6th Annual RiverRats Raft Up
October 8, 2016
New Kent Forestry Center, Providence Forge, VA on the Chickahominy River

The annual RiverRats Raft Up is a gathering of the James River Association’s core volunteer group, the RiverRats. Since 2013, we have trained nearly 250 RiverRats, including over 60 in 2016. They have completed over 500 patrols averaging about 5 miles and 3 hours each. Patrols cover 99% of the main stem of the James River.  The Raft Up is our annual celebration of these citizen scientists and environmental stewards where we also discuss emergent issues in the watershed, and plan collaborative projects.

RiverRat Lynn Wilson introducing the Chickahominy

RiverRat Lynn Wilson introducing the Chickahominy Riverck Crossing.

Although it rained relentlessly thanks to Hurricane Matthew, this year’s Raft Up was a great success! The event, held at the New Kent Forestry Center on the Chickahominy River in Providence Forge, VA, began on Saturday, October 8, with an inspiring and informative introduction on the Chickahominy River by RiverRat Lynn Wilson. Next, RiverRat Jack Snell described the collaborative action project working with Atlantic sturgeon for which he was the project leader (detailed below). Riding on the energy and enthusiasm of the two fantastic speakers, we immediately broke out into 5 groups: Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Lynchburg, and a “free agent” group to brainstorm and plan Action Projects for 2017. After a quick lunch, 15 RiverRats loaded up to canoe on the Chickahominy River, which was an incredible and beautiful adventure! After returning, warming up, and drying off, we celebrated with dinner, a viewing of Beautiful Swimmers Revisited, and then listened to bluegrass music by local band Rappahannock Crossing


RiverRat Jack Snell presenting the Atlantic Sturgeon Action Project (and an official RiverRat Hat!) Photo: J. Bragg

In 2016, we brought Action Projects to a new level. With an available project budget of $500 per RiverRat, we wanted to motivate RiverRats to think big and outside the box, particularly to consider taking leadership in a RiverRat team project, pooling funds, fundraising and bringing in other project partners. We were fortunate to have a several large, collaborative projects come together this year, in addition to a number of smaller-scale projects across the watershed. An example of a new type of Action Project occurred when two individuals from a river recreation group approached the James River Association in the hopes of establishing a new water quality monitoring site. We recommended that they become RiverRats at an upcoming training in order to access the Action Project and to fundraise for half of the cost of equipment, and they did just that! Furthermore, they were able to train one of their staff members to conduct monitoring as well, and they posted the data at their recreation site for dozens of people to use weekly. Another highly motivated RiverRat seeks external grants each year and recruits and trains her own volunteers to monitor 5 water quality sites in the Newport News area, an Action Project that requires hardly any staff or financial resources from the James River Association.

Action Project Brainstorm (Richmond region)

Action Project Brainstorm (Richmond region)

The largest and perhaps most audacious RiverRat Action Projects was developed at last year’s Raft Up, bringing together 8 RiverRats (and $4,000 in Action Project funding), over $4,000 externally fundraised dollars, and a Virginia Commonwealth University scientist to tag 10 endangered Atlantic sturgeon and place 5 transmitters on the Chickahominy River (a tributary to the James River). Several RiverRats came up with the idea at the 5th Annual RiverRat Raft Up and recruited more RiverRats to come together to make the project happen. They fundraised in their communities and worked with private land owners to gain access to private docks on which to place the transmitters. This Atlantic sturgeon project had a significant outreach component, for which the RiverRats developed and printed brochures about the new data in the hopes of promoting the Chickahominy’s own charismatic megafauna, the ancient Atlantic sturgeon. The project, which is ongoing for two more years, is an inspiring and impressive illustration of the power of citizen science and RiverRat action.

Rappahannock Crossing closes down the festivities.

Rappahannock Crossing closes down the festivities.

This year’s Raft Up set the stage for 2017. We will continue to enhance the RiverRat program, patrols, and Action Projects with university chapters in development, new community partners showing interest across the watershed, and collaboration among RiverRats at an all-time high. Potential 2017 Action Projects include benthic microinvertibrate monitoring in Richmond, Lynchburg turtle habitat restoration along roads, developing a primitive campsite near Richmond, Newport News “bioblitz” expansion, and expanded Atlantic sturgeon outreach in Williamsburg high schools. We can’t to see what 2017 brings. Thanks to our RiverRats for making this event so great!