The Dominion Power smokestacks rise in the distance beyond the lagoon where American shovelers pivot tails to the sky, snatching small invertebrates and sweet submerged roots of pickerelweed and arrow arum on a winter morning.
Turkey vultures circle in the rising vapor near the stacks, where the largest state-of-the-art scrubber has transformed the plant from what conservationists once called "the worst in Virginia" into a model of air quality.
At the outfall from the coal-fired plant, discharge water heats a mixing pool where cormorants, confident of a meal, take turns diving for fish.
Beyond the wetland, the Dutch Gap Conservation Area shares the parking lot with Henricus Historical Park. A rooster crows within the walls of the recreated colonial settlement that many believe ensured the English settlement of the New World in 1611.
In the flatland 20 miles south of Richmond, these contrasts embody the stories of how the land has changed through time.
"As a Chesapeake Bay Gateways site, our theme here is change," said Mark Battista, the conservation area's naturalist. He pointed to a map that shows the meander in the river, one of three prominent oxbow curves in the James.
"It was a peninsula connected to what is now Henrico County. Then it became Farrar's Island and, now, it has been rejoined to land but in Chesterfield County."
Battista compared the satellite picture to the conservation area's trail map to help orient first-time visitors.
"You have to be an eagle, see it from the air, to see the way the land has changed." As if on cue, an immature bald eagle took flight toward a stand of trees across the tidal lagoon, a remnant of sand and gravel operations that ceased only 50 years ago.
Wooden barges and steel tugs, half-submerged and left to rot, provide excellent habitat for smallmouth bass and the big blue catfish.
Battista leads public kayak paddles through the labyrinth of sunken ships, where trees sprout from half-submerged smokestacks as nature finds opportunities for reclaiming lost ground.
The kayak launch is on a sandy peninsula of the lagoon accessed by a private road still owned by the power company. It's an ideal spot for hosting beginning kayak lessons and overnight camping for groups.
For most, the draw is the 4.5-mile loop trail around the lagoon, through wetlands where tadpoles and marbled salamanders emerge in the spring and migratory birds are spotted, counted or photographed by visitors. The old mining operations left sandy hummocks that are now flanked by swamp maple and black gum.
The trail is a popular destination for hikers, joggers and trail bikers coming from up and down the James. Though not paved, it is flat enough to push strollers and wheelchairs in dry weather. "People will drive a long way for a good walk," said Mike Golden, Chesterfield County's director of Parks and Recreation.
The 810-acre conservation area, purchased in 1996, was the county's first passive recreation park. Golden remembers walking the old mining road for the first time, startling a brood of wild turkeys, deer and a great horned owl.
"The smoke stacks of the power plant in the distance pop in and out of view when you are on the trail or on the water," Golden said. "At Dutch Gap, it was an experiment to see whether you could put industry and wildlife side by side."
By all accounts, it has succeeded. Battista said Dominion has been a really good neighbor, putting up viewing platforms and providing access through its land to the group camping and kayak launch sites. Battista reminds visitors, especially younger ones, how the power plant supports modern conveniences.
Just upriver, there's a different viewshed being created by the Henricus Historical Foundation. Beyond the parking lot shared with the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, and behind a wooden stockade fence, lies the Citie of Henricus, the second colonial outpost on the James to be settled upriver from Jamestown.
In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale was dispatched by the Virginia Company to help the struggling settlement at Jamestown, where swampy lowlands were difficult to farm and even more difficult to inhabit through Virginia's seasons.
Dale led 300 men and boys up Powhatan's river through the hunting and fishing grounds of natives who owed tribal allegiance to the Algonquin leader.
On high ground above the river's fresh breezes, Dale recognized a place that would be superior to Jamestown, "a convenient, strong, healthier sweete seate on which to plant a new town."
John Pagano, head interpreter at Henricus, explained that this high ground overlooks what was an isthmus between two legs of the river's oxbow curve, a choke point ideally suited for hunting.
"This spot had value to the Indians," he explained. "They set fire on one side and drove wildlife across the narrow land toward hunters waiting at the other side."
Dale knew that the Powhatans favored this spot, and he came prepared to stake the land he was claiming for England. While most of his men marched the 80 miles upriver, several barges delivered a prefabricated stockade for the new town.
