Teta Kain, a longtime paddle master on the Dragon Run, doesn’t know with certainty the origin of the cypress swamp’s name. But after making more than 300 trips down the 3.7-mile portion of the Dragon that is open to the public only one month each year, she does know what the place means to her.
“Pleasure, beauty, and a place that I love. It’s my river. I know that’s an unfair thing to say but … it stirs serenity and excitement, too. It’s very exciting to me,” said Kain, whose slight build and short stature belie the influence the 80-year-old wields in her unofficial role as “Queen of the Dragon.”
Every year since 2006, she has taken about 30 trips down the Dragon, a pristine waterway roughly an hour’s drive from Richmond. But she doesn’t get tired of it.
“I never get on that river and say ‘Oh, I have to do this again.’ I never feel that way about it,” she said in her heavy Maine accent. “I think, ‘Here I am.’ “When you get out at Big Island and you just go around that first bend and those cypress trees are beside you, how can you describe that?”
Her journey from her childhood home in Bar Harbor to the Dragon Run has taken a meandering path, just like the waterway that works its way through the counties of Essex, Middlesex, King & Queen, and Gloucester. At 17, she headed to Boston for nurse’s training and then on to the Air Force. She met her husband in Texas; they got married in North Carolina, and they are still together after 55 years. She moved to Gloucester in 1986, and about three years later retired from Langley Air Force Base, many years after changing careers from nursing to advertising and public relations.
It was about that time, she explained, “Somebody just told me about Dragon Run, and the name, as it does to many people, just fascinated me. So I went up to see the river and one of the people on the board (of Friends of Dragon Run) at the time asked me if I’d do bird surveys on the river. … I’ve been a big bird-watcher for a long time, so I started doing monthly surveys, with my dog, on the river. … I did these inventories every month for about five years (on Big Island).”
Then, a chance encounter altered her course.
“I didn’t like to canoe but I went down the river in a kayak (with) a couple who said just get in and try it,” Kain said. “Immediately I said, ‘I love it.’ And I went right to Farmville and bought me a kayak, ‘Old Blue,’ the one I’m in now. It has at least 1,000 miles on it.”
By about 2000, she had acquired 13 kayaks.
Teta Kain with a Butterfly. Credit: Bay Journal
“Kayaks just kept happening to me. Somebody would say, ‘I’ve got this kayak I don’t want it anymore, do you want it?’ … It didn’t happen that quickly, but it just kept evolving.”
A few years later, a man from Tappahannock, Gordon Page, heard about Kain’s informal trips down the Dragon Run and wanted to try it. He enjoyed the excursion so much he offered to help Kain on her runs through the million-year-old swamp. In a 3-hour kayak trip, it’s common to spot osprey, bald eagles, egrets, turtles, muskrats, beavers, sycamore trees, river birches, red maples, dogwoods and huge bald cypress trees. It is fed mostly by underground springs and empties into the Piankatank River about 40 miles downstream. Years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy did a study on the more than 230 rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and the Dragon Run was ranked second in ecological significance.
“Gordon and I led the trips for about, I guess, three or four years and it just kept getting bigger and bigger, and more and more people kept hearing about it,” said Kain, who added the only advertising was word of mouth and the Friends of Dragon Run newsletter.
Since Friends of Dragon Run is a non-profit, it can’t charge for the trips, but they soon turned them into fundraisers.
“People often offered us money for a donation,” Kane said. “They were fascinated by this unique waterway and wanted to help preserve it.”
Bald cypress trees on the Dragon Run. Credit: Bay Journal
It wasn’t long before another major player, Bob Hancock, joined their team.
“My second wife, Marty, went to the same hairdresser (as Kain) … and I met Teta and we got talking about the Dragon,” said Hancock, who lives near the river. “She offered to take me and one of my sons down the Dragon. So she took me down there and I guess you could say I got hooked. By the end of the season, I had three kayaks. Now, I’ve got six.”
He also had a trailer that could carry 10-12 kayaks.
“Suddenly, we were in business,” Kain said.
With the interest growing in the Dragon, the three were taking kayakers down the river more often. The daily numbers eventually grew to 12 paddlers plus a crew of five “to keep everybody happy and safe and comfortable.
