The Great Return: Day 6, Lynchburg to Pettyjohn Island
August 15, 2014. Day Six, Friday. Lynchburg to Pettyjohn Island
The day started off well, in fact, it couldn’t have been better. Beautiful weather, lush green grass under our feet, fog hovering over the river and flathead catfish smoking over the fire. After our daily camp coffee and breakfast bar we consumed a treat before departing downriver ... smoked flathead catfish. Yeah, it could not have been better!
Sitting around the campfire the night before, we studied the maps and the only challenge of the day was a rough class II rapid called Joshua Falls. There were no towns or stores within walking distance from the James this day so we had a full day of paddling and fishing ahead of us.
Joshua Falls took a while to get to and we slithered through the class II rapid like an American eel working it’s way downstream through the rocks and rapids, heading towards the ocean to spawn. Piece of cake! Three miles later we arrived in an area called Galt’s Mill.
The river ran deep in between ledges and shallow riffles which made for great bass fishing. Galts Mill was spectacular; and was the scene of my favorite moment of the entire trip. The interaction I had with the natural world at Galts Mill was unforgettable and it wasn’t catching a big bass or flipping a rock finding a family of madtoms beneath it. Neither an eagle, nor osprey, screech owl or green heron was a part of this memory.
We were engulfed in the hilly area of Galt’s Mill, paddling along when two otters rolled on the surface right next to the Tripper on the port side. I did a double take and looked down about five feet away where five medium sized, young otters suddenly popped up in a perfect row at the exact same time. One, two, three, four … FIVE! The identical otters, lined up in a row, gazed directly at me, and I swear at that moment, their dark inquisitive eyes got a little bigger at the same time mine did! Just as they appeared, they were gone ... slipping back down below the surface, synchronized for a perfect exit at the EXACT same moment. Within seconds of them disappearing, one otter shot back up, then back down. Three seconds later two river otters popped up only to retreat again, descending below the surface at the exact same moment. This went on for a minute or two … always appearing and disappearing at the same time. It was awesome.
Eventually they left our company. Once safely away, they began barking and continued on their merry way. It was an incredible moment with nature and seeing the curiosity in the eyes of those otters was something I will remember forever.
We paddled on and on and agreed it would be nice to find a campsite a little earlier than later and enjoy the beautiful weather and fishing. To our surprise, there were no spots to camp. There were no open shorelines, or sandy areas. The only open areas were full of river rocks too big for comfortable camping … so we continued to paddle and search mile after mile without success. I pulled out the map and saw we were approaching a mile long island on river left called Pettyjohn Island. There must be camping there we agreed.
Once we arrived at the head of Pettyjohn Island, we slowed down and increased our search, looking at every nook, cranny and small islet. Nothing. We approached the end of Pettyjohn and discussed how often the ends of the islands were sandy and we should certainly find a suitable place for camping at the end of Pettyjohn island. The island ended with steep, muddy banks and deep water all along the lower end with a narrow, shallow stream flowing into the main river from the backside of the island.
There was a large open space at the end of the island but the banks were too muddy and steep … about six feet high all around making camping there questionable at best. We stopped and thought about giving it a shot, loading our gear up the steep bank. While quietly deep in thought, I noticed the perfect little sandy beach just past the narrow stream that came into the river, making Pettyjohn Island an island. I said, “Hey Warren” and pointed to the beach. “Oh Yeah!” Warren exclaimed, “We are camping right over there.” I agreed whole-heartedly. It was one of our best campsites yet.
I set up my tent within a few feet of the river while Warren chose a spot under a huge sycamore tree about twenty feet away from the river’s edge. The campsite was complete … chairs were in place, a small fire was going, and tents were set up so I went fishing. It was beautiful there. We were camping on the outside edge, at the beginning of a horseshoe bend, where the river flowed to our left and curved around, out of sight. The other side of the river was a steep, narrow mountain on the inside of the bend and seemed like a haven for fishermen and hunters. The shoreline was steep and seemed to shoot straight up for about 500 feet or more.
