I've never much cared for rodents, especially rats. But now I am one — a RiverRat, to be exact — part of a new volunteer initiative of the James River Association (JRA) that's poised to help sustain the natural environment of the waterway.
"We need folks to be the eyes and ears of the river," Chuck Frederickson said at an outdoor training session on the banks of the Roslyn Canal, an offshoot of the Kanawha Canal that wanders quietly near steep hills just behind Roslyn, a retreat center of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Frederickson — the lower James riverkeeper, a full-time, on-the-water advocate for responsible stewardship of the James River watershed — oversees 100 miles of the river below Richmond for the JRA. He gave a PowerPoint presentation to 13 of us, 10 men and three women, who spent all day on a recent Saturday attending the training session. Midway through the program, Frederickson and Amber Ellis, the Watershed Restoration Associate and coordinator of volunteer activities for the association, handed out baseball caps, complete with the nifty RiverRats logo, a rat with an amiable countenance floating in water atop a leaf. Camouflage satchels, equipped with lots of things, including sterile plastic bags for sampling, were provided by the JRA, which has been in existence since 1976.
The James River, covering 340 miles and meandering from one end of Virginia to the other, is home to a huge amount of wildlife, everything from bald eagles to catfish. Also known as mudcats, catfish snorkel the depths of the river, cleaning up sludge other aquatic life won't eat. One of my favorite childhood memories is of sitting on the banks of the James, alongside my father, and watching how excited he would get when he pulled a mudcat from the river. Daddy always said those fish, although ugly, had a purpose.
The purpose of the RiverRats is to see that the natural beauty of the river remains vital. Plans call for volunteers to canvass designated areas at least three times a year and report anything that seems unusual or amiss. The information gathered will be shared with other RiverRats to provide updates on the current condition of the river. The logs will be posted online to JRA's interactive James River map.
"The idea of the RiverRats is to bring immediate attention to a possible problem on the river," Frederickson says. "For instance, a RiverRat can take one of the sterile bags and get a sample of the water, perhaps thwarting a very dangerous situation. Spotting cows is also important."
That got my attention. I grew up milking a cow I named Buttercup. When too many Buttercups wade into the water, doing what cows do, it can become a problem. Their fecal matter contains bacteria, including E. coli, which can cause health issues in humans, wildlife and other cattle who might drink the contaminated water. It also contains large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, causing algae populations to grow, which isn't good for other life forms in the river.
Frederickson recently reported that the four training sessions, held in Newport News, Lynchburg, Richmond and Buchanan, in Botetourt County, have started paying off.
"I'm already getting reports from the field," he said. "We now have a total of 31 sets of extra eyes and ears on the river."
In addition to patrolling their section of the river, RiverRats also commit to helping with pollution response and developing an action project, such as an educational or recreational plan, to help keep the river healthy.
It all gives a whole new meaning to the term Rat Pack.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.