Our region has a lot of rivers to offer, and each river has something to offer. With a multiplicity of river adventures to be had, how does one choose? Let’s make a case for a unique and historic river in the Tidewater Region—the Mattaponi—and the quiet glory of kayaking through its variety.
The Mattaponi River, surely not the largest in the tidewater region, boasts a big yet stoic adventure. Home to former port towns such as Aylett and Dunkirk, the Mattaponi is a freshwater river, but is also tidal. The combination is (not surprisingly) called freshwater tidal, leaving a difference to be discovered between the fresh, upper Mattaponi and the brackish lower Mattaponi. The reality of the distinction can become tangible sitting in a kayak, saturated by the river’s personality.
Zoar State Forest is an ideal starting ground for paddling the upper Mattaponi. At the mouth of Herring Creek, the park hosts a public launch. Five miles downriver from Zoar brings you to Aylett; the trip is a lazy, half-day float that brings you home in time for dinner. The Zoar launch starts above the tide, where the river is narrower, sporting downed trees and a non-tidal, free-flowing river. Along the trip, look for flowers such as the swamp rose or halberd-leaved rosemallow, also known as the hibiscus militaris, plants which often grow side by side. About halfway, you will paddle past Dunkirk, a former tobacco port town. Two old, tall cedar pilings tell of Dunkirk’s bridge, crossed by Union soldiers, burned and rebuilt twice, and used as late at the 1930s. It’s a seeming mystery that only two pilings remain. As you approach Aylett, the river widens and muddy banks appear, hints of tidal influence. Entering Aylett, with the whisper of the tidal waters, is an intriguing experience. The story goes that Aylett was a somewhat thriving port town, from the late 1600s to a little before the Civil War. At Aylett, the tide begins to fall out; river navigation stopped upriver, rendering it a natural port town. Try imagining the din of sailors and salesmen. Though the Aylett area is tidal, it is freshwater, remaining so until all the way below Walkerton. The brackish waters then begin, and so does an entirely different kayaking sojourn.
The brackish, lower Mattaponi is separate but equal to the upper part in its natural curiosities. To begin, launch your kayak at either Melrose or Waterfence Landing, which will plunge you in contact with the large, pristine freshwater tidal marshes which dominate this part of the river. Paddle by large beds of wild rice—yes, the same wild rice that Uncle Ben sells. While we have no known documented history of the Pamunkey or Mattaponi Indians harvesting the river’s wild rice, other Native Americans, like those in the Great Lakes region, did. The wild rice plant is an icon of the freshwater tidal marsh; this beautiful plant is sensitive to pollution, and its presence in the marshes is a testament to the relative quality of the Mattaponi waters and marshes, some of the cleanest in the country. Bald eagles and nesting osprey may be soaring as you leave the main stem of the river to paddle up in to the channels of the quiet, glass-watered inner world of the marshes. The marshes are home to several rare plants such as the tropical water-hyssop, Parker’s pipewort, and the sensitive joint-vetch (Aeschynomene virginica). One could paddle these channels for hours, lost in thought and marsh grass. Be careful not to become so lost in the exploration as to forget the tides. As the tide goes out, be sure to go with it.
Summer, like the tides do, is already beginning to go out, as the seasonal section in Walmart is changed from picnic items to a Back To School Sale. After Labor Day, however, when the boat traffic has calmed, the schools buses are running, and the weather cools, does not mean the end of river excitement. The Mattaponi River marshes are then at their peak. While your power boat is hibernating, fetch your kayak and remember why Captain John Smith kept coming back to the Middle Peninsula.