I fished the deep water around the campsite for a short time then worked my way upriver to Pettyjohn Island, less than a hundred feet away. A narrow creek broke off and ran around the backside of the island. It was swift and shallow, running over hundreds of thousands of pebbles. I waded and fished the shallow water quite a ways and the river never got more than a foot deep. It didn't take long to realize fishing was not good in this area so I made my way back to the main river channel and the deep water.
While fishing near the base of Pettyjohn Island, I heard a pickup truck pull up and park in the open area at the end of the Island. Two young guys jumped out of their truck, loaded a small johnboat with their fishing gear and slid it down the muddy embankment. I nodded to them as they shoved off for some Friday night catfishing. I remember those days, fishing on Friday night after a long week of work. The excitement of arriving and the prospects of fishing deep into the night and the fish that were to be caught. The stories of catfish bigger than Volkswagens below the dams and the ones that had gotten away. I could feel their excitement.
I finished fishing and sat down in my chair next to the campfire. Warren and I watched as the two young men paddled up the deep, slow flowing James towards their catfish hole. The fire crackled, the sun set and nature was all around us ... It was perfect out. The stars were bright and if we counted them we would still be counting, perhaps close to a million by now as the faint outline of the Milky Way shot across the sky out of sight. I heard a screech owl again and mentioned how much I enjoyed their call. While listening to the screech owl off in the distance, the faint sounds of monster pickup trucks were in the distance. They drew closer. And closer. There were two or perhaps three or four, we couldn’t tell. All of the sudden the engine noises grew to new heights and the headlights of the large trucks shined brightly through the trees as they too pulled into the open space at the end of Pettyjohn Island. Our perfect, serene surroundings suddenly changed.
Pettyjohn Island became the hottest party scene in all of Amherst County in a matter of minutes.
Within moments of the trucks stopping a crowd of young folks jumped out and began their Friday night blow out. Within five minutes there was a bonfire going. The flames were twenty feet high and the thick black smoke rose up over the tree line and crossed to the other side if the James in the light west winds. Most likely the result of old truck tires, gasoline and a match. Before Warren and I even said two words to each other their party was in full swing and the fire rolling.
I said to Warren, "It's Friday night and these kids will probably burn out around midnight." I was dead wrong … we were in for a long night of little sleep as they went full-on until 5am!
About 20 minutes after the first wave of monster trucks arrived, another one pulled in and the yelling escalated. We couldn’t here a single sentence, but occasionally heard a word clearly enough to understand it. EVERY person on that island was yelling at the top of their lungs. It was crazy over there. It got worse and it wasn't the yelling or the environmentally unfriendly bonfire. In fact it wasn't the trucks starting up and engines roaring while four wheeling around the island at high RPMs.
It was gunfire!
A couple of minutes after the last truck arrived gunfire rang out. BANG! BANG! BANG, BANG-BANG! Who knows which way they were pointing those guns, but it was unsettling. Shots echoed throughout the valley and bullets were flying ... But where? The two poor fellows catfishing in the Jon boat kept lighting up a small flashlight to alert the shooters where they were. I put my hands over my head, covering myself like an umbrella like it would stop a bullet should they have been shooting straight up. There must have been thirty shots initially, then a flurry of gunfire would break out every hour or so. I remember at 3am the gunfire was heavy, and then it quieted down a bit. A couple of trucks left and the few partygoers who stayed went swimming.
Just before 5am the fire burned out, the swimmers dried off and they called it a night, or morning. I laid in my tent thinking, "Finally!" NOT! One of the drivers must have had a bit of a buzz as one of the trucks got stuck, lodged in somewhere close to the party spot. That truck roared it's engine at redline RMPs over and over. No luck for either of us. Other trucks would leave then come back undoubtedly bringing in something to try and help dislodge their buddy. After burning numerous gallons of gas, spinning tires, the truck broke free and the last two truck faded away into silence. Ahh, the peace and quiet of sunrise ... finally! It was 5:55am.