Trail News

Forty Years After Buying his First Canoe, Ecotourism Guide Still Loves to Paddle

rowers on canoe floating to shore
August 17, 2021

Tim Smith had never been canoeing but wanted to try it so he made plans to meet a buddy on the Hollywood Rapids on the James River.

His friend brought a canoe. So did Smith. He bought the same one, an Old Town Pack, without ever having canoed before. What Smith didn’t realize was his friend’s canoe was filled with floatation equipment to add more buoyancy to stabilize the boat. Smith didn’t have any of that. He stepped into his canoe and stepped right out — into the water.

“From there we did it; it was a life learning experience,” he says, advising,  “Always test a canoe before you buy it so you know it’s suited for what you want to do.”

As thrilling as whitewater canoeing was that day, that’s not the type of canoeing Smith now favors. The Tappahannock resident is retired after decades of working in Parks and Recreation, serving as director in King George and Dinwiddie Counties. Today he gives tours out of Four Mile Creek in Henrico in waters calm and shallow enough to relax the most skittish paddler.

Nothing quite beats the tranquility of paddling on the water, says Smith, who will include historical and environmental tidbits depending on the audience’s interest. No matter who’s in the boat, the views are spectacular.

“For the last three years, we’ve been seeing a bald eagle’s nest,” he says. “It’s that close to the creek. We’ve seen river otter, deer, wild turkey, beavers, raccoons, osprey, great blue heron and a host of other waterfowl.”

On a twilight canoe trip, Smith will have a hoot calling for owls. Three different species of owls — the Screech Owl, the Barred Owl and the Great Horned Owl — each respond to different calls. “Those are the ones you find around the water,” he says.

Smith’s also enjoyed paddling in the Shenandoah Mountains, and on a few occasions, he’s traveled to the Middle Peninsula, enjoying the Mattaponi River and Dragon Run. Aylett Landing just before St. David’s Episcopal Church is an ideal launchpad for the Mattaponi as is Herring Creek, where birding and fishing await. Dragon Run is another paradise distinguished by cypress swamp along the river.

After years of narrating ecotours, Smith never tires of watching faces light up the first time they experience all that a canoe can offer.

Canoes tend to keep paddlers drier than kayaks and they move at a more rapid pace. Canoeists often feel as if they’re flowing with the water they’re in, an indescribable feeling unless you’ve experienced it.

“I think it’s about finding a peace,” Smith says. “You’re out there and you don’t hear a lot of other traffic in most places. It’s just you and nature. I would encourage people to start with a county-sponsored trip. They’re short trips and you’re right there experiencing something special.”

Smith now owns three canoes, including that original one from 40 years ago. Of course, he encourages folks to try canoeing first before they invest in a boat.

Chances are, once you experience paddling in a canoe, you’ll be planning a return visit before you get back to the car.