Ride the King Tide

Powhatan Crook, James City County, Virginia
Powhatan Crook, James City County, Virginia

I never saw water so high in Powhatan Creek. Living in Norfolk, Virginia, I occasionally encountered flooding in my neighborhood after exceptionally high tides or a nor’easter. I’d drive through inches of water to my driveway which rose to a high and dry house, avoiding the need for flood insurance. Other homeowners weren’t so lucky, judging by whirring sump pumps in basements. The problem doesn’t disappear with the tide because tender garden plants are harmed by immersion in salty water.

Apart from the notoriety of New Orleans below sea level, Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore, and the Middle Peninsula are most at risk from sea level rise (aggravated by sinking land on the Peninsula).

“The total area at risk in coastal Virginia is 424 square miles in 2040, 534 in 2060, and 649 in 2080. The total length of potentially affected roadway is 545 miles in 2040, 972 in 2060, and 1762 in 2080. The total number of buildings potentially affected is 30,795 in 2040, 57,740 in 2060, and 111,545 in 2080.  Those alarming projections are from a recent Commonwealth inquiry, but records back to 1950 show a rise of over a foot already.

Besides periodic threats from storms and hurricanes, there are king tides from the alignment of gravitational forces of sun, moon, and earth. They are higher than spring tides, which recur monthly (not seasonally as the name implies).

In November 2017, we volunteered for a citizen science project in which 500 people monitored the king tide using GPS. Data were recording by pressing a button in a phone app every few steps along the water’s edge. The immense database improves projections of areas at greatest risks of inundation.

A king tide peaked at 1.00 pm on November 5th this year. It offered a rare chance to kayak a swamp at the head of Powhatan Creek. A modest adventure, winding between bald cypresses and avoiding submerged obstacles, we penetrated a full quarter mile beyond the usual limit, wondering if sea level rise will make it routine in a few decades. We had to keep an eye on the tide before it receded or we risked stranding in a bog that could even swallow waders.

Time flows down Powhatan Creek

Powhatan Creek Bald Cypress
Venerable Bald Cypress growing in Powhatan Creek

Time flows down Powhatan Creek

As I lowered my kayak into the creek, I knew the water wasn’t the same as before, nor am I the same man. Hardly an original thought. People have pondered the river as a metaphor of time for umpteen centuries, probably even before Heraclitus.

I paddled as far upstream on Powhatan Creek as a rising tide allowed my draught to avoid obstructions in water the color of brown tea from the swamp’s infusion of tannin.

Letting imagination drift in headwaters cast me back to before the infant colony of Virginia when Native Americans chose waterways to navigate the coastal plain. As the creek narrowed, I passed under overarching branches, swamp rose and blooming cardinal flowers beloved of hummingbirds. Water rose ankle deep over the feet of Tupelo and Chestnut Oak trees. Bald Cypresses, the iconic trees of southern swamps, still bared their ‘knees’ as ramparts against hurricanes.

After resting my paddle to enjoy stillness, an Orchard Oriole sang and a Pileated Woodpecker laughed. A Green Heron stalked the margins and a Prothonotary Warbler flitted across the stream, perhaps the last golden flash of the season. Turtles hauled onto logs to sun themselves in dappled sunlight and beavers left evidence of their presence on gnawed tree stumps.

I found a place to turn for taking the current as the tide changed, conveying youthful water downstream where it empties into Sandy Bay and washes around Jamestown Island before dying in the mighty James River. When the creek widens to meander between mudflats I know I have reached early middle age. Beds of pickerel weed and arrow weed dangle seed pods and wild rice reach above the green blanket for birds to glean, no longer plucked by the Powhatan tribe.

After paddling for a mile, I greet an old friend where kayakers from the James River Association stopped to stare. No one knows the age of the gigantic Bald Cypress standing on its own little island. Resurrection Fern clothes some boughs, an epiphyte that can revive from countless cycles of dehydration. I feel a fragile, mortal creature beside this mother tree and her foster fern.

The cypress was already elderly when Pocahontas and Captain John Smith paddled here over 400 years ago. Famously strong and slow growing, the rot resistance of this species makes it prime lumber. Outstanding in every way, male or female and the only one of its kind to shed fall leaves, its green mantle turns russet before winter when it stands among other bald trees whose lives retreat inside the wood like beavers hibernating in their lodge until spring calls.

We shall never know how many seasons and what history the tree has witnessed. A storm long ago tore off a side from its massive bole, losing the rings that recorded its antiquity. Perhaps it is the oldest in the eastern USA, though the official record is held by a Bald Cypress in the Black River of North Carolina, a spritely youth when Daniel prophesied, and still waits for the Apocalyse.

When I join midstream the retreating tide carries me through a changing landscape. Vegetation that thrived at the start of my journey cannot tolerate saltier mudflats. But far from barren, cord grass and fiddler crabs abound, frogs croak and an osprey plunge for a bass. I love drifting in these middle reaches, wishing they had no end.

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