Saturday, May 1, 2010

Belle Isle

Saturday, May 1, was Ashley's 31st birthday. She chose for us to take our first trip to Belle Isle, the largest island (54 acre) in the James River in Richmond. Belle Isle is a city park with lots of amazing things to do. We had a blast!

The island is best known as Richmonders' beach, where you can go to sunbathe and play in the James River. The girls and I took our swimsuits, but that was only a portion of the fun.As we enjoyed the beautiful walk over the James River on the pedestrian footbridge that suspends from the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge (US-1, US-301), I took some terrific photos of the Richmond skyline. When we arrived on the island, you felt as if you had just been picked up out of a metropolitan city core and dropped into the middle of a mountain meadow in a remote part of some western National Park. The girls could not contain the emotion and immediately went crazy running around, climbing on rocks, and wearing themselves out. Leland saw a hillside covered with large granite boulders heading a hundred yards up the steep hillside, grabbed what turned out to be an awesome walking stick, and set out to conquer it. As I grabbed Lucy and hurried off after her, I called to Ashley to run back to the base of the bridge to take a photo of the island map for us to follow as we went around the island.You see, the island's history is a microstory of the incredible history of Richmond, and of course, I had to stop to read every descriptive sign. (We ended up referring to the picture of the map at least two dozen times.) The island was the site of a Powhatan tribe's fishing camp before it was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1607. The island came to be known as Broad Rock Island and was contained a granite quarry and various industrial operations. In 1814, the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Company completed a nail factory. During the Civil War, the island served as a prison for Union soldiers with about 30,000 prisoners passing through between 1862 and 1865, many of them dying there. The Virginia Electric Power Company built and operated a hydroelectric power plant on the island between 1904 and 1963, which is still there and quite accessible to explore.

Ashley caught back up to me and the two older girls as we were taking a water and snack break half way up our boulder expedition. At the top of the boulder run, we were in the middle of a very thick forest. The tall hill with rocky slopes provides great hiking and even rock climbing for those inclined. As we set out on the path, you completely forgot where you were. Trekking through the lush forest, I was reminded of the dense forests of the Shenandoah mountains or even the river running I have done in Jamaica. It was amazing to consider that we were on an island in the middle of the city.

Seeing the many branching paths I quickly gave up on seeing them all and resolved to come back again and again. We came across enormous trees, some of which had fallen over and offered great resting spots. Around one bend, we came across the ruins of a deep foundation for a building that looked exactly like the hatch on Lost after it exploded, complete with steep concrete sides with a random pipe sticking out of it. Ashley pointed out the comparison and I realized the Lost island is exactly where it felt like we had dropped into.

After working our way westward for about a half hour, Ashley and I decided we should try to head down the couple hundred feet of hillside to get to the river. We found a very steep and very narrow path leading off our trail and down the hill to the river. Picture me with a big backpack and a second heavy canvas bag of clothes and food, Leland with her walking stick, Ashley with Charly strapped to her chest with her Africa-wrap (as I call it), and Lucy whose naturally adventurous spirit was overwhelmed by the newness of such an adventure.

As we began stepping down the hill, Lucy immediately professed her staunch doubt of the rationality of this decision. I grabbed her hand one one side and Leland's on the other and they began to slide, swing, and climb down the rocks and dirt hillside. When Ashley hollered, I turned around to see her on her backside. I laughed and asked her how I will two kids and two bags hadn't fallen, yet her and her papoose were on the ground. Back on her feet now, she told me to get going. When we got to the part of the hill where the angle became much less severe, we were climbing through leaves that had fallen down the entire hillside. Stepping through piles over our ankles I wondered if I should worry about ticks. Suddenly, I stopped dead in my tracks because ticks were the least of my concern.

