Trade in your coat for a swimsuit and your hand lotion for sunscreen—it’s finally time to come out of hibernation. We’ve compiled the best ways to take advantage of the warmer weather on the water: a kayak race down the Rivanna, fly-fishing for novices and, of course, a lazy river float. We’ll see you on the water.
A day at the races
Rivanna hosts paddlers in river regatta
By Erika Howsare
“We’ve got a beautiful recreational river right beside the town, but nobody knows it,” says Merrill Bishop. Back in 2005, the local canoe enthusiast was hoping to make the river more visible when he organized the first Rivanna River Regatta—a canoe and kayak race that, this year, will take place on May 12.
“Merrill has put in the vast majority of the legwork” to organize the regatta for the last 14 years,” says Dave Segars, a participant for most of those years. “He’s been the backbone and the sustainer of the race.” This year, Bishop is stepping back, and Segars and fellow racer Dave Dolak are taking over the lead on organizing the regatta.
As Bishop points out, even though the Rivanna wraps around the city of Charlottesville and borders some of our biggest parks, it doesn’t offer much public access—and the potential for paddling a canoe or kayak isn’t always obvious. Most folks have glimpsed the Rivanna from the bridge on 29 North, above Rio Road, where, as Bishop says, “It looks pretty docile.” The bridge is also the spot where racers will put in on regatta day. “What you don’t know,” says Bishop, “and what makes the fun of this race, is that there’s 11 sets of rapids downstream from that 29 bridge.” Even better, he says, two of those are rated as Class II or II-plus rapids—meaning they take a bit of skill to maneuver. Translation: The regatta is a chance to get acquainted with the Rivanna’s wilder side.
The race is 6.2 miles long and finishes at Darden Towe Park. “For a more casual paddler,” says Bishop, “it’s a two-hour trip.” Last year, winner Dolak covered the distance in just over 43 minutes (see page 41). But the regatta isn’t just for those, like Dolak, who do a lot of training; while early heats are meant for fast paddlers (mostly in kayaks), later start times cater to canoers and families who just want to experience the river.
“It’s a beautiful trip,” says Bishop. “You have deer come down to the water and look at you as if to say, ‘What the hell are you doing in my backyard?’ There are bald eagles in trees above you, and big herons sometimes standing in the water.” As long as you’re willing to paddle—as opposed to just floating—you can enter this race and finish within the allotted time, says Segars.
To further encourage beginners, Bishop and the other race organizers post skilled paddlers below the rapids to help anyone who gets in a jam. They also remove debris from the course a week or so ahead of time.
The river can connect paddlers not only to the landscape, Bishop says, but to local history as well. At one time, he says, the Rivanna was known as the North Fork of the James River, and it served as a highway for goods, including French wine purchased from abroad by Thomas Jefferson. Oceangoing vessels could bring the cargo through Norfolk and up the James River nearly to Richmond, where they’d be stopped by a major set of rapids. From that point, he says, “They would have to move all that stuff four or five miles by land to get above the rapids.” From there, bateaux would move the goods upstream to Charlottesville.
The Rivanna isn’t easy to get close to, but there are places where you can watch the regatta, and Bishop says it’s worth a look-see. “The kayak race really gets to be fantastic,” he says. “There were 10 seconds two years ago between the first- and second-place people. Last year Dolak beat Dave Segars by probably about four or five kayak lengths.” The two nurture a “friendly rivalry,” says Segars, that has taken some interesting turns. One year, they were paddling almost neck-and-neck when Dolak’s kayak tipped over. Segars stayed with him until he righted, though Dolak urged him to “go on and win.” Other paddlers caught up with the two stalled frontrunners, but they eventually took off again and regained their shared lead. “I did finish ahead,” says Segars. “He said there was no way he would pass me. It was kind of like kissing your sister, but I did win.”
Both Pen Park and Darden Towe Park are good places to glimpse the paddlers. “We encourage people to go into Pen Park and hike down and watch the racers from there,” says Bishop. “Also, the north end of Darden Towe Park is about a half-mile above the finish line. There is one tremendous rapids, 50 or 100 feet long, right there”—a tricky place for paddlers and a rewarding place to spectate as kayakers and canoers navigate a class I rapids in a narrow stretch of the river.
