Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Row, Row, Row Your Boat - Part 1

If you are not familiar with the Occuquan, it is perhaps one of the oldest and most overworked bodies of water in the northern Virginia area, coming a close second to the Potomac itself. In simple geological terms, it is the lower half of Bull Run creek, which somehow is renamed to the Occuquan River as it broadens out. ‘Occuquan’ is derived from and Algonquian Doeg Indian word, meaning "at the end of the water". Therefore literally, it is ‘at the end of the water’ river. Yes, Bull Run creek is that Bull Run creek that runs through the Manassas battlefield and supplied the geographical marker that the Yankees used to name the battle (southerners using the more appropriate ‘Battle of Manassas’ moniker for the same actions). Below the Sandy Point dam is the lower Occuquan, which empties into the Potomac.
The earliest documented use of the area that I am aware of is at Wolf Run Shoals ford, Where Washington and Rochambeau marched across it to get to Cornwallis. There is ample evidence of various mills and now destroyed dams along river, with the final dam still being in place just below Sandy Point serving to essentially stop any noticeable flow of the river except after a large rainfall. The ‘reservoir’ part comes in as the dam diverts a lot of the water to supply most of northern Virginia with drinkable water.
Since it is a water supply, Fairfax and Prince William County have established some very tight rules for its use. There is of course no swimming. This is a restriction that I don’t really understand except that since it is a government owned and controlled waterway it must be a liability avoidance measure. It surely is not there to account for the small percentage of people who cannot control their bladder (or other bodily functions) while submerged in water. They also limit motors on boats to less than 10HP or electric. I suppose the thought there is marine oil and gas are probably a real problem for the water purification process, so the less of that there is the better. There is one boat I see occasionally that I think routinely circumvents this law. It is an antique steam powered launch about 15 feet long that is powered by burning wood or coal.  There is no rule for wood powered boats! On the other hand, I have never seen it go very fast, so I suspect that steam engine can’t generate more than a couple of horsepower.
These rules make the Occuquan an ideal location for kayakers and rowing. Since all boats are slow moving, there is usually plenty of time to avoid collisions. Additionally, since the motorboats are low powered, there is usually no turn over risk from large wakes. With little or no current, a paddle up or down stream is an equivalent effort, wind strength or direction notwithstanding. Finally, with miles and miles of navigable water, the only limiting factor is available put in locations and a paddler’s endurance.
There are 6 put in locations for this water (above the dam). They are the Rt. 28 bridge just north east of Yorkshire and  south west of Centreville, Bull Run Marina off Davis Ford Road, below the Lake Jackson dam off of Rt. 234, Fountainhead Park, Lakeridge Park, and Sandy Run Park. In theory you can also put in at the Rt. 29 bridge at the battlefield, Wolf Run Shoals Park, or from Hemlock Park, though I have never seen anyone attempt that. I suspect there are rules that prevent you from launching in the creek at the battlefield, and the carry to the creek at Hemlock and Wolf Run Shoals is about a ½ mile.
The Rt. 28 put in is in a location where Bull Run Creek has current, and the creek quickly becomes clogged up north of there. The closest takeout point is seven or eight miles downstream at Bull Run Marina. The put in there requires no fee.
Bull Run Marina is five miles from Fountainhead, but requires a pass and a key fee to get past the locked gate to the launch point; both fees are jacked up if you are not a resident of Fairfax. In theory you can park across the road from the marina, take the path down south of the Yates Ford bridge, and put in for free there (about 100 yard carry). Again, I have never seen anyone do this. Alternatively you can risk your life and your boat by crossing the busy road on an almost blind curve and putting in at the marina dock (which I have seen people do), but really – who needs that excitement?
The put in below Lake Jackson dam is free, but there is only a couple of legal parking places which are usually used by fisherfolk if the weather is good. While there has been a lot of cleanup, the launch beach still has a pieces of glass in the sand, so good water shoes are required. There may be a current, depending on how much water is coming over the dam and tributaries from recent rain. The closest takeout point from there is Bull Run marina, about 9 miles away, going down the creek, entering the river, then going upstream to the marina.  I have never put in from there.
Fountainhead is probably the most common put in location for the Occuquan. Since it is on the Fairfax side, they charge a jacked up fee for non-residents. They are open year round and rent kayaks and canoes there.
Lakeridge is my usual put in location. The yearly pass is cheap (being on the Prince William side of the river), the marina there is open seasonally, and if they are not open, you don’t really need a pass. It is about a mile downstream to Sandy Point, 3.5-4 miles upstream to Fountainhead. This is the calmest section of the river from a flow perspective. The downside is since the marina is co-located with the rowing club, it can get real busy on the weekends. The club has its own low floating dock, which would be great for entering and exiting a kayak, but I usually just use the marina ramp, as the rowing club discourages other users of their dock, especially while they are there doing their launch & recovery.

I have never even been to the Sandy Point facility. It is ‘row central’ for the Occuquan and of no interest to kayakers as I don’t think they even allow launching from there. From what I can tell, it is a highly regulated place which I find best just to stay away from. I suspect you can’t even park within a reasonable carry distance for a hand launch. Nuff said.
That is my fifty cent tour of the Occuquan. In the next installment, I will actually ramble on about my outing there on Sunday. Until then, fair weather and following seas!

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