails.
It’s clear that plenty of people know about and use the park, but it doesn’t feel crowded and wildlife abounds.
Birding is especially popular. Cheryl Jacobsen, a master naturalist from the Williamsburg area, counts nesting bird species at the park to help update the Breeding Bird Atlas of Virginia.
“One of the real strengths of this park is the variety of habitats here,” Jacobsen said.
In the more manicured parts of the park along the shoreline of the York River, visitors might be treated to the bright flash of bluebirds that raise their young in more than 25 boxes along the edge of the woods.
But you can have more solitude and quiet — and often better wildlife viewing — by following one of the trails that wind through steep ravines and upland forests full of oak and hickory.
The Taskinas Creek Trail is a 2-mile moderate trek that weaves through marshes and steep ravines where freshwater springs spill down through the forest to mix with saltwater and create an estuarine environment in the creek.
A series of observation decks provide panoramic views of the marsh and opportunities to get up close to fiddler crabs scurrying back and forth across the mud at low tide.
Against the backdrop of forest on the far side, the creek winds through the multiple shades of green — from the fluorescent green of cordgrass to the darker fingers of black needlerush.
Developing trails and programs at the park has been an evolution since the land was first purchased in 1969, said chief ranger Brad Thomas, who has been forging relationships between the park and local schools for more than 18 years.
The Virginia state park system used York River State Park to pilot a “backyard classroom program” in the late 1990s, Thomas said. The hands on, out-of-classroom lesson plans are designed around state standards and tailored for use on parks and natural areas.
The park has kept adding programs since then, Thomas said. There are weekend programs for all ages throughout the year, ranger-led hikes and guided moonlight paddles on the creek. Rangers work with groups to develop custom programs on the water, land or both.
York River State Park — and Taskinas Creek within its bounds — serve up natural beauty in many forms and learning in many ways. Scientists and students will continue to uncover the secrets of its marshes and forests, just as visitors find their own treasures and build relationships with the variations of land and water they discover here.
Visiting York River State Park
The park, located in Williamsburg, VA, is open dawn to dusk. You can launch canoes and kayaks directly onto Taskinas Creek or rent them on site. Upstream at Croaker Landing, you’ll find a trailered boat launch, fishing pier and beach for launching paddle craft. Enjoy a large network of trails for walking, biking or horseback riding. A gazebo offers a great view of the confluence of the creek and river. Park entry is free but there is a small fee for parking your vehicle. For details, visit dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/yor.shtml.