While the regatta’s first year brought only a couple of dozen racers, in recent years there have been more than 50, some coming from neighboring states. Last year, Bishop says, an 11-year-old girl completed the race on a paddleboard.
Bishop himself has owned a canoe since the 1960s and paddled some of Wisconsin’s whitewater rivers while living near Chicago. Though he’s stepped down as race organizer, he’s still enthusiastic about the thrill of running rapids and eager to spread the word about Charlottesville’s own river. “East of town, where the railroad trestle goes over the river,” he says, “you’ve got a whale of a run. You have to do some real fancy zigzags right under the trestle or you crash into rocks that are the size of a Volkswagen.”
Chatting with 2017 race winner Dave Dolak
By Caite White
Last year’s Rivanna River Regatta was one of those races where everything just came together, according to its winner, Dave Dolak. The water levels were high and the river was running fast.
“I covered those 6.2 river miles in 43 minutes and six seconds last year,” he says. “Beat my old record by more than three minutes.”
Dolak, who by day is a marketing consultant, has been paddling in our area for more than 25 years. In fact, it was a regular meet-up between him and local paddling icon Konrad Zeller (“to paddle, eat chicken wings, get caught up with each other and talk about life in general”) that sowed the seeds of the Cville Paddlers. We asked Dolak to tell us more about getting into kayaking, how he trains and what keeps him interested in the challenging sport.
How did you get started kayaking? How long have you been doing it?
It all started at a young age attending a summer camp outside of Ligonier, Pennsylvania. One of the activities at the camp was “waterfront,” which involved canoeing and kayaking on the camp’s lake. It was painful to have to start first in a rowboat and then progress to a canoe to prove proficiency before they’d let us paddle a kayak solo, but paddling a kayak was my ultimate goal on that lake that week. As soon as I did I was hooked for life. I must have been around 10 years old at the time, so I’ve been paddling 40 or so years.
Throughout my youth I did countless canoe and whitewater rafting trips with our Boy Scout troop and I always envied the guys and girls in the kayaks who’d pass us on the rivers. They were always going faster and always looked like they were having more fun, so I paddled a kayak as often as I could borrow or rent one since I didn’t own one yet myself.
What do you enjoy most about it?
In what seems a contradiction, I enjoy both the solitude and the people I meet. I enjoy unplugging and getting away from the rat race and other people for a few hours, yet also treasure the people I meet and friends I’ve made through the sport.
Most everyone you meet paddling is friendly and willing to do almost anything for a fellow paddler. Regardless of the type of paddling we do as individuals, we share a common bond when it comes to powering ourselves across lakes or down rivers.
The scenery is almost always beautiful. There is ample opportunity to observe undisturbed wildlife and the sense of peace and being one with nature is palpable. It’s a great way to relax and recharge while also getting great exercise.
How and when do you train?
I train year-round either on the water, on land or in the gym. Most of my on-water training takes place on the South Rivanna Reservoir. When I’m in town during the summer months I do a training run right after work on Wednesdays and then join the Rivanna River Paddlers group on my inbound/return leg of the workout.
Two years ago my paddling buddy and training partner, Dave Segars, and I started paddling the whole length of the Rivanna River to prepare ourselves for some of our longer races and ultra marathons. The Rivanna from Charlottesville to Columbia is about 44 miles. Last year we did that and added some miles of the James River to Cartersville and covered those 55 miles in just a little over eight hours.
Do you have any unorthodox training practices?
Several years ago I needed a solution for those times in the winter when the reservoir is frozen, so I designed and built myself an indoor kayak ergometer out of an old NordicTrack ski machine. When the water is frozen, I just paddle in my basement. Much to my surprise, the device found somewhat of a global cult following on YouTube and I’ve built a few more of these devices for friends and, now in a strange twist due to popular demand, offer a “how to” video teaching people how to build their own.
Paddleboarding is a whole-body experience
By Samantha Baars
It’s not as hard as it looks, says Rivanna River Company co-owner Gabe Silver. But it’s not that easy, either.
