The James has been on my bucket list of places to snorkel for 4 years, after I read a piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about snorkeling the James. People interviewed in the story commented on clear water, abundant fish, and they likened the James to a reef – the same language I use when describing river snorkeling. They mentioned regularly seeing huge 20 – 40 pound cats and even named one of them the General, an 80 pound flathead. Flatheads aren’t native to the James, but that didn’t matter. I wanted to see one of these monsters. The notoriety of being in a large city newspaper, promises of clear water and big cats made me want to snorkel here for years. I got the opportunity recently while returning from a trip to North Carolina. I figured I’d take a small detour and jump in.
The wind blew hard down the length of the river towards the Chesapeake, and while the thermometer read 40, the winds drove that down below freezing. A flock of ruddy ducks fly a few feet up the rapid, dive under water and surface a dozen feet downstream fly back upstream and repeat. I wanted to see these birds underwater, but they were too far out in bigger water for me to make it to them without getting swept downstream.
The water is cloudy. Algae covers everything and traps bubbles of sediment. It turns the bottom into a golden fleece shag that waves and undulates in the strong current and reminds me of the fur on a golden retriever. I didn’t see much more than this algal mat, and the rounded rocky architecture of the pony pasture rapids.
Based on my one visit today, the James is impaired. There were no fish, and I only saw a single snail that plowed a trail through the algae and sediment. While the amber fur was attractive, I knew it was a sign of poor water quality, kind of the way rainbows on the water’s surface are captivatingly beautiful, until it’s realized they are the result of oil spills.
But I have a heart for urban and impaired waters. I think beauty can be found in every stream, and the life there is amazing and deserves our care and protection. I look forward to a restored James, and I’m fairly certain that the James in July looks different than the James in January. I’ll keep this spot on my bucket list to return someday in a different season, under less impaired conditions, but I’m thankful for today’s exploration, and the remaining promise of big cats in clear water.