Paddling the South Anna River

Reprinted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch when I was outdoor writer.

Paddling the South Anna

By Lee Graves


An old friend and I are getting reacquainted.


Our relationship goes back years, but we’d lost touch for one reason or another. You know how it is – stuff comes up, you never get around to as many things as you think you will.


But really good friends feel familiar and comfortable no matter how long you’ve been apart. As I slid my kayak away from the Ground Squirrel Bridge boat ramp on U.S. 33 early last week, the South Anna River put me at ease, made me settle back and relax, the way it always has.


Here was where I saw my first wild bald eagle, a sight that literally made my jaw drop. There, a chute of white water that once grabbed a cumbersome canoe and gave my younger daughter a drenching. We kidded later that she’d had her baptism as a river rat.


I got back out on this little river in Hanover County because my big river, the James, has been swollen like a ruptured hose lately. Plus the touring kayak I bought recently has been chomping at the bit to taste a little of the white stuff. So on the first afternoon of June, when the sky turned just this side of bluebird and the sunlight had the golden clarity of an old memory, I called on my old friend.


She has lost none of the charm that attracted me years ago and has appealed to paddlers for decades. “The South Anna is, for certain, one of the more scenic rivers in Virginia and well may be the longest canoeable small river in Virginia,” Roger Corbett wrote in his book, “Virginia Whitewater: A Paddler’s Guide to the Rivers of Virginia.”


“Since its headwaters are almost at Charlottesville, geography should seem to dictate that this river belongs to the James River Watershed. Instead, the South Anna flows to the southeast, parallel to the James River, without a single major tributary,” Corbett writes.


This southern belle is not to be confused with her sister, the North Anna. Though they join to form the Pamunkey just northeast of Ashland – and they share a bond of bloody Civil War history – the two Annas are as different as, well, north and south.


The North meanders placidly for many miles after emerging from the dam on Lake Anna. It gains muscle, however, as it cuts through the woodlands below state Route 601, and by the time it reaches the fall line above U.S. 1, it is baring some teeth. The final rapids are rated Class III or IV, depending on the water level, and provide a nice adrenaline rush.


The South is less about adrenaline and more about serotonin. Its pools bring peace, its riffles titillate without agitating and its scenery revives the soul.


“This is just so beautiful,” Marggie said more than once as we floated along Sunday afternoon. The trip was not only her baptism on the South Anna but also her first venture into solo white-water paddling. We purchased our kayaks together – for her a 10-foot recreational sit-on-top boat with easy entry and exit, and for me a 12-foot touring model with storage space for gear – fishing gear in particular.


I’ve developed a real taste for kayak fishing, and a small river like the South Anna is wonderfully suited for it. You can approach eddies and seams with complete stealth, paddling upstream or gliding with the current. On my two recent trips, I caught enough smallmouth using plastic worms – pumpkin and watermelon seed – to be thoroughly absorbed.


A kayak isn’t necessary to enjoying the fishing, as evidenced by a bass boat we passed near trip’s end. And fishing certainly isn’t mandatory to appreciating the South Anna. Marggie was quite content to just paddle and float, and near the put-in we encountered a pair of tubers lazing in the sunshine as the current eased them along.


Something told me that for them, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


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