“That’s pretty much how it evolved, not anything very structured. It’s just kept rolling.”
Kain, who has been the group’s paddle master since 2001, finished another season in May, but is taking a step back from some of her duties. She won’t be organizing the trips or have much behind-the-scenes responsibilities, but she will be there every day to guide the paddlers and be the interpreter.
According to Hancock, that’s the perfect role for Kain, a naturalist who has traveled all over the world and is well-known throughout the state. She continues to give presentations on Virginia’s different habitats, as well as presentations on butterflies, moss, spiders (one of her favorites), fungus and more.
“She is the Dragon Run,” Hancock said, adding it would take about six months to talk about what she means to it.
“She can teach you about every bug, whatever is in there,” he continued. “The main thing that always struck me was all these things that I look at and think are pretty, the grasses and vegetation, but she would tell you the right name and the names of all the birds, and when you’re with someone who can … it’s like you have gone back in history. She kept us interested (on the trips).
“To me, when you go on the Dragon without Teta, you might as well go on the Mattaponi. If you go on the Dragon without her, it’s like seeing diamonds without knowing they are diamonds because they are covered in mud.”
And she knows every inch of it, from the put-in at Big Island to the take-out at Mascot.
“There are a few plants, I mean individual plants” she looks forward to seeing. “There’s one called false nettle and it comes up beside a tree every year. … It’s like seeing an old friend, but I look forward to that plant coming up every year.”
She doesn’t just point out the flora, fauna and wildlife. She becomes a storyteller to make the learning experience fun. However, after telling many of the same stories over and over, she admits a change is in order.
“I need to upgrade some of my stories. I try to every year,” she said.
Hancock has heard many of the stories over and over, but they don’t get old to him.
“It’s sort of like (an actor) giving a play a 100 times,” he said. “They have done it many times … but the people in the audience have never heard it.”
With 17 kayaks on each trip down the river, the line can stretch out as much as half a mile from Kain at the front to Hancock at the back. Each paddler is given a walkie-talkie so they can hear Kain narrate the adventure, but that doesn’t solve all the problems, said Hancock.
“She’ll sit there and tell you about birds, and when I get there the bird is gone,” he said. “You have to be at the front of the line or close to her. If you are at the back, it’s not the same program.”
And according to Kain, it’s not the same river each trip so she has to be able to modify the program from one day to the next.
“What really amazes me is how much it changes from day to day in the spring,” she said. “You can almost see the vegetation growing before your eyes. The evolving of the plants and the life on the river from day to day is astonishing to me.”
The trips down the Dragon are held from the first or second week of April to the first or second week of May because that’s the only time the water is high enough that it can be navigated. However, the group is looking into adding another paddling season, just a few weeks, in late October.
“Winter is nothing like summer,” Kain said about the being on the Dragon. “At this moment, it’s pretty vague. We are trying to clear out other parts of the river. We are hoping we are going to be able to offer something in the fall because there is so much demand for it. We are doing a lot of exploring on the river, a lot of talking to people who own property, seeing what we can do to make another trip.”
She can’t hide her enthusiasm for the Dragon Run during an interview that turns into a history lesson. “Being beside a tree that is 6 to 700 years old and touching it; I never, never get tired of that feeling,” she said. “It never goes away, the awe that I feel … of the river that it’s like it was thousands of years ago.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way.
“I’ve actually had people tear up when they tell me at the end of a trip how they feel about that river,” Kain said. “They have tears in their eyes because it’s so beautiful to them, so pristine, so isolated. And many of them are like me, it’s hard to describe because there are so many feelings. I haven’t had very many people complain. Some are just speechless because it’s just stunning and beautiful, too.”
She’s already looking forward to her next trip on the Dragon.
“When I was 62, I said I can’t see me doing these things when I’m 65. But the day never comes when I wake up and say, ‘I’m too old to do this.’”
When she was approaching 80, she thought it would be awful to hit that milestone, but now says, “This really is kind of exciting.”
As for the origin of the name Dragon Run, Kain subscribes to one of the most popular theories, that it has ties to the Portuguese who settled along the river and had a word in their language that was similar to “Dragon.” But more important to her is the reaction to the name.
“The name (Dragon Run) …. fascinates you; it did me the first time I heard it.”