Similar to a golf course that has two distinct front and back nines, the fall kayaking trip down the Dragon Run is far different from the spring one. Yet both will leave you in awe and with a deep appreciation of all the waterway has to offer.
Friends of Dragon Run, a non-profit organization, has been offering spring paddles trips down the Dragon, about an hour east of Richmond, for more than a dozen years. With a limited number of spots available, they go quickly. In recent years, there have been more and more requests to add a fall trip. So this year, after a lot of hard work and exploration, a seven-day fall season was held in mid- to late October. And it was just as successful as the spring season.
“We were fully booked before we had our first paddle (trip),” said Janice Moore, president of Friends of Dragon Run (FODR). “We did have some cancellations along the way … (but) we were able to fill every spot except for somebody who canceled late at night the night before.”
One day was lost to inclement weather, but the other days had the full complement of 12 paddlers plus guides. The spring trip took paddlers on a three-hour excursion covering 3.7 miles from the put-in at Big Island to the takeout at Mascot. The fall trip started at Mascot and ended about two hours and 2.2 miles later downstream at a takeout on private land.
“The normal trail that we use is clogged now with (vegetation), so we really can’t use that path,” Moore said. “We were trying to find an alternative trail.”
It is a much different trail as well. The first thing you notice is a deeper and wider waterway, thanks to its historic ties to the logging industry.
“When you got into the canal (at Mascot) it seems to be uniformly deep but that’s because the canal was gouged out by logging a long, long time ago, and some of that never (fills) back in,” Moore explained. “I think you’ll find a more consistent depth for the portion that’s in the canal.”
The physical characteristics of the river aren’t the only differences.
“Even the vegetation is a little different. We don’t have those great masses of polygonum that we have above Mascot,” said Teta Kain, a longtime paddle master on the trips whose only responsibility now is as a tour guide on the trips. “We only saw one or two places where they were flourishing below Mascot. And another (difference) was the marsh dewflower, which was not seen above Mascot but is below Mascot. It is a very different river.”
Much of that has to do with nature, itself. The water is getting colder so the animals aren’t as active, although there still are a number of beaver dams to navigate. Most of the birds have migrated so you won’t see or hear as many. (However, two bald eagles were spotted on a recent trip.) And some of the trees, including the ever-present cypress, are losing their leaves and changing color.
“The openness of it makes it a different trip as the leaves fall,” Kain said.
It’s not the same paddling experience either.
“It is a little more challenging,” Kain said. “It’s a little more difficult to find your way around. … Some of the obstructions were a little more challenging for the participants than they were up above (Mascot).”
Work on selecting the fall route began months ago. Moore said it took about 20 exploration trips on different parts of the Dragon from February through August to try to find the best possible put-in and a takeout. Robert Gibson, an FODR board member, offered the use of his land for the takeout, so it was decided to start at Mascot and travel south.
“We did (explore) north of Mascot too,” Moore said. “We couldn’t find anything with enough water or (that) wasn’t blocked by sub-aquatic vegetation or something else.”
Still, there was work to be done to make the waterway navigable. A crew of six, with chain saws, ladders and other tools, spent a day in early October clearing the way.
“The day we took the chain saws … I think we were there for eight hours,” Moore said. “If you can imagine being in water up to your chest and using a chain saw on these big logs, that’s what it was like. It was a lot of work.”
It all paid off, however, and FODR was able to show off a different portion of the waterway. And with the success of this year’s fall season, a fall paddling season could become an annual tradition.
“We think we might,” Moore said of having a fall season every year. “People loved it. And most of the people who went were repeats from spring trips … and they (said), ‘This is great. I love doing another part of the Dragon.’”