At this point, it would have been nice if I had more thoroughly considered this tidbit of information on Wikipedia:
"Belle Isle offers Richmonders the opportunity to view wildlife in its natural habitat, at a location only a few minutes from the heart of the city. Songbirds, ducks, wild coons and blue herons are a common sight. Squirrels, small amphibians and reptiles also inhabit the island."
Actually, Wikipedia and its 12,246,919 registered editors were not nearly as detailed as they could have been, seeing how the casual mention that "small amphibians and reptiles also inhabit the island" was like telling the Civil War prisoners on the island 150 years earlier that their cause was a small misunderstanding between the neighboring states. This was no small reptile innocently inhabiting the island. No, Wikipedia had drastically underestimated the four foot long, slithering black line of scaly snake spread across our path. Um... where do I file my wiki-complaint?

After pointing out the huge snake to Ashley, I said we could wait until it had finished crossing the path and then we would go past. When I turned around to get confirmation of my plan from Ashley, she was 90% of the way back up the hillside with one arm hugging Charly even tighter than the papoose and Lucy dangling by an arm, feet flailing to find the ground. Leland was about half way up the hill yelling, "Mom, wait for me!" I nearly died laughing. I turned around and pulled out the camera to video our serpentine blockade with Ashley screaming for me to get back up the hill immediately.

By the time I got back up the hill, Lucy had broken down slightly in pain, but mostly in fear. Our most adventurous child whose favorite hero is Diego the animal guru who goes through the jungle on every episode had experienced way too much wildlife in the past 5 minutes and was rethinking her life's ambitions as a safari guide. After I calmed her down, we continued along the ridge-side path until we found a wider trail down the hill. After some consoling of Leland and Lucy - well, really I just grabbed their hands and started out against their protests - we began the descent and eventually, made it down to the river.
Thinking back, it is amazing how quickly our fears disappeared upon seeing the James River and the many people playing on the rocks. It was all we could do to keep the girls from jumping in the water before we spread out our blanket, changed into their bathing suits, and laid out some ground rules of safety. I still don't think the girls comprehended how the water on one side of the rocks was fun and refreshing, but the other side would have meant imminent drowning in class four rapids. Mental note, next time pack life jackets, even if they may not be nearly enough to make the rapids anything close to "safe."

The girls must have somewhat understood that my rules were serious and they stayed close by me. As we splashed through the shallows flowing over the safe side of the rocks, we became more and more brave. We stopped in a spot where we could ride a natural waterslide just as wide as Leland's backside. I pointed out the places where the river's currents had carved circular bowls into the granite. The girls said hello to some of the college kids sunbathing on the rocks. I held their hands tightly when we passed alongside the huge rapids and sat in the inch deep flows on the safer side. When we came to a place where I needed to jump in up over my calves, I sat down and was ready to hop out and put my hand on that log right over th... WHOA! That's a snake!

Yes, there was a two foot long brown snake sunbathing on that log. Our prior experience must have hardened my daughters because they didn't seem too upset by this snake and even let me help them walk through the water only 5 feet away. Later, when we saw a smaller third snake (yes, I said a third) while eating our lunch, the girls were so intrigued that they wanted to watch it swim from rock to rock. We were not too concerned because the snakes stayed in the calm pools and we stayed in the swift streams and waterfalls.
After lunch, we continued around the island loop. On the northwest corner of the island, we stopped on the dock on the rock quarry pond that was a deep quarry pit until the workers hit a vein to the river over a hundred years ago. We saw three large river cooters (turtles) sunbathing on logs in the pond. We also went through some more think tree canopy to see the view upriver from the western point of the island.

Continuing around the loop along the southern side of the island we saw the water run for the old power plant and walked out on the dam to see the immense rock outcroppings on that side. About this time, Lucy decided she had hit her limit. When this happens, she will ask to be carried and after you say know, she will furrow her brow and sit down wherever she is. She has done this in the middle of a mall, a parking lot, church, and now, the path around Belle Isle. Once she realized that we were walking on with our without her, she would run a few hundred yards then sit down again. Eventually, we mixed some carrying with her walking as we finished our loop past some really cool ruins of a single wall of a very old building.

Both girls were troopers and managed to make it back to the car without completely breaking down. We had a wonderful day and the girls talked about it all night.

Here is a map of our adventure:

View Belle Isle - May 10, 2010 in a larger map

1 comment:

  1. We LOVE this place! As a matter of fact, Shelby was there yesterday and ran into a snake as she sunned on the rocks!