Crew Blog | Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau: Rowing on the Rappahannock

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Today we got a chance to literally go with the flow as we met up with a crew from the American Canoe Association (ACA) for a day of canoe paddling down the mighty Rappahannock River. Our hosts were part of a major restoration project of removing a dam 11 years ago in this river. Their passion for the health of this river led to the ultimate demolition of the 22-foot high hydroelectric dam. This made the Rappahannock River the longest free-flowing river in the 64,000 square mile (encompassing seven states) Chesapeake Bay watershed. This opened up hundreds of miles of river to migratory fish including American shad, hickory shad and blueback herring for the first time since 1854. Rivers are meant to flow for people and fish and birds and trees and everything else that enjoys this wonderful source of life. I could not help but think of our precious waters back home as we heard the story of the Rappahannock. It is so hard to convince big government and energy companies to take away something that has already been built for the sake of development. It was refreshing to hear a story where the people went to bat for nature and came out on top.  

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The sky is overcast as we get briefed by our guide, and the crew is excited to take part in this adventure which involves paddling downstream through a few rapids in replica dugout canoes. This place was once populated by the Powhatan people. I imagine them skillfully navigating these waters to find food, for enjoyment, for sport. Canoes can bridge the gap between man and nature no matter where you are in the world. We know this. They know this.

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We will paddle in pairs and some solo. The water is brown and cold. There are ospreys and eagles in the distance gracefully gliding over the river. The air is warm, and we quickly warm up as we put our energy into each stroke. Oak and cyprus trees look down upon us as families of red-bellied turtles relax along the riverbanks. The rapids are just exciting enough to give us that fix we miss back home so much: Waves. Moving water.

I look for different pathways between rocks and under overhanging trees. I experiment with standing up. These canoes are surprisingly stable, but I better play it safe as my canoe partner is 71 year old uncle Robbie, aka “Flash the Flying Squirrel.” I let him rest as much as he wants and am happy to put the pressure on my energy after a month of lots of eating and little exercise. Next thing I know we’re coming to a 3-foot drop off that runs into some boiling rapids. I watch our leader go first, followed by Maleko and Mikiala navigate it perfectly coming out unscathed. As we approach I regret not listening to the part about keeping the weight in the back. Robbie is about 40 pounds heavier than me and not the most balanced individual. But he did want me to steer. Here we go Robbie! My last dry sight is Robbie plunging into the churning white bubbles below me. We tip and I slide out the back seat, paddle in hand bouncing butt first off slippery boulders at the mercy of the river flow. I pop up and realize Robbie is stuck under the overturned canoe. My uncontrollable giggles turn into worry as I am helpless in the rapids and cannot move towards Robbie. He pops up and gasps for air with that classic wide-eyed worried look in his eyes. We drift into a shallow section and are able to get ourselves back into the canoe soaking wet with nothing but our pride hurt and our clothes soaked. Robbie is okay. We can laugh about it now. The rest of the way is smooth drifting. We had our excitement. The sun comes out and the cold, brown water turns out to be invigorating and refreshing. We tell everyone we meant to do that. It was getting too hot anyway. We make it back to base camp and a few of us make our way another mile down a rougher part of the river. I drop Robbie off to warm up next to the fire and dry off. I jump in the solo canoe for the next rapids. Our wa’a skills come in handy as Duane, Jason, myself and a few of the ACA guys navigate the windy rapids. The ACA guys are all impressed at how well we handle the river rapids. We humbly thank them for their lessons in river canoeing and sharing this unforgettable experience. I’m in awe of the beauty of all that this river encompasses. There is life and happiness here. We must take care of these places.


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