Friday, January 18, 2008

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

#68 Old Mill Trail below Pantops is for Everyone

December 13, 2007

The Rivanna at Pantops shows modest buffer in the summertime. Old Mill Trail starts at the bridge on the county side. Photo credit: Hank Hellman

It is an early December afternoon, unseasonably warm. The slant of sun at two o’clock conveys the certain message that within a couple of hours, the sun will fall off the edge of the earth, leaving us in the cold and darkness of another winter night. I am on the County side of the river, below Pantops, on the Old Mill Trail, named with a nod to the grain mills that once lined this stretch of the Rivanna in the 17 and early 1800’s. When completed, it will terminate at Milton, but here it is a wide “Class A” trail, suitable for wheelchairs, bikes, and older folks who need a firm and clear footing.

The path has been bush-hogged clear of excess brush and bramble, and a thin layer of rock-duct paving shows boot prints and various scuff marks left behind by human and non-human travelers along the river corridor. Here and there, semi-translucent tree tubes, four feet high and staked in place, reveal where young cedars and oak trees have been planted to help restore what was removed to make way for the trail.

This swath of green is what is called a “riparian buffer” … “riparian” for river; buffer for the fact that it is a protective transition zone between civilization and the river in its normal flow within its banks. The river’s buffer is often the same as its floodplain, as it ishere, a broad expanse of sand deposited in the slow curve of the river. Federal and state regulations and county code all protect this buffer and ensure that there is little or no disturbance in what is called the floodplain overlay district.

But recreational uses are allowed, and there’s no keeping out the animals. Every hundred yards or so, placed neatly at the edge of the path, is a desiccated clump of scat, full of berries, left behind by fox or raccoon.

And everywhere, the sign of beaver … here, a series of tree stumps scraped to points like pencils, ragged with teeth marks and accompanied by piles of fresh wood chips on the ground. There are some random scrapes in the rock dust, where a beaver has pulled the trunk across the walking path towards the river making its own trail through bramble and woods and eventually to a steep earthen slide down to the water. One unlucky animal was forced to leave its quarry behind, the trunk left dangling a foot off the ground gripped by thorny greenbrier and bittersweet.

Apartment complexes have sprouted up all along the hillside overlooking the river in this part of the county, but today there is no one on the trail, so as I cross the simple bridges that ford the creeks flowing into the Rivanna along this stretch, I am left to a quiet that is punctuated only now and again by the sounds of hikers on the other side of the river at Riverview Park and the faint gush of the river itself tumbling on down towards the Bay.

Well before I reach the remains of the Woolen Mills dam, I turn back, watching for more signs. Bicycle tracks weaving figure eights in the soft gravel. A series long lines and crooked hieroglyphics dug into the rock dust have me mystified until I come upon a perfect circle, made by a kid – or young at heart – with a stick and the desire to leave a mark. Against a tree, there’s a stack of trash bags bulging with soda cans, fast food wrappers, plastic toys, leftover from a river clean-up, I suppose.

Though the urban trail system along the river is relatively tame, it still touches some deep and primal places within, where I can exercise my tracking sense, however dim and unskilled it may be, and where I can watch each season fold ever so gracefully into the next.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

#67 An Extension of Rivanna State Scenic River Designation?

December 6, 2007

There’s a move afoot to extend Scenic River designation up past Woolen Mills– and the Department of Conservation and Recreation wants to see this stretch of the Rivanna from Charlottesville up to the South Fork Reservoir as part of a preliminary study. It seemed prudent to see if the low river water levels would permit such a trip, so a couple of weeks ago, we took an exploratory trip down the Rivanna.

State Scenic River designation was enacted in the early 1970s to provide a measure of protection for the rivers of Virginia. Minnie Lee and Harry McGehee from Fluvanna were largely responsible for establishing the Rivanna between Charlottesville and the James River as the first state scenic river in 1973. In 1988, the Moormans was also designated. Of the 505 designated miles in Virginia, the Rivanna now has 51 scenic river miles.

Scenic river designation constitutes official recognition of the river’s natural, scenic, historic, and recreational values. The designation doesn’t allow the state to control local land use – but does allow the locality to utilize the designation positively, and makes it more difficult to build dams along the given stretch.

We set up our shuttle, leaving one car at Riverview Park, and launch at the Route 29 bridge a half mile below the reservoir. We are pleasantly surprised that there seems to be enough water to paddle. Soon, the hum of Route 29 is in the distance, and we’re making our way past the SOCA fields on the left and Carrsbrook on the right. Within minutes, our first bald eagle of the day flies overhead and lands on a snag about 500 yards downstream. We float towards it, getting within 100 feet before it stretches its wings, drops slightly to gain lift and heads back upstream.

Both of us are scrambling to capture the bird on camera, but I am in conflict: should I go for the picture? Or trust my mind’s eye to capture the image that will reside along with all my other senses and build the sighting of this bird into a memory? The wind chill on our backs, with the noonday sun over the stern, low on its trajectory towards the shortest day. The canoe swinging under me in the slight current that draws us closer. My cold fingers blindly fumbling for my camera while I keep an eye on the bird as my heart accelerates. The browns and grays of trees on the bank. The leaves sailing down from tulip trees and sycamores onto the surface of the water.

Greedy, I try for the photo –– and the result is predictable: a large moving bird in a small frame against a clear blue sky that could be anywhere. I am left to wonder: what did I miss as I scrambled for the photo? I might have missed the shadow as the bird with wingspan of a fathom or more made its crossing to the other side above me. I might have missed clearly seeing its yellow legs, or its hooked beak, or the mud on its white breast, or the gleam in its eye. We paddle on – and not five minutes later, I see an immature bald, its dark plumage blending into the shadow on the bank. This time, I do not attempt a photo.

Sightings of bald eagles are common on the Rivanna – they are getting ready to nest this time of year, so perhaps our eagles today were part of the shuffle of territory. I have seen enough of the "scenic " to last me the rest of the four hours of paddling down to Charlottesville – and I have claimed on photo my record of the bald eagle sighting. Though I support the scenic river extension, I am struck by the irony of our human need to capture memories, name places, and protect with awkward, but necessary, means the places that are special to us – and simply home to the wild things.