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Footprints on the James

Students all over central Virginia learn about the James River Watershed every year in their science and history classes. The James has played an integral part in Virginia’s human and natural history. But how often do students get to take an up close look at the systems that make up the biology of the river, or learn the history of transporting cargo on a batteau while crewing one down the river? Students of Virginia Commonwealth University’s newest class “Footprints on the James” got to do just that this summer. Watch this video to experience some of their exciting journey.


(Video courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University)

An alliance between the VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program, History, and Biology departments lead to a long talked about a field-based, experiential learning class for nine students this summer. These students spent a total of twenty-six days and nights in the field, traveling between Lynchburg and Jamestown by way of canoe, kayak, batteau, and their own two feet. “Instead of talking about the history and biology of the James in a classroom,” said Joey Parent, Director of the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program, “students are actually out visiting the sites and seeing it first hand.” Dan Carr, the lead Biology professor on the trip, boasts how diverse the experiences of the students were. “With students from across several disciplines, and some who had never even been camping, students were able to work together to achieve something great,” he said.

One of the first hands-on biology experiences the students had on the trip was a look at the Blue Catfish, an invasive fish that is taking over the Chesapeake and its tributaries. After a lecture on the history of this species by Dr. Greg Garmen at the VCU Rice Center, students were able to get on the river and, by way of a process called “electrofishing,” catch Blue Catfish to get an idea of how much biomass these fish take up in the river. The results shocked students, as they caught and released catfish up to 50 pounds. The students learned that the record size of a Blue Catfish caught in the James is 150 pounds. The vastness of the Blue Catfish in the Chesapeake, and the fact that it is an invasive species with no predators, make it next to impossible for other species of fish to live amongst them.

After four weeks in the field, students came out of the “Footprints on the James” class with a broader perspective on the watershed in which they live, and the hard skills needed to navigate and survive on the river. Leaders of VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program are excited about the possibility of more cross disciplinary trips in the future.

Click here for information on how you, and the students in your life, can experience the James with a course or workshop at the Rice Center.

For more information on the “Footprints on the James” experience, check out this blog or go to the Footprints on the James website.

Article by: Tina Mullen, a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Creative Advertising and new Science Matters’ intern.