Through Dragon Run State Forest

Dave, stashing his bike behind some trees in the state forest.
June 11 -- Dave Hirschman, who I work with in Charlottesville, was able to join me on my trek to see Dragon Run on the Middle Peninsula.  Lucky for him, it was the hottest day so far.  As I made my way from King and Queen Courthouse, Dave figured out how to shuttle his car to our destination point, then bike back towards me, then stash his bike in the woods, and then walk along with me. It’s a good thing Dave is smart – it would have taken me a while to figure that one out!

Dave walking down dirt road through Dragon Run State Forest.

"Asbestos Waste Disposal Area - Do not create dust."  Yikes.
It was nice to catch up with Dave and have some company, especially for the dirt road section through Dragon Run State Forest which could have been a little spooky alone. According to a Virginia Department of Forestry website, the separate chunks of land west of Dragon Run that make up the state forest add up to over 9500 acres. We walked Route 602 which goes through the heart of the forest and didn’t come across anyone except a couple fox hunters rounding up their hound dogs from an adjacent hunt club property. They told us to watch out for big tractor trailers bringing in trash from far off places like New Jersey and New York to the local landfill. Though we must have been on a different route from the trucks, we did eventually see the growing dirt mound peaking over the trees in the distance.  We learned later that the relatively new King and Queen County landfill is allowed to build up to over 430 feet high, which it may be already in places. Unfortunately, it is also sits within the watershed of Dragon Run, currently one of the cleanest waterways in the state, and will undoubtedly leak some day.
The scene after a prescribed burn in Dragon Run State Forest.

Dave and I arrived at the “Clay Tract,” an inconspicuous parcel of land owned by the Middle Peninsula Public Access Authority.  I had asked for permission to camp here since nearly all the land in the Dragon Run area is either private or State Forest, where camping is prohibited. We walked into the gated parcel in search for the swamp that I had heard so much about. There it was, way back in the woods and down in a gully - lush and swampy and full of bald cypress...with birds and dragon flies there to greet us. The next day I would have a chance to ask all my questions about the stream to Teta Kain, Queen of the Dragon.

I finally set my eyes on Dragon Run Swamp at the Clay Tract.

To the Mattaponi River

Winter wheat ready to harvest
June 8 -- It is a vast scene of quiet fields walking between the Pamunkey Indian Reservation and the Mattaponi Indian Reservation. The quiet was only broken by the occasional car and combine harvesting the winter wheat. It took me half a day to walk the ten miles through King William County between the two rivers that join downstream of here to form the York.

Cohoke Mill Creek - not King William Reservoir any more.

For a lunch break, I snuck down into the dense wooded floodplain of Cohoke Mill Creek to get out of the hot sun.  If you have been reading newspapers in Virginia in the past few years, you likely have heard about the fight over the King William Reservoir.  For over twenty years, the City of Newport News tried to get permits to build a dam on this creek and pump water from the Mattaponi River over to it.  Had their effort succeeded, I'm guessing my lunch spot would have been under many feet of water. Environmentalists, the Indian tribes, and others concerned about the ecological and historical/archeological impacts of the dam fought against the creation of the reservoir until after 22 years, Newport News finally threw in the towel in 2009.

Jim Hall's store in Rose Garden, VA.
Cashier seasoning fresh steamed crabs at Jim Hall's store.
I've been thankful for small stores on back roads that have managed to hold on.  Before reaching the Mattaponi River, I came across Jim Hall's store where I took another break out of the sun.   In the half hour I was there, three customers came in to buy fresh steamed blue crabs turned orange, which the cashier seasoned on the spot with her home-made version of Old Bay.  I asked her where the crabs came from.  Fresh from the York River this morning, she said, since it's still too early in the summer (not enough salt water) for crabs to come up into the Mattaponi. 

I reached the cluster of homes of the Mattaponi Reservation, looking for a phone to use. After knocking on some doors without any luck, I finally found a nice woman coming home from work who lent me her phone and offered me a soda.  I called up Dawn and Randy Shank who were waiting for my call to get across the river.  Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the pier in their john boat and I jumped in, thanking the nice lady for the help.  Off we went down the broad and beautiful Mattaponi.
View of the Mattaponi River from the Indian Reservation.

Randy Shank toting me across the Mattaponi to their house.

Dawn and Randy are very active members of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers Association (MPRA), a group that works to protect the rivers and inform folks in the area about their ecology and history.  Among other roles, Dawn and Randy work on many of the volunteer group's educational activities, such as their River Camp for kids in August and paddle trips down the rivers.  On this particular weekend, Dawn was headed to the town of Walkerton to set up the MPRA "kids tent" at the Wine and Arts Festival on the banks of the Mattaponi River. Since I was a day ahead of schedule on my walk, I decided to come along and help out. We spent Saturday morning with kiddos, making fish prints with paint on paper and trying to convince them to wear the paper mache fish costume.  Some kids didn't need too much convincing. 

Giving kids something fishy to do at the Wine and Arts Festival.
Dawn was an art teacher in a former life - can you tell
Dawn and her "River Girls" exploring Garnett's Creek.
And I didn't need too much convincing when Dawn and Randy offered for me to stay at their house an extra night.  Their grown up daughter and niece and their families came over for a cookout and playing down in the river.  It was a great time with some wonderful folks!  I also had a chance to hear about some of the work that Dawn and Randy did before their busy retirement.  Dawn Shank worked with Soil and Water Conservation Districts across the state, helped start the Virginia Envirothon competition a couple decades ago which high schoolers still participate in, and helped teachers wrap lessons about watersheds and water quality into their curriculum.  Randy Shank had a long career with the Virginia Tech Extension Service, helping to find solutions to pollution problems such as how to reduce nutrient runoff from golf courses, institutional properties, and other heavy users of fertilizer. He now helps lead the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Bay Academy, what sounds like an incredible immersion program for school teachers in the summers to learn watershed-related lessons to share with their students.

On Sunday morning (June  I said goodbye to the Shanks and walked toward King and Queen Courthouse, a little further downstream. An unexpected encounter broke up my pace during this stretch of walking. An old man in a pickup truck drove by me very slowly, several times while I talked on the phone. I guess he decided that this person walking down a country road instead of driving was something way too weird, because about half an hour later a sheriff's car pulls up.  The officer said they'd gotten a call about a suspicious individual and he needed to check my ID.  We stopped on the side of the road, he asked me questions and I told him I was probably more worried about that old guy than he should have been of me. Must have been the way I was looking at those rows and rows of corn that made me look dangerous, huh? In some ways, I was surprised that I had managed to go over 300 miles without a cop stopping to ask me questions.  But, I didn't expect it to happen on a quiet back road in King and Queen County.  Must have been a slow crime day.

I spent the evening at a campground on the river and got an early start the next morning to walk toward the mysterious Dragon Run.

Sunrise on the Mattaponi River.

Dock at Rainbow Acres Campground.

Fishing pole someone set up overnight, waiting to be checked.