The Prettiest Office in the World

Chuck Frederickson knows more about the James than anyone – and is an advocate for its wellbeing.

Shawn Yu

The Prettiest Office in the World – Feature

If you’re Chuck Frederickson, it’s hard to have a bad day at the office. Then again, Frederickson’s workplace is a 340-mile-long river, its tributaries and the surrounding land—a 10,000-square-mile office that comes with an open-ended job description: Be the eyes and ears of the river.

Frederickson is the James River Riverkeeper, a public advocate for the wellbeing of the river. While he works under the umbrella of the local nonprofit James River Association, the Riverkeeper program is allied with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which focuses on watershed and waterways protection worldwide. On the James, Frederickson’s job is to be aware of what’s happening all along the river, to help monitor its day-to-day health, to be alert to anything that might adversely affect it, and to call in the appropriate parties to rectify existing problems or address potential ones. One day, Frederickson might be reporting a fish kill he’s discovered to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, another day testing water quality, and on another taking a local erosion and runoff control supervisor out for a waterfront tour.

All these things he does in collaboration with a broad network of government agencies, nonprofits, scientists and researchers, individuals and businesses. “They’ve got the confidence that if I report something—if there’s something I’ve seen—it’s because I’m out here all the time, actually seeing what’s going on,” says Frederickson. “We have strong laws on the books to protect the river, and we’re helping to enforce the laws we have, and we’re coming up with creative solutions to other problems.”

On the Monday before Memorial Day weekend, the day’s assignment is to check for signs of spring growth of underwater grasses (or SAV—submerged aquatic vegetation, if you want to talk the lingo) in Herring Creek, a beautiful tributary stream bordered by hundreds of acres of marshland, just below Westover plantation.

Frederickson sets out from the marina at Jordan Point in Hopewell, where dozens of large, sleek pleasure boats are docked. The sun is bright in a clear blue sky, but a stiff wind out of the west bends saplings on the shore and blows the water into whitecapped, two-foot peaks, what the Beaufort wind scale would call a “fresh breeze.” After the weeks of regular rainfall this spring, last year’s lingering drought has finally been put to an end, but the river is looking like a textbook tale of runoff. At the marina dock, the water is the color of strong, milky tea, but in the main body of the river it’s nearly opaque, with an orange-brown tint that speaks of countless mud-stained creeks, eroding stream banks and bare-clay ground somewhere up-river.

With the wind behind him, Frederickson cruises easily downriver in the Riverkeeper’s boat, a 23-foot Maritime Skiff Patriot. A burly man with a ready laugh and an amiable manner, he rides the water with an ease born of long familiarity, one boat-shoed foot kicked up on the starboard gunwale. In 1960, when he was 12, Frederickson moved with his family to Hopewell, where he lives still, and he hasn’t been able to keep away from the water since. Even in his teenage years, when one of the foulest stretches of the river lay between Richmond and Hopewell, he’d go water skiing, though he admits that you didn’t want to stay in the water long, “and if you fell in the mud, it was kind of greasy and hard to get off.” Now, he says, that same stretch is home to blue catfish, eagles, sturgeon and other wildlife and is a popular destination for boating, wakeboarding, kayaking and fishing.

Frederickson has been the Riverkeeper for five years, and in that capacity, he’s somewhere on or along the James at least three or four days out of every week, and often more. And he’s likely to be out on the water, in his own boat, on his off days, too.

In all the years he has lived by the river, played on it and worked on it, the worst he’s seen, he says, was the devestation wrought by Hurricane Isabel. The river widens and slows so much by the time it reaches Hopewell that floods coming downriver don’t usually make much of a dramatic difference there, but in Isabel, says Frederickson, a wind-driven wall of water pushed up the river and raised it 12 or more feet above normal high tide, scouring away riverbanks, flooding wetland areas and sucking all kinds of debris into the James. In the teeth of the storm, he fought his way down to the marina to find water nearly to the top of the parking lot; in the morning, “all the boats were stacked up like matchsticks.” Nearly five years later, Frederickson can point to damaged shorelines and other lingering evidence of Isabel’s passage.

One of the best moments he’s experienced, by contrast, was the day when he came across Virginia Sea Grant Program scientist Chris Hager and a graduate student from VCU on the water near the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge just as they’d caught a huge, nine-foot sturgeon in a net. “That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen,” says Frederickson, who estimates that the sturgeon was probably 20 to 25 years old or even older.

Today, it’s a short ride to Herring Creek. Frederickson pulls out his high-tech tools of the day: a garden rake and a Secchi disk—a flat, black and white disk attached to the end of a rope, used to measure water transparency.

He plunges the rake into the water and brings up a squishy glob of silty gray mud trailing a few emerald green plants—hydrilla. It’s not a native plant, but it can coexist with native grasses and serves the same helpful functions—anchoring sediments, taking up excess nutrients, providing a nursery for juvenile fish and crabs and food for other animals. Huge beds of underwater grasses once blanketed large sections of the James and its tributaries; the gradual return of these plants is both an important indicator of the river’s health and a key to its continued recovery.

To grow, however, these underwater plants need sunlight, and the more sediment suspended in the water, the less the sunlight penetrates. The Secchi disk allows Frederickson to estimate how far down the light can reach. He drops the disk in the water, where it quickly sinks from view, then hauls it back up until it becomes faintly visible again. Different colored plastic cable ties spaced at even intervals on the rope tell him that visibility is about half a meter today, about half of what it needs to be for the grasses to thrive.

In the area below the falls of the James, the river both slows and widens, and in the stretch between Richmond and the Chickahominy, the sediments that were hurried downriver by the faster-moving waters begin to settle out. Here, then, is a good place to see clearly—or rather, not clearly at all—how much sediment moves down the river.

“A lot of people think that dirt happens, that the river is supposed to get muddy,” says Frederickson. “Yes, erosion is a natural process, but we don’t have to help speed it up.”

The return journey to Hopewell is not so smooth, with Frederickson’s boat powering into the wind and jouncing across the steadily advancing waves. The river is deserted today, a situation that will change dramatically with the coming holiday weekend. What seems at first like an insignificant hunk of driftwood comes into view, but it turns out to be the root end—and only visible part—of what must be a fairly large tree, waterlogged and submerged and floating downstream, a reminder that the river is always full of surprises. “You gotta watch out for those,” observes Frederickson dryly.

Back at the marina dock, Frederickson says the biggest change he’s seen on the James is not only the river’s improved health but also a stronger desire for keeping it healthy among everyone from individual citizens to the large corporations with which he works. “Most people have an awareness that we can’t just take our environment for granted,” he says. “I think we are at a stage where most people want to do the right thing.”

Nobody has a better sense of what that means than the Riverkeeper. Eyeing the windswept river, Frederickson admits that it’s a rare day—whether cold, windy, raining, whether the sun is blasting down from a midsummer sky, whether he’s soaked, sweaty, sunburned—when he doesn’t love being out on the water. “I tell people I’ve got the prettiest office in the world,” he says. “Don’t mess it up.”

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