by Jordan Cramer, James River Association Intern

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join the Upper James River Expedition. With several JRA staff, we visited the Expedition Team for the last section of their trip, through the James River Gorge to Snowden, VA. I never thought I would love being pushed so fully and so constructively out of my comfort zone.

When I was initially invited, I was hesitant. Meeting new people, camping overnight in an unfamiliar area, and canoeing through intense rapids made my heart rate climb at the thought. I’m not sure what made me finally agree, but I am so thankful I did!

Our little group of three left Richmond accompanied by blue sky and a slight breeze. As we drove west, thunderclouds began appearing, growing darker with every passing mile. Storms make me nervous, and being in the middle of a river in a canoe during a storm seemed like my worst nightmare. Eventually the skies opened, and thunder echoed through the gorge. The slick, twisting road with speeding tractor-trailers made me nervous, but we finally made it to the boat ramp – and the beginning of the next phase of our trip. It was still raining as we waited in the safety of the truck, with the slowly ebbing storm leaving low-hanging fog along the hilly peaks. It was already a stunning view and we hadn’t even gotten on the river; yet my nerves were fighting a battle with my desire to be in a naturally beautiful place.

Once the boats and gear were unpacked and readied, we got in and started paddling, just in time for the rain to cease completely and a slight hint of sun to peek out from the clouds. After a short paddle, we floated into a pebble beach and were greeted by a rare sight: smiling high schoolers! The expedition teens and staff helped put our boats and gear away, as we worked through introductions and chatted while dinner was made. I was in awe of both the view from the beach of the fog-covered hills, and how awesome the students were. They wanted to help out, wanted to get to know us, and seemed genuinely excited for everything the expedition was about.

For the next few hours, we ate, laughed, and shared our apprehensions for the morning trip through the energetic rapids we had watched overcome our scouters that evening. The students listened and asked questions about what all our roles were in the James River Association, and we excitedly got to hear teenagers talk about the river and what it personally meant to them. Too soon, the campfire was put out as sleep began to beckon.

The enticement of pancakes got everyone up and packed impressively early in the morning. As gear was portaged around the biggest rapid of the trip – Balcony Falls – I saw a flicker of worry in some of the students’ faces as they realized the climax of the trip had arrived. Some boats tipped, but everyone got through safely and shared relieved laughter after.

The rest of the trip down-river was smooth-sailing (no pun intended) compared to the beginning. We saw turtles of all sizes and species, geese, ducks, and even a tri-colored heron! At the end of the trip, the Expeditioners’ parents stood on the bridge that crossed the river and got to watch their kids paddle the rest of the way to the boat ramp… a great photo opportunity!

The students again impressed me. Instead of running off to the comfort of their parents’ cars that would inevitably take them to showers and real beds, they all unloaded gear from the canoes and asked what else they could do to help. They exchanged phone numbers and social media handles with their fellow expeditioners, and even asked to take photos as a group. When they were told they could go ahead and leave instead of waiting for the canoe rig, the students were reluctant to go, and their desire to continue helping out surprising me once more.

I have never been so impressed by a group of teenagers. They truly were sponges, soaking up every bit of knowledge shared with them whether it was washing dishes or deciding the safest route to take on the river. Some of them had never canoed before, a fact that shocked me as they all seemed like lifetime paddlers when I met them their second to last day; even the least experienced among them was far better than myself. Within a single day of knowing them, each student at one point or another talked about how much this trip meant to them and changed them for the better. I heard multiple stories of learning countless new skills and the desire to learn more about the environment in some facet. My nerdy, biology-loving heart swelled. The James River Association had again accomplished what they had done for me when I was the teenagers’ age: instilling a lifelong love for the river, the environment, and science in each expeditioner.

I surprised myself when I was sad to see them leave, these students that 24 hours earlier I had never met. They exchanged hugs, photos, and ‘see you soons’, and as quickly as they had entered each others’ lives, they were gone. But if my past is any indication, the memories, friendships, and connections they made will be there for many years to come!