When I was young, I thought all rivers were called "Rappahannock." Its exotic-sounding name thrilled and enthralled on weekend trips to my father's Blue Ridge Mountain homeland where we canoed the cool, clear rapids of its headwaters and explored curved, muddied sandbars as if Pocahontas explorers. Every summer, we'd follow that same river down to my maternal grandfather's house on the tip of Virginia's Northern Neck where the Rappahannock grew into something altogether different--a thick, open, salty expanse perfect for sailing and swimming and that flowed mightily into the Chesapeake.
The Rappahannock was the only river in the world to me then, and I knew every inch of it . . . or so I thought.
But then roughly two weeks ago, I found myself on the bow of a 17-foot Whaler discovering a part of the Rappahannock I'd never seen: the middle. I sat surrounded by steep, white, and red cliffs (called Fones Cliffs) rising more than 100 feet in the air on one side of the river and a wide sea of wild rice, pickerel weed, and arrow arum on the other ("a bread basket for birds and fish" my guide and CBF educator Bill Portlock told me).
It was a gray day--the air smelling of rain, and the sky on the verge of breaking open and pouring down on us. But it was anything but gray. The cliffs were alive with bald eagles gliding high above the black locust, white oaks, and tulip poplars that struggled to hang onto the crumbling banks. Across the river, swallows (a clear sign of autumn), blue dragonflies, and monarch butterflies flittered above and in between Beverly Marsh while migrating soras whinnied their two-noted calls.
I asked Portlock, who has more than 30 years of experience taking students, teachers, and other eager river rats like myself on Chesapeake waters, if he has a favorite spot in all the watershed. "This one," he said without a moment's hesitation. He explained that here one can truly "envision a part of Chesapeake Bay the way it was 400 years ago."
But this place--perhaps the truest remnant of what the Chesapeake was--is also potentially the site of a massive, 1,000-acre (or roughly 750 football-field) development*. These cliffs, that provide one of the most important bald eagle habitats on the East Coast, could be turned into 718 homes and townhouses, 18 guest cottages, an 18-hole golf course and driving range, 116-room lodge with spa, 150-seat restaurant, a small commercial center, a skeet and trap range, equestrian center with stables for 90 horses, a 10,000-square-foot community barn, and seven piers along the river.
--Text and photos by Emmy Nicklin
CBF's Senior Manager of Digital Media
UPDATE: On November 12, the Richmond County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the Diatomite Corporation's request to rezone Fones Cliffs. This is heartbreaking. We are disappointed that the board has voted to approve the rezoning of the nearly 1,000 pristine acres of Fones Cliffs for a massive commercial-residential development, and we are examining all appropriate options for protecting this treasured site. Many thanks to all of you who have signed petitions or attended meetings or spoken out at public hearings all in an effort to save this extraordinary place. Your support has been tremendous, and we hope we can count on you as we move forward in this fight.
*The part of Fones Cliffs that was owned by the Diatomite Corporation of America. Diatomite has since sold it to Virginia True.