Williamsburg-born Shannon Alexander never strays far from the water. She grew up on the Outer Banks fishing and crabbing and revels in the memory of finally being old enough to cross the highway by herself where the beach was her playground.
Her graduate school days were as much about water as they were about education. She designed kayak trips as part of one hands-on class and implemented them in Florida’s Biscayne Bay with “clients” she found on her own. Long before the pandemic, Alexander embraced online learning because as long as she had an internet connection, she could be a student anywhere. She made the most of it, living on a yacht in the Bahamas and out of a camper in New England for a spell and even traveled to Thailand for six months to explore and volunteer in coastal communities restoring mangrove forests.
Alexander had already accepted a job to tend bar and serve at a fancy Nags Head restaurant when she decided to keep an appointment to interview to be an ecotour guide. That conversation took place in a kayak, enough to convince her to change course.
“I made less money, but I got to go kayaking five or six days a week,” she says. “We did tours from the Corolla line all the way inland to the other side of Manteo Island, in Alligator National Wildlife Refuge and down Oregon Inlet. We were just all over the place.”
Alexander paddled a different waterway every day giving tours while she finished up her capstone project to complete a master’s degree in coastal zone management. That figured to launch her into an office job, only truth be told, she wasn’t ready to sit behind a desk all day.
The company gives guided ecotours in Gloucester, Urbanna, Mathews, Yorktown, the Eastern Shore and West Point. Nearly a decade into owning her own business, Alexander still finds something special in paddling a group along the unspoiled waters of the Middle Peninsula.
“When you’re approaching these beautiful coastal areas and launching, you’re driving past beautiful cornfields and hundreds of acres that exist without people,” she says. “When you’re telling a story, you can really make a clear connection between the activities on the land or the lack of activities on the land and the impact they’re having on the water.”
Then there’s the historical aspect.
“Virginia is the history of the United States, so it’s fun and easy to imagine, especially when you have people visit that have recently been to Jamestown Settlement or Williamsburg,” she says. “It’s easy for them to picture life hundreds of years ago when you’re paddling along and there are no houses for sometimes miles at a time.”
Tours often result in meeting watermen oystering, crabbing and fishing, continuing what’s often a legacy in their families. She makes a point to stop to say hello.
“I like to ask about their day and what they’re fishing,” she says. “You hear some fun accents if you’re in Guinea or another area.”
History buffs will enjoy learning about The Inn at Warner Hall, home to George Washington’s grandmother, while they pass by on the Severn River. They’ll be up close to where Bacon’s rebellion, the first armed insurrection by the American colonists against Britain and the Native Americans, took place from 1676 to 1677; the event is considered a precursor to the American Revolution.
Alexander likes to share the lore behind the death of Nathaniel Bacon Jr., whose body was never found. Some believe his patrons stowed it in an iron casket before dumping it in the Poropotank River.
“You can imagine the ghost is haunting the Poropotank,” she says, while encouraging to keep an eye out for eagles, waterfowl and deer.
Bay Country Kayaking tours generally last 2½ to three hours. Alexander relies on a staff of skilled guides who personalize the tours based on requests. In May, she became the Coastal Region Steward and Regional Supervisor for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. She’s behind a desk some, but in the field plenty as the manager of 22,000 acres of preserves.
Alexander is never out of a kayak for too long. Paddling has become more of a restorative experience for her. Even when she gives guided tours, she’ll be sure to make quiet time part of them.
“I find it very meditative,” she says. “You listen to the waves and the wind and the grass moving in the wind.”
The beauty of it is that’s all you’ll hear.