At 6:30 on a summer morning, Pat Calvert sends his fly in a gentle arc over the river's surface pockmarked by the tracks of thousands of tiny water striders.
Scarcely a quarter mile from the boat launch at Crofton, where Virginia Route 600 crosses the Rivanna River, the only sound is the pileated woodpecker crying out from the understory.
An immature bald eagle heads downstream. A family of river otters slips behind slick wet logs fetched up on the bottom near the right bank. The Rivanna here is flanked by forest and field and inhabited by beaver, turtles, redbreast sunfish and river chub. Calvert might find a smallmouth bass in that dark shadow where the sycamore leans out from the bank.
Calvert knows the river well. Before becoming the Upper James Riverkeeper a few months ago, his job was to provide on-the-water educational experiences for local students, and he floated the Rivanna many times as an educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Since 2003 and the official establishment of the Rivanna River Water Trail, the river has become more accessible to other local citizens and tourists. Many were simply not aware of the urban jewel flowing through Charlottesville, nor the near-wilderness experience to be had between Charlottesville and Columbia where the Rivanna meets the James 40 miles downriver.
The Rivanna River has a history that belies the stillness of this morning. This history, as much as the opportunities for fishing and recreational boating, made it a perfect candidate to become one of the first water trails in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network.
Bob Campbell, program manager of the network for the National Park Service, recalls the early days of the program when water trails were relatively new.
"We placed a lot of emphasis on developing maps and guides," he remembered. A necessary ingredient then, as now, was the presence of a group to act as official caretakers of the water trail.
Enter the Rivanna Conservation Society, founded in 1991 by a small band of paddlers from Fluvanna County who were concerned about the river that had defined so much of the region's history. During its first decade, the RCS was pretty much a Fluvanna group. But in the late 1990s, the group's attention moved upstream at precisely the same time that the Gateways program was promoting water trails to connect communities with the Chesapeake Bay and their local rivers.
As Campbell put it, "The most recognizable Bay-related resource for most people in our Bay watershed is their local river system."
So RCS secured a Gateways grant in 2001 and set about making a water trail for the river. The irony of this is not lost on Tim SanJule, who was largely responsible for overseeing the job from 2001 to 2003. "The Rivanna has basically always been a water trail," SanJule said. "From the earliest days, before the Europeans showed up here, it was simply the easiest way to get from point A to point B. Surface waters essentially defined the territories of these early peoples."
"Now," SanJule said, "the Rivanna River Water Trail is a way to help people have a relationship with the river that generally we are no longer connected to. You have to do the river with your own two arms in a canoe or kayak."
Motorized craft aren't a practical or safe way to handle the river's occasional Class Iâ€“II rapids or the bottom-dragging flows during a dry summer spell. But for SanJule, this is positive, because it requires that paddlers get intimate with the river.
Having designed the water trail's foldout map, SanJule is quick to credit his map-making forebears, the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society. Dedicated to preserving "Virginia's rich inland waterways heritage in all its fascinating aspects," the VCNS published the first Rivanna Scenic River Atlas in 1992. The atlas provides a mile-by-mile description of artifacts located from the earliest days of navigation on the river accompanied by detailed drawings of the old locks, canals and dams that once defined the Rivanna.
Back when the Gateways program was launched a dozen years ago, "We realized," Campbell said, "that different people bring different kinds of initial interest, but given the opportunity, we can help increase understanding and raise awareness of the resources."
So, while one person might be attracted to the Rivanna because of the historic structures along the river, another might be looking for a canoe trip that can be combined with education for students.
According to Robbi Savage, executive director of the RCS, the water trail's kiosks are a great way to introduce people to the Rivanna and the water trail. Originally placed at the four main access points along the Rivanna - Darden Towe Park, Milton, Crofton and Palmyra - the simple wooden structures hold information about the water trail and activities such as river cleanups hosted by the RCS and its partners.
In early 2010, two additional kiosks were added to the system. One is located at the new river access point at Riverview Park. The other, a quarter mile downstream on the river's opposite bank, interprets the cut stone remains of the Woolen Mills dam, which the RCS deconstructed in 2008.
The water trail map also provides valuable information on everything from trip planning and river safety to carefully selected information on the flora and fauna that paddlers might encounter. Historic structures and other sites of interest are marked on the map and on the riverbank with corresponding blue fiber-reinforced flexible markers.
Dan Mahon, Greenways and Blueways coordinator for Albemarle County, said the water trail's map "introduced many to the river. It was durable and showed the historical, natural and cultural character of the river. The kiosks installed by RCS at access points have established a presence and an invitation to the river."
This may seem odd for a river that flows past a city, but consider that this river had been largely ignored by most in growing Charlottesville. It was no longer an important transportation corridor, and in 1964, the last remaining river-powered mill shut down.
If one floats the Rivanna on a slow summer morning one can glimpse the river's past â€” remnants of old wing dams: rocks placed in piles at an angle to the river bank, creating a deeper, fast flowing channel for boats laden with tobacco headed for markets down in Richmond. These were the precursors to more sophisticated crib dams, and eventually the cut stone dams, culverts and millraces.
Peter Jefferson built the first known mill at Shadwell in the early 1700s. His son, Thomas, grew up along the river here before he settled upriver and established Monticello overlooking the Rivanna. As a young man, Thomas secured the first monies for the navigational improvement of the Rivanna. By the 1870s, the Rivanna had become a series of impoundments controlled by dams, with locks and canals used to bypass the river for the passage of goods and people upriver and downriver.
Traversing the length of the water trail, paddlers can see the remains of several major dam and lock structures, two canal towpath systems and a number of old mill sites.
One of the best preserved is Palmyra Mill, built in 1813. It was the hub of the growing village of Palmyra, now the county seat and part of the Fluvanna Courthouse National Historic Register District.
The Rivanna truly has a little something for everyone: a short whitewater hop from Charlottesville to Shadwell, to longer, flatter sections suitable for a lazy float down the river with family and friends.
"I love these sections" Savage said, "because they are easy and provide a lovely, peaceful float trip that I can share with my friends and grandkids."
That sounds like a nice - and important - escape for any one wanting the renewal that comes with a few hours of river time.
Rivanna River Resources
- Downloadable versions of the Rivanna River Water Trail Map
- Rivanna Conservation Society
- Rivanna River Watershed
- "Mr. Jefferson's River" by Minnie Lee McGehee & William Trout III, is available from the Fluvanna Historical Society
- U.S. Geological Survey flow gauges for the Rivanna
- Fluvanna Heritage Trail Foundation
- Chesapeake Bay Gateways & Water Trails