October 4, 2011. It occurred to me recently that I should reiterate the story of Jefferson's Reach, a section of the James River that runs from the Richmond Yacht Basin, to Deep Bottom Boat Landing ... a little over five miles of river. With a little more detail, here is the story ...
The James River is full of life, history, and opportunities including the opportunity to forge a special friendship. In the summer of 2009 through December of 2010 I was honored with a brief but powerful friendship with Danny Jefferson. Danny was a Chickahominy Indian, and a respected man of their Tribal Council and very active in the community.
Danny was direct, very observant, and was the kind of guy that would teach you things when you didn't even know you were learning. Something I will never forget ... the evening of December 12. He called and said, "I saw you grow on the water this past year, I just wanted you to know that. I saw you grow with my own eyes." The next day, Danny walked on December 13, 2010.
He taught me a lot about bald eagles, but that evening after we talked, I realized he taught me a few things about life along the way. Now he will forever be a part of who I am becoming on the river as he has become a spiritual river guide for me. Because of this deep connection, I wanted to find a way to honor Danny on the River. Something deep and spiritual because that was the kind of guy he was.
It took a few weeks, but an idea came to me and I found a way to honor Danny Jefferson in my work on the river. People ask where I run my eagle tours and I respond, "On the James River between Deep Bottom Boat Landing and the Richmond Yacht Basin." It's about a five-mile stretch, half of which is in the parts of two oxbows (Jones Neck and Hatcher Island) and the other half is the main river that connects them. In that "reach" of river five pair of resident bald eagles have their nests, which are the eagles I follow most of the time.
This is the area Danny 'reached' out to me and the lucky folks we carried out on the river on the Discovery Barge II.
I believe naming natural things gets you closer to them; it helps them become more familiar. The stretch of the James River between Deep Bottom and the Richmond Yacht Basin is where Danny and I worked together and it now has a name ... 'Jefferson's Reach' ... named after a Chickahominy Indian man who reached out to many on the river.
Now when people ask where I work, I can say more than the James River, I can say, "Jefferson's Reach." Or when beginning a history or bald eagle tour, I can start by letting people know they are in Jefferson's Reach. What a perfect segue into talking about history, eagles, and Virginia Indians. -- Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories? Top Right: This is an image that reminded me of Danny and the great history of the James River. You can go back as far in time as you wish in this image. The sunrise has not changed in eons. This image was taken from the Richmond Yacht Basin, just outside of my boat slip. This is the upriver end, or the beginning of Jefferson's Reach. --Photo by Capt. Mike
Bottom Left: This is the necklace Danny made and presented to me on the Discovery Barge II. He gave it to me after one of our Capt. John Smith Watertrail Tours. The necklace is made of bones, beads, copper, sinew, wampum and the centerpiece is a scute from an Atlantic Sturgeon. The rattail at the top is Danny's signature. To learn more about Atlantic Sturgeon (and the local work being done for them), click here. To learn more about the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, click here. --Made by Danny Jefferson
By mid-June the eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach fledge, or fly for the first time. I saw the eaglets of three other pair flying around by mid-June. While viewing Varina & Enon in mid-June of this year, I saw an immature bird fly out from the tree line, over the river, and quickly headed back over the tree line, out of sight. That was the only sighting of their eaglet for almost three months.
-- Capt. Mike
The Photo's Stories? Top Left & Top Right: Just about the moment we were realizing the bird we were viewing was Varina & Enon's eaglet, John Lewis started to photograph her. Here are two wonderful images of Liberty. Enjoy. -- Photos by John Lewis. To see more of John's work, click here.
Bottom Left: A three quarter moon in the background glows in the early evening sun as Varina, the proud parent of Liberty, perches high on the branch of dead tree. Notice how she is facing southwest, but she turned for the photo. Good girl. -- Photo by Lynda Richardson. To see more of Lynda's work, click here.
