The broad marshes along the wooded banks of the Chickahominy River in Virginia still evoke the landscape that English explorer Capt. John Smith first saw when he visited this area in 1607.
And it is the same mix of forest, river and marsh that made my paddle down Morris Creek — a tributary of the Chickahominy — so compelling on an early spring morning.
I launched my kayak with Jack Snell, a member of the River Rat volunteers who keep watch on area waterways for the James River Association. A thin mist rose from the creek as we slipped silently onto the dark water just after sunrise.
“Morris Creek is one of my ‘go to’ places,” Snell said quietly from his kayak.
Morris Creek is one of the many smaller tributaries that curl into the Chickahominy River close to where it meets the James. The lower river and its tributaries, all of which lie below Walker’s Dam, are tidal, straddling a boundary between freshwater and saltwater that changes with the day and the season.
The transition zone is rich with wildlife and fish that lure fishermen, birdwatchers and paddlers.
“I like to take groups here, but I also like to come here by myself,” Snell said.
It’s easy to see — and hear — why.
The drum of a pileated woodpecker resonated on a tree, echoing in the damp channel flanked by bald cypress. A pair of wood ducks erupted from the bank, the female sounding a “tweet schreech” of warning. Their wings beat a soft whirr in the air above us.
Redwing blackbirds called out from scattered perches atop clumps of brown-topped cordgrass on both sides of the creek. Green shoots of arrow arum and pickerelweed were starting to burst through the dark, peaty bank.
Morris Creek is well-buffered from human activity. To the north is the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area, which is more than 65 percent forested and managed for game and fowl with few roads and even fewer houses. Only a few houses lie to the south, on the high ground. For the most part, the vistas are free of human structures and influence.
The sun and the tide drew us downstream as the creek cut a serpentine path through the widening expanse of marsh.
Filled with arrow arum, cordgrass and wild rice, the bounty of this marsh once supported thriving communities of American Indians.
The Paspehegh, whose name is thought to mean “mouth of the creek,” occupied both sides of the Chickahominy near the site that the English claimed for James Fort (and later became the settlement of Jamestown). The Paspehegh were among the first American Indians that the settlers encountered there.
The 2005 movie, The New World, set the story of Capt. John Smith along the Chickahominy, which Smith explored four times in the early winter of 1607. During these trips, the explorer traded with the Chickahominy people for corn, which was desperately needed by the ill-equipped colonists.
The film blended history with popular myth about the encounters between Smith and the Indians, including Pocahontas, but it got one thing right: Many events in those critical years took place along the Chickahominy River. For this reason, the Chickahominy is a key segment of the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail.
Paddling Morris Creek is one good way to explore the Chesapeake Trail because it offers protection from wind and waves. But the main stem of the lower Chickahominy has plenty of options for boaters of all stripes.
Gordon, Yarmouth, Parsons and Big Marsh islands — each home to large watery fields of marsh grass and wild rice — have been carved between the river and its meandering oxbows. Several of these can easily be circumnavigated by paddlers leaving from one of the dozen launch spots along the river.
The Virginia Route 5 bridge across the mouth of the Chickahominy provides more than 50 feet of clearance for sailboats, and there is plenty of water depth along a deeply incised channel all of the way up to Walkers Dam.
Holes as deep as 60 and 70 feet attract fish and fisherman to the lower Chickahominy, which is renowned for its annual bass fishing tournaments.
The river may be a spawning ground for Atlantic sturgeon as well. Researchers have tracked adult sturgeon up the river as far as the dam, and 6– and 7-inch juveniles have been found in this stretch of the river.
People who think of the Chickahominy as only a bass fishing river might miss exploring some of its quieter stretches.
“In smaller boats like kayaks, you can get to places the bass boats don’t go,” Snell said.
As we paddled back upstream on Morris Creek, we passed a retired state game warden, his kayak tucked against the bank, fishing for crappie, or channel cat, or maybe striped bass. He told us that he often sees river otter and mink in the creek.
David Whitehurst, an ecologist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said there are a lot of reasons that we should value rivers and freshwater marshes. Along with good fishing spots, they provide ecological services such as flood control and nutrient adsorption.
Some of the river’s benefits are less tangible. “It’s also good for the soul,” Whitehurst said.
Check out the lower Chickahominy
- Always check the weather and tides before going on out the river, especially on the mainstem and near the oxbow islands. Visit tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov and look for the Ferry Point and Lenexa stations under Tide Predictions.
- Launch sites for kayaks and trailer boats can be found at jrava.org under Discover the James. Look for a virtual tour of the Chickahominy called Terrain 360, as well as a downloadable map of the Chickahominy Water Trail. You can launch directly on Morris Creek at designated sites in the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area and along Virginia Route 623. Chickahominy Riverfront Park offers a boat launch, camping and other amenities.
- The Chickahominy River Atlas, published in 2014 by the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, James River Association and Chickahominy tribe, has annotated maps from The Falls down to the James. The atlas is available at vacanals.org/store.
- A tribal center for today’s Chickahominy Indians is near Providence Forge, and they hold a festival and pow-wow each fall; see chickahominytribe.org. The Chickahominy Indians Easter Division, a separate tribal entity, is also near the river; see www.cied.org.
- The Virginia Capital Trail connects the commonwealth’s past and present capitals of Jamestown and Richmond along the scenic Route 5 corridor and offers a view of the Chickahominy and James Rivers.