Interview: Frits van der Leeden

My second river-side interview was with Frits van der Leeden.  He came and met us at the Locher Tract in the National Forest, where we had pulled off the James for the afternoon.  The Locher Tract sits across the river from Natural Bridge and Glasgow, in the very southern tip of Rockbridge County, Frits' home county.  I had not yet met Frits, but had come across his name  several months back as I searched in my local library for books about Virginia's water resources.  Two reference books popped up with his name as author - the Water Atlas of Virginia and the Environmental Almanac of Virginia.  I thought, this is definitely someone I should meet.

As we walked along the trails at the Locher Tract, Frits told me about his experiences as a geologist, first in the petroleum industry, then for 26 years as a hydrogeologist with a very large consulting firm.  He traveled all over the world, mostly to arid regions to help foreign governments and corporations develop access to water.  When he and his wife retired to Rockbridge County, he said,"I've got to do something instead of staring out of the windows."  So, he continued his scientific exploration by researching and writing about water and other environmental resources of Virginia.  For the Environmental Almanac of Virginia, Frits poured through maps, charts, scientific studies and other references dispersed throughout the vaults of different state agencies, searching for statistics on the state's water resources, solid waste production, pollution, natural disasters, wildlife, and more.  After compiling and boiling down the technical jargon, he ended up with a reference book that regular students and adults could understand. No one had ever before compiled a comprehensive reference about Virginia's environment.  The same can be said for his Water Atlas of Virginia.  I can only hope I am half that productive in retirement!

It didn't take long after moving to Rockbridge County for his expertise as a hydrogeologist to be requested.  When a coal-burning power plant was proposed to be built in Buena Vista, he was asked to helped fight against it.  Frits' scientific inquiries and testimonies in court brought to light that there would not be enough water to supply the cooling plant, which helped to defeat the proposal. "I was really proud of that," he said. Frits remains active in issues of local preservation and resource protection with his fellow members of the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council.

Frits also recently completed a book about floods in Rockbridge County.  When I asked him about his findings from that research, he said, "Whenever we get three inches of rain, we get flooding in Rockbridge County."  Earlier this week in fact, flash floods roared in the streams right here in this part of the county, closing schools and requiring firefighters to evacuate several people from their homes.  According to some caught in the flood, it was the worse flooding since the mid-1990s (WSLS 10 news channel).  For valleys with the worst flooding impact on homes, he explained that the County has a program to help people move out of the flood zone to avoid recurring damages and safety risks.  I imagine that many communities around the state would benefit from a program like this, especially as this type of extreme weather becomes more common.

Before heading back home, I asked Frits which waterway he would take a friend to visit if he had never before been to Virginia.  Unhesitatingly, he said the Chesapeake Bay.  Hmm...I think I'll go there, then.


Interview: Jay Gilliam

During our first couple of days of canoeing down the James, I had a chance to meet with two gentlemen who have helped Virginians understand the wealth and health of their waterways.  The first was Jay Gilliam who drove down from his home in Rockbridge County to meet us at the boat ramp in Buchanan.  He was very kind to take us out for dinner at the North Star restaurant on Rt. 11, which hit the spot after a day on the river.

I remember Jay from when I was in middle school in nearby Augusta County. He would take schoolkids out to look for critters in a stream bed and introduced me to the concept of using the types and number of aquatic insects to measure the stream's health.  What I didn't pay attention to at the time is that Jay had a great deal to do with establishing and coordinating the Virginia Save Our Streams program.  This program, run through the Izaak Walton League, enables anyone with an interest in his or her local waterways to get out in the water and take part in monitoring the biological integrity of those streams.
Jay spent a decade as coordinator and trainer for Virginia SOS and is still active as a volunteer monitor in his part of Rockbridge County. The trainings he conducted during those ten years took him to rivers and streams in 75 different counties throughout Virginia, in all the major river basins of the state.  You can see why I didn't want to miss a chance to meet up with Jay.

After offering dessert (which I took him up on), Jay said, "I still think the Upper James is my favorite." But a close second right up there in his personal list of best waterways in the state is those of Southwest Virginia. "I just really enjoyed getting to know the people and the rivers. It's an amazingly biologically rich part of the state...You put a net in the stream and you come up with twice the amount of organisms down there as you would find anywhere else in the whole state," he exclaimed.  He told us about the time he found a hellbender salamander the size of an iguana in Copper Creek in Russell County, and he reflected on people's sense of humor and hardiness in that part of the state.  Jay explained how he became interested in stream monitoring, about the "magical" partnership among non-profits, private companies, and governmental agencies that helped propel citizen water quality monitoring in the 1990s, and the political changes that have occurred since then. We talked until the place cleared out just before dark, then Jay drove us back to the riverbank to camp.

P.S. Check back later for audio of this and other interviews

Day 9: James River, Eagle Rock to Buchanan

How does that old saying go?…When life gives you lemons make lemonade? When walking makes your achilles tendons swell up and yell at you, start paddling instead. Yesterday we developed a plan B, officially called Operation Lemonade. To give my heels some time to recover from rubbing shoes or whatever the heck is aggravating them, over the next week Ryan and I will canoe down the James River from our current location of Buchanan.

We will paddle through the gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Glasgow, through Lynchburg (with many portages) and likely re-assess around Scottsville in the Piedmont. I am happy to report that Operation Lemonade has been squeezed out beautifully so far! With the help of Ryan’s extremely helpful and well-geared family, a canoe and other necessary paddling accoutrements were gathered up then picked up by Pat Calvert (Upper James Riverkeeper) this morning for our previously planned paddle trip with him today. HUGE help! Then with the help of John and Dan at Twin Rivers Outfitters (, the three of us were shuttled up to Eagle Rock to paddle down the swift waters of the James River back here to Buchanan.

It was a great day to be on the water and hear about Pat’s role as a Riverkeeper with the James River Association. Pat's position is a unique one, as his goal is to serve as the "eyes, ears, and voice" of the James River. He gets out on the water to, in a sense, patrol the waterways for dumping, fish kills, egregious erosion problems and other activities that need attention or correction. He also gets plenty of indoor time (probably more than he likes) going to meetings to develop policies that make it it harder for people to pollute, or programs that help others become personally involved in safeguarding the river. For example, the James River Association's River Rats are interested citizens who help Pat do his job. They check on their section of main stem river or tributary at least three times a year to report any signs of problems, in addition to taking on a restoration project of their own making. For those of you in the James River watershed who like the idea of helping to keep an eye on the river, take a look at JRA's website at! In the meantime, Ryan and I will let you know what we find out there on the river over the next few days.

John of Twin River Outfitters giving us a shuttle while chatting about
river issues with Pat Calvert the Upper James River Keeper

Putting in at Eagle Rock Boat Launch