September 6, 2011. Hurricane Irene did quite a bit of damage to eagle’s nests on the tidal James River, knocking many of them completely out of the trees. I spoke with Dr. Bryan Watts from the Center For Conservation Biology at William & Mary, who is a leading bald eagle researcher. He said a recent aerial review of eagle nests in the lower James River showed a high number were blown down, especially around the Hopewell area. The territorial, resident, eagles will more than likely rebuild close to where their nests were, but time will tell.
August 19, 2011. Phenomenon is not the right word, but it's close. An event has taken place on the James River for eons, and over the last couple of years has regained a lot of attention. Beginning in late August and lasting into October, one of the oldest fish species in the world returns to the James River, while in almost all of their historic habitats, there are none returning or present. Universities and federal government agencies are paying close attention to this, and so am I.
Of course, we are talking about Atlantic Sturgeon.
Sturgeon in the James River have a long history ... more than we will ever know. Over 400 years ago, during early colonial days sturgeon were caught and eaten, saving some colonists from starvation. At that time, these fish grew to 14 feet or more, and weighed over 800 pounds. Once established as a food source, catch rates kept climbing and overfishing lasted into the 1890's, when the harvest peaked. By 1900 the population crashed and continued to decline because of pollution and habitat destruction.
But today they are noticeably back. In fact they are back right now and in the process of possibly spawning (researchers are trying to find out if, in fact, they are spawning this time of year. Historically they have been springtime spawners). While they are in the river, sturgeon offer incredible visual acrobatics, called "breaching" When a sturgeon breaches it rockets out of the water, leaping into the air and then crashing down on its side, back into the river. You generally hear more than you see, but with a slow cruise along certain parts of the river your chances are pretty good you will see one or two. When you see a sturgeon breach, it looks like a 10 foot section of telephone pole comes out of the river and is dropped on it's side from 15 feet in the air.
There are plenty of theories why sturgeon breach, but scientists don't really know why the do it. But they do know one thing ... when a sturgeon breaches .... it's amazing. Smaller than their historic sizes, Atlantic sturgeon today can grow to nine feet and weigh over 300 pounds. Most fish are males in the five to six foot range, and weigh around 100 pounds.
Like bald eagles, this species has given researchers, and river lovers something to talk about and investigate. There is a great amount of research going on up and down the East Coast on sturgeon and Matt Balazik, a biologist and sturgeon researcher, from Virginia Commonwealth University, continues to be a leader in this field. He recently began his late summer/fall river work with Atlantic Sturgeon and will now spend many days a week out on the James, from the City of Richmond well down below Hopewell searching for and capturing as many as possible, to weigh, tag and release. VCU has been a leader in getting research dollars funneled towards restoration of Atlantic Sturgeon on the James River.
For a short time, Discover The James will offer Sturgeon & Eagle Tours on every bald eagle tour taken. There is about a mile stretch of river in Jefferson's Reach that Atlantic Stureon have been populating during this possible spawning season. Why are they there? Well there are theories, and I have one that Matt shared with me, but you'll have to come out on the boat to find out. --Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories? Top Right: Here Matt Balazik is holding one of the biggest Atlantic sturgeon he'd ever seen. More than likely this is a female because of her size. Estimated at over 300 pounds and more than seven feet long, this sturgeon was released safely back into the James to continue on her way. Photo credit: VCU/Center for Environmental Studies.
Bottom Left: August 18, 2011 ... the first sturgeon capture of the late summer/fall season. I spoke with Matt soon after this first fish was caught and he mentioned that two of the sturgeon he had caught and tagged last year have been recorded passing by Jamestown, verified returns to the James River. This data is received via a combination of a tag on the fish, a receiver on a channel marker buoy in the river, and this data transferred via satellite in real time. Good stuff. Photo credit: VCU/Center for Environmental Studies.
For more into on VCU's Atlantic Sturgeon Research, click here.
For a short story on one of the most interesting events I have ever seen on the James, click here.