“Falling off just ends up being fun and refreshing, particularly on a hot day,” he says, because it’s not unusual for people to take a spill while stand-up paddling over rapids on the Rivanna River.
Silver and his wife, Sonya, launched the Rivanna River Company in 2016 with about 10 stand-up paddleboards that patrons could rent and take elsewhere, or sign up for a two-hour instructional session and guided trip down the river.
Last year, they started partnering with a local fitness instructor to teach a 90-minute core workout class on the boards. The outdoorsman says first-time paddlers are often surprised by how steady, stable and natural the sport feels.
“It tends to be really fun and engaging, and not as scary or challenging or threatening as people might think,” he adds. “People of all backgrounds and fitness levels really end up having fun.”
Folks at the Rivanna River Company have found that the activity gives paddle sports a new avenue—or waterway, if you will.
“For one, it draws in new, enthusiastic participants to water sports,” Silver says. “And two, if you’ve been running the river in a canoe or kayak for a long time, you get on a paddleboard and try to stand up through some of those rapids and you’ve given yourself a new challenge.”
An even more exciting sight than watching the occasional wipeout? Of the vantage point of standing on the water, Silver says this: “It’s a totally unique way to observe the reservoirs and the rivers around here. You can actually look down into it and see the fish and turtles and everything swimming by you.”
Grab a tube
Kick back with the James River Runners
Folks at a river outfitter in Scottsville know floating. In this company’s 40 years of existence, employees have taken customers from all 50 states and 86 different countries on water expeditions—so when they say the water sport most suited for anyone is tubing, we believe them.
“It’s the easiest trip you can take down the river,” says Paige Wilkes, who has co-owned James River Runners with her husband, Chris, for a decade.
About 6,000 of their patrons choose to forget the paddles, the kayak or the canoe and snag an inner tube each year.
After paying and signing a waiver at the outfitter’s main office on Hatton Ferry Road, eager adventurers take a bouncy truck, van or school bus ride to a drop-off location about three miles up the river.
There, take your pick from a mountain of black tubes and wade on in. The float back down to the Hatton Ferry location takes between two and four hours, based on the speed of the river and the pace of the person floating.
Taking a cooler? There’s a tube for that, too.
But remember, drinking alcohol in public is illegal—and the river runners have put a strict prohibition on hard liquor and glass bottles. But if the beverage in your cooler has an ABV, or if you just don’t feel like going home, the outfitting company offers riverside camping, where nature-lovers can fish or kick their water shoes off and jump right back in the James SB
Keeping it clean
Rivanna Conservation Alliance watches out for our waterways
By Samantha Baars
Cigarettes, car parts, cans. Bottles, batteries, bicycles. Tires, telephones. A couch.
These are all things volunteers with the Rivanna Conservation Alliance have cleaned out of the 42-mile-long tributary of the James River, says Executive Director and CEO Robbi Savage, who adds, “One year, we found eight toilets.”
Through the RCA, anywhere from 700 to 900 volunteers participate in one of many river cleanups each year. About 30 trained and certified volunteers monitor bacteria in the water, and more than 100 conduct benthic testing by collecting, counting and identifying the critters that live in the streams of 50 different sites.
“This is important because only certain bugs can live in really clean water,” she says. “If you get slugs and leeches, you can tell the water’s really dirty. Caddisflies are intolerant of dirty water, so if you find those, the water is clean.”
It’s serious business. The organization’s benthic and bacteria programs are certified by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality at the highest level, and RCA is the only nonprofit in the state to be certified for both of those programs at that grade.
Overall, Savage says the health of the Rivanna is “pretty good,” though some areas in the urban ring don’t meet water quality standards. Some sites are slowly improving, and she’s monitoring little to no degradation.
“Charlottesville is growing and there’s more diversity in terms of the kinds of pollution that come into our rivers and streams,” she says. “The fact that we’re just holding our own is amazing.”
