Discovery Along the James
By Anne Poarch
What winter snow isn’t cheered by the appearance of little birds? Snowballs of soft feathers, puffed out like Christmas ornaments, wait under the protective boughs of a boxwood bush for a turn at the feeder. Tiny feet tap across birdbaths laced with ice, pecking for a drop of melted water. These are the birds we watch from our windows. We wrap our shoulders in sweaters or sit bundled in a blanket, hands wrapped around warm mugs of honeyed tea or hot cocoa. Last January, juncos, chickadees, cardinals, sparrows, even a downy woodpecker and a couple of bluebirds graced my feeders and found refuge in my trees. How they survive the cold is just another of God’s winter miracles. These are the ones who stay, or perhaps they have flown in from the north, happy to weather a few snowy days for the promise of the early worm and softened ground this far south.
For the prothonotary warbler we are the north, and Virginia, a summer home. Once known as the golden swamp warbler, this neo-tropical songbird is the subject of intense study at the VCU Rice Rivers Center in Charles City County. Making their nests in tree cavities, this delicate yellow fairy migrates to breeding grounds in the the eastern US in the summer and looks for lowland forests close to the water for nesting. Thanks to a project started in 1987 by VCU biology faculty Charles and Leann Blem, more than 600 nesting boxes have been installed in freshwater regions of the James River, raising more than 26,000 prothonotary warblers and helping make Virginia one of the few states with a growing number of this species. Efforts like these by VCU researchers and volunteers represent the kind of leadership that has turned the lower James River into a global network of areas noted for their outstanding value to bird conservation, designating this beautiful and historic area of Virginia as an “Important Bird Area” or IBA.
This designation is something I touch on during bicycle excursions I lead along the newly completed Virginia Capital Trail, a multi-use, paved trail that spans fifty-two miles, connecting Jamestown and Richmond, parallel to the James River. Last winter I started BASKET & BIKE, a bicycle tour business with a unique goal of connecting people to each other and our natural world through handcrafted excursions and picnic rides. Founding this business after twenty-plus years in the financial services industry is as much about the beauty and healing powers of God’s natural world as it is about cycling.
Starting a business rooted in story and possibility has given me the opportunity to think about discovery and exploration, and to share the story of Virginia's land and the James River on our Signature Tour: A Journey Along the James. During our two-and-a-half hours biking the Virginia Capital Trail, guests ride comfortable bicycles outfitted with stylish baskets, holding our signature snack and hear stories of our collective history. Biking fourteen miles along the Virginia Capital Trail, riders learn how science is making a difference at the Rice Rivers Center, where we make a stop, listening for the sounds of nature, and learning how environmental science is being practiced right along the banks of the James River. We end with lunch and a wine tasting at the newly opened Upper Shirley Vineyards, relishing Chef Carlisle Bannister’s elevated southern favorites on the expansive veranda fronting the James River. The view from the veranda is a rest for weary eyes, settling across the peaceful James on the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, where in 2006 VCU Rice Rivers Center was recognized as an important entity within the newly formed IBA.
Many have asked how I came up with the idea for this new company that is more lifestyle than bicycle tour, more about discovery than logging miles. This past October the liaison committee of the Science Museum of Virginia invited me to speak to their group about Basket & Bike—as a creator, an entrepreneur, and a business owner. As I thought about the best way to deliver my message I turned to my journal, and to that spark that so often finds place on my pages, for inspiration. Here follows some of what I shared with the committee.
Science, to me, is how we understand our world—all that’s in it, how all the pieces fit together, our place in the wider cosmos. It’s about asking questions, searching for answers and then sharing with each other what we’ve learned. It’s a journey, really, because we’ll always have more questions to answer, more knowledge to share. We’ll always have more to learn.
My bike opened new worlds to me—new places to discover, so much to learn. And, as I pedaled my way across each little journey, there was so much I wanted to share. I believed others would want to come along for the ride. And, since it’s all about discovery, the basket seemed somehow important to me. It’s a symbol of the things we take with us—a snack, some cold water, a journal and pen, a scarf—as well as the things we might bring home—a pinecone from a roadside picnic stop at the edge of the forest on a summer’s day, a clutch of colorful leaves in autumn, a book about life on a Virginia plantation four centuries ago on the James. A scallop shell, the Chesapecten Jeffersonius—our state fossil (did you know we had one?), the size of a dinner plate, found by the shore.
