Journey to the James: 812 Miles on the Intracoastal Waterway

June 19, 2012.  The last month has been just a blur. Between the Fishing Trips, Eagle Tours, Bald Eagles of the James Photography Exhibition, grant writing, and the recent weeklong pontoon boat ride up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), it really is just a blur.  

The trip up the ICW was interesting.  I volunteered to assist in taking the new James River Association boat over 800 miles through wondrous waterways all the way to Jordan Point on the James River.  I thought it would be a relaxing, refreshing trip and I’d have time to write.... didn't happen.  Thankfully I took lots of notes so getting in some quality details to remain forever etched into the vaults of the Internet is still a possibility. Turns out the only time I turned on my computer was to charge my phone (that is a whole story in itself ... the charging of phones!)

We started out with an all night drive to Ferdinanda Beach, Florida, where we were to launch the 44-foot pontoon boat named the JRA.  Shortly after meeting the delivery driver, who had the JRA on a massive trailer, we eased her back into the water for the first time, at exactly 9:36am on May 25, 2012.  As soon as the boat’s stern hit the water, an Atlantic Sturgeon breached in the middle of the channel.  I took that as a very positive sign for this boat.  Perhaps that is why I never had the first thought of doubt or worry on this trip, even with the newly formed tropical storm that happened to chase up all the way to Virginia.  Once the boat was underway and making way, Chuck Frederickson and Scott Williams piloted the boat back to the Amelia Island Marina, meeting the rest of us to gas up and pack for our journey to the James.  The Fellowship of the Barge began. While waiting for the JRA to arrive back at the dock, I started to fish and caught a nice puppy drum, which we ate for dinner that night, along with a few smaller fish.

With no sleep on Thursday night and running all day on Friday until late, we were all somewhat sleep deprived.  That first night, we finally settled on an anchorage location in a creek just near Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast. 

Day two we plodded away north.  One of the highlights was seeing breaching Atlantic sturgeon in the South Edisto River. By the middle of day two, things were becoming fairly routine.  Chuck would start the engines and we’d pull anchor sometime between 5:15 and 5:30am.  Underway and making way.  About 6:45 I’d take over and run until 8:30.  Then Gabe would take over, and we would routinely switch out every hour or two.  Not much down time for fun and fishing, but on occasion we would stop for ice, food or gas.  Some of those stoppages were pretty memorable, especially the little shacks with gas along the ICW that had fresh seafood.  Always love looking at fresh seafood, but I also had to catch fish too, after all, I was the fishmonger for the trip.  Many of the stops provided about 10 minutes of fishing and I could usually catch a bluefish, spot or croaker.  Sometimes, only crabs were taking the bait.  On the third day we stopped in Charleston.  Ahh, Charleston Harbor.

The trip was incredible, but what made it even more so, was the fact we were trying to outrun Tropical Storm Beryl by the end of day two.  For the most part, we were ok, but Beryl’s winds caught us in Charleston Harbor.  We took on a lot of water that day, with one of two memorable waves hitting us early on in the crossing of Charleston Harbor.

(Click here to go to a short video of the waves we encountered on Charleston Harbor.  I didn't video tape the one wave that made us realize we finally were in the thick of the winds from Beryl, but it's a pretty stout see we were in for well over an hour -- Nice job getting us through it Capt. Chuck!

Capt. Chuck was at the helm, keeping the boat and it’s passengers safe.  It was on that day that I realized Capt. Chuck was a great Captain and a heck of a James Riverkeeper, although he did recently retire from that job.  Speaking of Chuck, it was during these six days I realized what a special man he really is and I look forward to working with him in the future.

Day three was pretty interesting.  Most of the trip was scenic, but we hit a dry spell in South Carolina.  A wide, non-descript, muddy river was our route for a good portion of the morning.  As we crossed a bay where a few rivers met, our route up the ICW took us under a long bridge.  I thought to myself, “I sure hope we get to some scenic skinny water soon.”  Once we crossed beneath the bridge, we were in the mouth of the Waccamaw River.  WOW, did things change. 

The Waccamaw started out with Cyprus trees along the bank about every 200 yards or so with thick forest about 400 or 500 yards off the bank.  The further upriver we traveled, the canopy of the forest closed in and the Cyprus trees grew closer together.  It was not long before we were in the midst of the thickest, greenest ecosystem yet.  There were so many frogs chirping at night, bats, dragonflies and insect-eating birds that a mosquito, thankfully, didn’t have a chance.  No one was bit, not once, all evening, night or morning.  It was the perfect, mosquitoless anchorage in Bull Creek, a tributary off of the Waccamaw … a true retreat for the well bitten. 

Day four brought us into North Carolina.  It was the first time I was able to get out of the boat and fish.  We stopped at Dick Bay in NC along the southern outer banks.  Beautiful country to say the least.  I ended up catching about 15 blues, spot, croaker, pinfish and sand perch.  I gutted them all, and scaled them, cooking them whole for dinner.  Along with a little shrimp, onions and a little seasoning, these 15 provided a fine meal.  The highlight of the cooking of these smaller fish was this … when you fry up little fish like that, whole, their eyes pop out and enter into the mix.  Everyone ate just about every bit, including 30 fish eyeballs.  No one complained. 

After a brief stop in Beaufort, we headed off towards the Alligator River and the Albemarle Sound, where the second of the two memorable waves hit us.  With following seas and opposite current, the waves started to build about half way across this massive Sound.  Gabe did a fine job at the helm, and the one wave that hit us, I happened to get a shot off the camera.  The last one my trusty Canon G-9 may have ever taken.

Day five was wet.  It started out at 4:3-5:00am with mosquitos hitting everyone.  The winds died down, and the mosquitos worked their way to our boat.  It was tough, so we started off about 5am, underway and making way.  We saw storms working all around us.  For days, we danced with tropical storm Beryl, but today, her rains caught up with us. Nothing but rain from about 6:30am, in a tributary on the northside of the Albemarle Sound, all the way into Virginia and into Smithfield Station, VA. At 3pm we arrived in Smithfield, soaking wet.  Everyone grabbed a hotel room, a hot shower and a wonderful meal.  At 11:30, with warm beds in a hotel room, we decided to leave the boat, as that is where we were hanging out all evening … somehow could not break away from her.  It was a good time, no doubt.

Day six we left Smithfield, VA.  It didn’t take too long to get into familiar territory, but it was very interesting seeing how wide the James River is in Newport News and Surry.  It was my first trip up the James River from the mouth towards Jordan Point.  We stopped a couple of miles short of our destination to toast the trip, the crew and the boat.  We toasted to future opportunities on the James River, and toasted to a fine journey’s end.  The toast was right at the 808-mile marker on the trip.  By the time we entered the safe harbor of Jordan Point we reached 812 miles, but more importantly, a bald eagle flew over the boat as we reached our destination.  We began with a sturgeon leaping and ended with an eagle flyover.  Good stuff.

--Capt. Mike

The Photo's Stories:  Top right:  Calm seas and a rising sun. That is how every morning started out.  This looks like it was taken somewhere in South Carolina, perhaps in the Waccamaw River. 

Middle right:  Capt. Chuck Fredericson at the helm during the calmest of seas.  Beautiful evening that was.

Lower left.  The wave that hit us in Albemarle Sound.  It was to be the last photo my trusty Canon G-9 would take on the trip.  Gabe at the helm, and he did a materful job during the crossing of the Sound.  We just hit this one brute of a wave.