James River Batteau Festival celebrates James River’s spirit

The crew of the Rosalee floats downstream during the 34th annual James River Batteau Festival.

POWHATAN – With a year as good as the 34th annual James River Batteau Festival was this year, it is hard for participants to imagine it might not last much longer.

Great water levels, overall good weather, and great camaraderie among the crews of the 20 boats that participated were prevalent throughout the eight-day festival, which launched from Lynchburg on June 15 and ended on June 22 at Maiden’s Landing in Powhatan, said Gail Timberlake, past president of the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society.

“It’s been fantastic. There have been a few issues with not only our boat but others, but everybody is doing great. The water levels have been pretty near perfect. That means you can maneuver the difficult spots but it’s not so fast that you can’t stop,” said Timberlake of Powhatan, captain of the Lady’s Slipper, one of two Powhatan-based boats in the festival.

Throughout the course of the 120-mile journey down the James River, participants stop at designated points each day to camp and share their experiences.

Despite starting and ending each day at the same place, everyone has different experiences. Each boat has to navigate the depths and shallows of the James River and get their boats through obstacles such as rocks and small ledges.

Sometimes they get stuck, but when that happens, they work together to solve the problem, either within their own crew or with the help of others on the river, Timberlake said. On one of the early days of the festival, the Lady’s Slipper was stuck on rocks twice and needed help to move on. The first time, the Slate River and Mary Marshall anchored their boats upstream and downstream, respectively, and some of those crew members waded through the swift water to lend their strength to moving the long wooden boat.

Later that day, members of the Boy Scout Troop 700 out of Ashland were passing by in canoes and helped push and lift the boat off some rocks.

Meanwhile, at the designated daily stopping points or on private land along the way, spectators wait to catch a glimpse of the batteau and wave them on.

“It’s like experiencing batteau family and then extended family. The people on land along the river wait for us to come by and they wave and encourage us. They are as enthusiastic as the people on the boat,” Timberlake said.

Ned Nelson of Powhatan, captain and owner of the Fine Creek Mill, agreed the trip was wonderful. He said he celebrated that he could get up each morning and work alongside his crew to travel the river, but the conditions for the 2019 event were truly worthwhile.

But even as organizers celebrate another successful year and think about looking ahead to the festival’s 35th year, they do so understanding that any year could be a make-or-break year for the festival.

Andrew Shaw, chairman of the festival, pointed out that it is a constant effort to bring more people into the fold to build and crew more batteau and participate in not only the week-long trip but all of the hard work that goes into it.

“It is like any other institution; it is only ever a breath away from its last breath,” he said. “We plan to do it forever, but I wouldn’t say there is any guarantee.”

Moving forward, the message that festival leadership continues to send is that more people need to take on responsibilities.

“They have not written it off; they are looking for a younger generation to take the lead to keep the program going,” Timberlake said. “The wisdom of the greatest number of us that are truly getting older is tremendous, but the leadership has to be passed on. That is the way the world works.”

There are many people who enjoy coming to participate in or watch the festival, but they don’t know all the work that goes into making it happen, Nelson said. It is more manageable when many people share the load, but that takes people stepping up.

Nelson said he hasn’t missed many years since the festival started and is disappointed at the thought of it coming to an end. But if it continues, as he hopes, it is also hard to contemplate a time when he will no longer be involved.

“We know this might be an era drawing to a close, and we also know we are part of that era. We’ve lived in that era from when we were young – around 30 years old – to now our late 60s and early 70s,” Nelson said. “I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to admit I am getting older. But I have to accept I can’t do what I could do. I have to accept that I can’t get the boat ready anymore by myself. I have to accept the fact that I need help and it’s not always there, and that is what the problem is for the festival.”

That reality may be pragmatic, but it is also hard to face, Nelson continued emotionally. In addition to the idea that the festival could go away if action isn’t taken, the thought of no longer having this central gathering point to see the people he has come to know and love through the years is hard to imagine.

Chris and Betsy Trice of Goochland were also emotional when they talked about the future of Clifton Lee, the boat they helped build and have been crew members on for several years. The boat belongs to Lisa O’Sullivan, who told the crew this year that she has done it long enough and it would be her last.

“You put a lot of energy and heart and soul into it. Knowing that you are not going to see it until it just breaks into pieces is kind of a bummer. At the same time, it is a huge responsibility. We are not ready to take that on,” Betsy Trice said.

Even with that sad news to deal with, the couple was determined to enjoy every moment of the festival this year, in case it is their last, she said. The couple loves being on the river every day and sleeping under the stars at night.

“It’s also the adrenaline of getting stuck and getting through stuff,” she said.

Chris Trice added that they love that the festival is a truly unique experience that will take people out of every comfort zone – physically, mentally and socially.

“This is a huge commitment. You may have friends you hang out with on Friday and Saturday nights and it might be cool to bring them on the boat. But when you are out here six to eight days, it is a true test of your friendship,” he said.

In addition to the personal relationships participants have built through the years, the batteau festival represents a shared history and love of the James River and its history, he said. The festival encourages a deep appreciation for the history of the James River and what it has meant to Virginia.

Batteau crews have hand built replicas of the 18th and 19th century flat wooden cargo vessels that were used to haul crops, goods and even people along the river.

“It is a deep appreciation for how the river has contributed to the growth of the nation. Most of the people involved in it realize how important the river is. This is just a piece of the history of it, but it’s a major piece of it because it is how they got commerce from the upper part of the state – areas like Amherst County, Albemarle, Buckingham and all that – to the city to be shipped everywhere else,” he said.

But unlike commercially-driven captains of old who likely hurried along to their destinations to get goods to market, the participants of the batteau festival fully embrace the concept of “rivah time,” Timberlake said.

“That means don’t pay attention to the clock. We are going to get where we’ve got to get and we are going to enjoy the river as we go,” she said.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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