Basket & Bike is a chance for recreation, exercise and good times with friends. It’s also something more. It’s a new way of looking at the beauty around us. A new way of looking at the history that shaped our Commonwealth and our nation, and a new way of looking at ourselves.
Rolling along quietly at twelve miles per hour, you see things you might miss from the car. The laughter of children playing in the schoolyard, a bevy of wild turkeys picking at a freshly cut field of corn, perhaps a great blue heron arcing across the sky with the grace of eternity beneath her wings. Our minds are made to ask questions, and to probe for understanding and thought.
Our hearts, though, long to touch places that speak to us as people. To gain the insights of the soul, feel the rain on our parka, the wind in our hair and the sunshine across our face. We want to be out there, don’t we? We want to glide deeper into beauty and awe. That, to me, is what Basket & Bike is all about.
It’s about reaching a little deeper into the landscape, becoming a bit closer to this place we call home, traveling that great journey of discovery that has the power to enrich our lives, riding through our shared history, savoring the now and connecting us through a courage to build the future together.
As winter snows find me snuggled at home, watching the birds as they flicker in the snow, I’ll be thinking about where their wings might take them come spring, and where yours will take you when you travel with me on our next, Journey Along the James.
For more information on Anne's bicycle tours, visit www.basketandbike.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviving the Sturgeon
While dinosaurs are known to be extinct, a prehistoric monster still swims in the winding waters of the James River. Threatened, and decreasing in numbers, the Atlantic Sturgeon remains one of the oldest fish still living in North America, with a lifespan ranging up to sixty years. Over the past few decades, circumstances have been working against this historic fish. In the Virginia area, over-fishing, habitat alteration, and pollution have all been factors working together to diminish the sturgeon population in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. The fish’s size, ranging up to 14 feet in length and 800 pounds, make it a hefty prize for ambitious fishermen, but the environmental and historic impact of its extinction would be significant.
As it takes quite a long time for the fish to repopulate (with a lengthy spawning interval of every one to five years), the sturgeon’s numbers have been on decline since the 1800s. The decline escalated until February 2012, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service listed the fish as an endangered species. However, this claim did little to assist in the revitalization of the species, as the only management done was restricting the parameters of catching these sturgeons.
Like much of Virginia, the sturgeon has a unique history of its own. Its abundance in the James River during the colonial settlement gained it the title of the “founding fish” of Jamestown. Because the settlers were familiar with the sturgeon species that lived in the Thames River in England, they were equipped with the knowledge on how to catch and cook the sturgeon, and this knowledge allowed the colonists to survive, especially during the period known as “The Starving Time” in 1609-10. The settlers also documented that the sturgeon was culturally significant to the local Native American tribes of that time. As a rite of passage to manhood, the young men of the local tribes would hold onto the backs of sturgeon and ride.
So what can we do to stay the disappearance of the sturgeon population in Virginia’s waterways? Thankfully, a Richmond group is willing to fight for the revival of Virginia’s founding fish. The Envision the James Project invites communities and individuals to help sustain and improve the natural quality of the James River and its surroundings. Through its efforts, this organization has partnered with researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University to revitalize the population of the sturgeon in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. These research activities include tracking the sturgeon’s moving patterns, the restoration of spawning and nursery habitats, as well as the in-depth research of threats to sturgeon mortality.
Alongside these scientific efforts, the sturgeon’s situation has sparked artistic activism as well. A cement wall at Cary and Robinson streets in Richmond, displays the work of local artists who have spoken out about Virginia’s ecological issues. Brightly colors maps and info graphics pop out of the cement, speaking statistical facts on the James River’s and Virginia Watershed’s environmental qualities. Most striking is the massive and detailed painting of an Atlantic Sturgeon, bold and loud, with the caption “SURVIVOR.” In much smaller letters reads the sentence, “VA stopped fishing prehistoric sturgeon in 1974,” highlighting the state’s efforts to assist in the protection of the fish.
So what can we do to help the sturgeon’s rebirth in the James? The Envision the James project seems to be the most inclusive project anyone seeking to assist in this project. By becoming a member of this community, opportunities for learning more about the many efforts of restoring the James become available, as well as being able to connect with the many people already out in the field. To join in the fight for sturgeon revival, and take part in your environmental community, visit the Envision the James project online at http://www.envisionthejames.org/join. pl
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