Even so, they were attacked almost daily during the four months it took to establish Henricus, named for Prince Henry of Scotland, son of King James I.
Dale instituted the practice of allotting homestead acres to each settler based on the belief that, "every man's care is no means. Proprietie is a proper painstaker," meaning that each man was more likely to care for land held privately rather than communally shared.
Henricus' most famous resident was Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and met and married John Rolfe all while living at Henricus, securing uneasy peace between natives and settlers until the chief's death in 1622.
Henricus today is a patchwork of recreated thatched houses, livestock pens and gardens - a living museum for more than 20,000 visitors and schoolchildren a year.
Winter vegetables and green herbs brighten the weathered landscape in colonial settler Alice Proctor's garden. Inside her one-room home, she sat at a table by the large open hearth that barely warms the room on a February afternoon.
Grabbing a broom from the hearth, she brushed several chickens out the doorway with a flourish. "They create such dust!" she complained, settling back in to stitching her low-neck smock.
Nicole Pisaniello, a domestic skills interpreter from Chesterfield County, describes how Alice spent months alone while her husband was back in England to make money for the family; or how Proctor, known to be a scrappy woman, was once brought to court, accused of killing a pig that belonged to someone else.
On March 24, Henricus will recreate the 1622 Virginia Indian Offensive that followed Powhatan's death almost 400 years ago. Pisaniello will challenge visitors that day to experience what it is like to spend three weeks as a single woman defending her home from Indian raids.
Outside, the free-roaming chickens scattered again as Terry Marr, carpenter and blacksmith, swung an axe to make firewood for the ever-burning fires. Marr explained that no one is exactly sure where the original buildings were.
He pointed to the Dutch Gap, once just a trench dug across the isthmus by the first settlers using a technique Hale had learned while in service to the Dutch army.
In 1864, Gen. Benjamin "Beast" Butler's Army of the James finally opened the cut at the bend of the river with a canal dug in 144 days with the labor and lives of United States Colored Troops. Their work secured a safer, shorter route up the James River for federal naval forces.
"We have a theory from studying the maps from that time," Marr explained. "We think this bluff is at least 5 feet higher than the old maps show. It is possible that Butler's troops deposited the fill from digging that canal and raised the elevation of this site during the Civil War, covering the remains of the original Henricus."
What native, settler, heron, duck, salamander, pickerel weed - and even power plant - share is the need for a spot of ground to claim as home. At Dutch Gap and at Henricus, visitors can see and feel how the land has been worked on, fought over, farmed and developed during successive waves of human endeavors and nature's perseverance.
Leslie Middleton is executive director of the Rivanna River Basin Commission, which develops policy recommendations for resource management within the watershed.
Dutch Gap Conservation Area
Dutch Gap Conservation Area is located at 411 Coxendale Road, Chester, VA 23836.
The area is open 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. Admission is free.
The 4.5-mile Dutch Gap Trail is a multiuse trail open for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
The 2.5-mile Lagoon Water Trail allows paddlers to experience the tidal waters of the James River.
Primitive camping for organized groups is $3/person/night.
For details about Dutch Gap, contact Mark Battista at 804-318-8735 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, visit www.chesterfield.gov/Parks.aspx?id=6442454866.
Henricus Historical Park
Henricus Historical Park is located at 251 Henricus Park Road, Chester, VA 23836.
The park is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and two weeks in January.
Admission is $8 for adults and $6 per child. Ages 2 and younger, and members, are free.
For information, call 804-748-1613, visit www.henricus.org or e-mail email@example.com.
Henricus offers multi- curricular, Standards of Learning-aligned programs for grades Pre-K-12, including age-appropriate, hands-on, team-building activities.
For program reservations or information, call 804-318-8797 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming programs at Henricus Historical Park include:
Anniversary of the 1622 Virginia Indian Offensive: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 24. The program, which is presented in the first-person, relates the hardships of the English at Henricus after the attacks of Powhatan leader Opechancanough. An evening candlelight tour is scheduled 6-7 p.m.
Pocahontas, Rocke Hall & the Powhatan People: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 28. The life of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Indians is re-enacted in the time that Pocahontas was brought to Henricus. The admission fee is $8/adult and $6 /child. Members are free. To learn about other Chesapeake Bay Gateways sites, visit www.baygateways.net.