Thursday, August 30, 2007

August 30, 2007

#56 A River Runs Through It:
Paddling the Rivanna from Darden Towe Park through Woolen Mills after the dam removal

Saturday morning. The first day free of humidity in a week. Also, the first day I get to travel by boat through the old Woolen Mills dam site just three days after the breach on August 15. Today, there will be no slow slog through impounded water behind the dam; no heart-stopping worries that I am getting too close to the 9 foot drop; and no portage through poison ivy over rough concrete to get around the dam to safe water below.

Even so, it’s an unlikely day to paddle. While there have been near-perfect conditions for dismantling the dam and assessing the structural results, the water level is not really optimum for a canoe trip. It is somewhere around 50 or 60 cfs, a seasonal low reflective of our drought conditions. Hopeful, I glance quickly at the water as we drive over Free Bridge. It’s shallow, for sure, and I see the usual rock outcroppings upstream that are evident in low water.

In the last several years, I have not paddled this stretch of the river very much, in large part due to the long and lifeless pool behind the dam and my perception that the river is too urbanized for enjoyment. So I am surprised, when we first shove off from the boat ramp at Darden Towe Park, how quickly we are in another world altogether. The level of the river in almost any flow is well below the tops of the banks – and while this is an unfortunate and problematic result of poor land practices in previous centuries, I immediately feel that I am now down, in another world - the one of kingfisher, green heron, Canada goose. Joe-pie weed’s pale purple blossoms hang heavy over the bank amidst the late summer blooms of wing stem, boneset, asters and goldenrod. As it turns out, the river is shallow, but quite passable, and we wend our way through outcrops of dark basalt and Cotoctan greenstone.

Suddenly, a head pops up ten feet away. I see brown, small eyes, whiskers, before it slides back down into the ripple of pondweed. We still our canoe and wait. When the animal comes up for another look, we recognize a small river otter who continues to forage amongst the weed for slow-moving fish and mussels on the bottom. We glide into the cool echoing expanse under the Free Bridge on down to the sandbar bend below Pantops.

We watch for the signs of where the drowned river started and is now finally exposed. It’s tricky, for last night’s rain left a bathtub wash of mud along the bowl of what was the impoundment. Slick banks of mud not yet claimed by vegetation and the absence of trees and shrubs are our clues as we can see where the river has dropped three, four, five feet and more as we descend along the length of what was a pool behind the dam. A green heron flaps up with a start, its crest raised in black alarm. And we too are surprised when we round the bend to see the startlingly sight of a river strewn with rocks and pools that have not been uncovered for 175 years. No longer punctuated by the horizontal drop that was the dam, the river disappears in the distance in a soft bend with Brown’s Mountain in the distance high above. Pockets of coarse sand have filled the crevasses in the black rock, ridged across the river here where the Southwest Mountains are cut by the Rivanna, and the work is still underway.

Now the going is not exactly smooth – we try to find and follow the channel as the water drops over small ledges and around sand bars. Occasionally, we run aground and have to sling a leg over the side of the canoe for a quick push. We’re not alone in our discovery this morning: a dozen blue-winged teal alight in a soft flush of wings from a downstream pool. Fly fisherman standing mid-river are casting into new territory, gently kissing the water with their lures. From time to time, we hear the sounds of runners and bike riders and the voices strollers along the Riverview Trail on our right and on the Old Mill Trail to our left.

Our arrival at the site of the old dam is somewhat anticlimactic. There’s still rubble to be removed and the water is so low that we cannot actually paddle through the twenty-foot wide channel. But it’s a good cool wade to shore, where we haul our boat up onto a grassy spot on Market Street and depart on foot back up to our car at Darden Towe.

And this, it turns out, is the best part of our canoe trip. As pedestrians along Riverview Park, we have a view, intermittently through the trees, of clear, slow flowing river. And despite the fact that the current is low, we hear the river, dropping from rock to pool on its way downstream. I don’t know the song it would sing, this river now undammed. But I know that my heart feels lighter, not just for the sweet river time that I have just had this Saturday morning, but also for the new freedom for this stretch of the Rivanna River. It’s a very good feeling.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The 2007 Rivanna River Clean-up starts at 10 a.m on Saturday, August 25. The rain date will be on Sunday, August 26. Contact Garnett Mellen at 975-0224 or to volunteer on the ground. Contact Phyllis White at 984-5678 or 242-5893 or to volunteer by boat. The event is hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District and the Rivanna Conservation Society.

