- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2006

ON THE CHICKAHOMINY AND JAMES RIVERS, Va. - Ospreys and turkey vultures soar above cypress trees as kayaks glide on the water, passing by herons scouting for fish and fiddler crabs scurrying along a narrow strip of shoreline.

Bill Portlock, senior educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, stops paddling on the Chickahominy River to point out arrow arum, wild rice, rose mallow and other plants growing in a tidal freshwater marsh, much as they did when Capt. John Smith explored the region in the early 17th century.

Virginia recently released travel maps for Capt. John Smith’s Trail, a boat and auto tour along the James River that follows Smith’s travels in the first segment of what authorities hope will become a national water trail.

The Chickahominy flows into the James in Southeast Virginia.

The Virginia trail was developed in time for the 400th-anniversary commemoration of the 1607 founding of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement.

The route includes Jamestown, plantations, parks and museums and places where Indians lived thousands of years before the English arrived.

State tourism and conservation officials tout the trail as “a great way for boaters and motorists to discover the beauty of Virginia that inspired John Smith.”

Virginia is fortunate that there are areas along the James that have not been overly developed, even though they are private property, said Randolph Turner, director of the Northern Regional Preservation Office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

He contributed to a book about Smith’s voyages on the Chesapeake Bay.

One of the best spots to get a feel for what the landscape looked like in 1607 is at the confluence of the Chickahominy and James rivers, Mr. Turner said.

“If you want to understand Virginia 400 years ago, you have to get out on the water because that was the principal means of transportation,” he said.

“Obviously, as you go up and down the James River, or portions of the Chickahominy River, you’re going to see development that wasn’t there at that point in time. But in general terms you’ll get a very, very good overview of what Virginia was like during that time period.”

The trail also is a good tool for teaching people about the environment and how pollution has hurt the ecosystem since Smith’s day, when the waters of the James were still clear, Mr. Portlock said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation works to restore the Bay and its tributaries.

The trail “will get people outside. They’ll begin to care and want to know more, and then they’ll become more active in the process of trying to get improvements in the environment,” Mr. Portlock said during a summer excursion on the Chickahominy and the James.

Members of the Chickahominy Tribe’s board said Virginia Indians have other reasons for supporting the trail, including getting their story told, raising awareness that the rivers once were dotted with Indian settlements and perhaps helping them in their push for federal recognition, which could entitle them to financial aid.

“Our ancestors traveled these rivers long before the Colonists got here,” said Reggie Stewart of Chester in an interview at Chickahominy Riverfront Park.

While the powerful chief Powhatan had the allegiance of most Algonquians in Virginia’s coastal plain, the Chickahominy Indians were independent. They befriended the English settlers, trading with Smith in the fall of 1607.

That December, Smith set off to explore the Chickahominy River when he was captured by Indians and eventually taken to Powhatan. Legend has it that Powhatan spared Smith’s life at the behest of the chief’s daughter Pocahontas.

Last year, President Bush signed legislation authorizing the National Park Service to study the feasibility of establishing the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail in Virginia, Delaware and Maryland.

The proposed trail would be a circuit of the Chesapeake Bay, with river extensions, combining the routes of Smith’s two major voyages around the Bay in 1608, and other river explorations.

A young bald eagle perches on a branch over an undeveloped stretch of the Chickahominy River in James City County.

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