James River’s Batteau Fest continues tradition
By Eric Wallace
Through the 1700s and early 1800s, the James River was nothing short of Virginia’s super-highway, with bateaux transporting flour, iron, apple brandy and hogsheads of tobacco from riverfront communities to the markets in Richmond. Each summer, the James River Batteau Festival celebrates that journey, sending a flotilla of 30 batteaux—58-foot-long wooden replicas of shipping vessels dating to the mid-1700s—flanked by upward of 300 canoes, kayaks, john boats, inflatable rafts and inner tubes.
The boats—each manned by crews of eight people wearing period clothing—are exquisitely outfitted, with wood-burning cookstoves, cedar benches and even dinner tables. There are racks of tin cookware. Old-timey chests for luggage. Hammocks. Custom refrigeration coolers for kegs of homemade beer.
Sponsored by the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, the batteaux float 120 miles from Lynchburg’s Percival Island to Maiden’s Landing in Richmond. Riding the currents for 13 to 21 miles per day, participants will camp, feast and enjoy various celebrations at stops along the way. Halfway through the adventure, for instance, the town of Scottsville throws a party, with thousands gathering at a downtown park for live music, food and events. To follow the journey (or even show up at a stop yourself), visit vacanals.org/batteau.
Here are a few of the area’s best splash-worthy offerings.
Smith Aquatic & Fitness Center 1000-A Cherry Ave., 970-3072
The 27,000-square-foot Smith Aquatic features two indoor pools (one competitive, one leisure), water slides, a play structure and a lazy river.
Onesty Family Aquatic Center at Meade Park 300 Meade Ave., 295-7532
An outdoor pool near Woolen Mills with water slides, in-water playgrounds, a lazy river, a diving board, lap lanes and a zero-depth play area.
Washington Park Pool 1001 Preston Ave., 977-2607
You’ll find a lighted swimming pool, zero-depth play area, water slides, a diving board and a mushroom waterfall here.
Forest Hills Spray Grounds
1022 Forest Hills Park Ave.
Greenleaf Spray Grounds
1598 Rose Hill Dr.
Belmont Spray Grounds
725 Stonehenge Ave.
(Open 11am-7pm daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day)
Mint Springs Valley Park
6659 Mint Springs Park Rd. (Crozet)
Chris Greene Lake
4748 Chris Greene Lake Rd.
Walnut Creek Park
4250 Walnut Creek Park Rd. (North Garden)
Local woman angles to attract others to her favorite sport
By Samantha Baars
On a fortuitous camping trip about four years ago, a friend handed Hannah Hickin a fishing rod.
“I was like, ‘Hey, this is pretty fun.’ Ever since then, I’ve been hooked,” the 31-year-old says about the sport she already considers a “lifelong passion.”
While she still casts a line from a fishing pole from time to time, the angler is most comfortable with a fly rod in her hands.
“It gives me just enough to think about that I don’t have to think about anything,” Hickin says. “It’s like my reset.”
On any given Saturday afternoon—no matter the season—you can find her fishing for muskie, trout or bass.
Muskie are “really huge, toothy critters,” Hickin says, and while she notes they’re “extremely fun to catch,” they’re referred to as the fish of 10,000 casts, because reeling one in isn’t easy.
During the colder months, she’ll hike to local mountain streams where she can find her favorite trout, the teeny-tiny brook trout, colored with flourescent pink and purple, and spotted with yellow.
And when it warms up, Hickin and her friends switch over to largemouth and smallmouth bass. They’ll charter a drift boat or raft and take a whole day to float the river and fish for the nearly identical creatures. When the sun’s too hot to bare, they jump in the water.
After she’s reeled one in, she sends her catch of the day back to where it came from.
“I catch and release so someone else can get the opportunity to catch that fish again,” she says. And because some live in their habitats for a long time, “sometimes you can even go back and see the same fish.”
She wants to make one thing clear: Fishing is not just a sport for men.
“I’d like to encourage other girls to get out there and do it. It really is a wonderful sport for women,” she says. “A lot of times, girls have the best cast because it takes some finesse.”
Hickin adds that the intimacy of fly fishing is what she loves most about the sport.
“When you’re using a fly rod instead of your reel, you have the line in your hand,” she says. “And when you’re fighting a fish, you have a direct line to its mouth. I remember the first fish I caught that way—it overwhelmed me.”