“The Rivanna Rambler” airs weekly from 11:55 am-noon on WTJU 91.1 and is produced and recorded by Leslie Middleton. This episode (#55) originally aired on August 23, 2007.

To hear this podcast, click here.

Rivanna River Cleanup

As I prepared to leave the house this morning, I heard the rough scrape of shovels against the pavement as the City Public Works crew got to work cleaning our street after the welcome rain washed dirt and debris down the hill towards the storm drains in front of our house. Later in the morning, I returned to see shrubbery and weeds trimmed back from the curb to make way for the street cleaning apparatus. As I went back inside, I could hear the grind and swish of the sweeper. sucking the muck out of the gutters and away from the drains where it would go in the next downpour if not removed. And from the storm drains, it’s a short ride to the nearest tributary or stream, and then the Rivanna River. We often think of stormwater carrying sediment and yard and street chemicals to our waterways – but there’s plenty of trash and garbage that also comes along for the ride.

I have to admit that it takes a certain kind of mindset to keep one’s attention on matters of trash and litter. The refuse of our lives is, by definition, that which we refuse. That which we no longer want or need. And that which we would just as soon have out of sight and out of mind. This includes the woody debris that collects on my street fallen from trees overhead as well as the plastic bottles and bags, fast food wrappers, and other miscellaneous items that settle on the landscape. Many of us have the benefit of city or county services that help with the removal of this solid waste.

The river, however, does not -- and the accumulation of litter along our waterways and byways is the most visible form of pollution most of us encounter in our everyday lives. And we’ve come a long way in understanding its effects since the 1950’s when the litterbug became part of the national lexicon. Back then, it was all about civic pride and community aesthetics, and even today, millions of dollars are spent annually in the pursuit of clean parks, beaches, and roads. But after over fifty years of living in the plastics generation, we also know that much of the litter we see today does not degrade; that it can pose hazards to wildlife; and it can contain or be composed of chemicals whose slow release adds to the toxic load into our groundwater and rivers. With the advent of ever finer tools of measurement, we have learned that micro particles that result from the slow degradation of manufactured and raw source plastics -- are ingested by the tiniest of organisms – zooplankton – and through the food chain, make their way into the very tissues of fish, birds, and marine mammals.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed in the face of the vastness of the problem. But we have an opportunity this coming weekend to pitch in and help. The 2007 Rivanna River Clean-up is happening this Saturday, August 25. The Cleanup will bring teams of helpers, young and old, by boat and on foot, to select places on the Rivanna that are in need of a clean sweep.

The event is being hosted jointly by the Rivanna Conservation Society and the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District and starts at 10 a.m. at various sites, including Reas Ford Road, Riverview Park, and the boat landings at Milton and Palmyra.

The Rivanna River Clean-up is part of a Virginia-wide network of events coordinated by Clean VA Waterways, the Virginia program aligned with the International Coastal Cleanup which has hosting mid-September beach cleaning events since 1986. This long-standing program has yielded not only a whole lot of trash, but a whole lot of information about trash and our habits of disposal. Like the Rivanna clean-up this Saturday, hundreds of events from late August through October coordinate teams from schools, churches, community organizations, families, and businesses in the task of cleaning up after ourselves and our neighbors in and along the waterways.

Participating in a river or beach clean-up is immensely satisfying – the results are immediate and visible. And it gets us thinking about our own habits of consumption and disposal. This is the beauty and importance of these volunteer clean-up efforts. I’m glad the City of Charlottesville works to keep the debris of stormwater from entering our river. But those plastic bags draped in tree limbs along the river and the soda bottles poking out from weeds on muddy banks have become litter, and thus belong to no one and to everyone. Drawing from another 50s slogan, let’s keep the Rivanna beautiful, and clean.

© 2007 Leslie Middleton