The Natural and Human History of the James River Watershed
Come join us on our next VCU adventure down the James River
Application deadline is March 29th, 2019 (The trip is from May 20th to June 7th)
Come join us on our next VCU adventure down the James River
Application deadline is March 15th, 2019

The Story of this Course

This expedition class explores the intersection of human and natural history in the James River and its watershed. By immersing themselves in this environment, students will experience this intersection firsthand, learning the landscape that shaped the development of many cultures, including our city, state and nation.

The James River is a feature of profound natural and historic interest in the history of our nation. In many ways the history of human settlement in the James River watershed mirrors the history of the United States. 👣

“To hear the birds and see them fly; to walk up to a tree, take a leaf and sketch it in our notebooks - it's the physical and mental connections that I get. It really helps me with learning.” – Alissa, FOTJ '16

First offered in 2014, this expedition offers an immersive field study experience to place students in a landscape that has been shaped by its inhabitants over the last 10,000 years and is central to the development of the nation in the 400 years since European settlement. Faculty from the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Biology, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Rice Rivers Center, the History Department, and the Outdoor Adventure Program came together to offer VCU students a new way to learn about the importance of the James River to the inhabitants of Virginia and the nation.

James River at Scottsville looking at Horseshoe Bend

The 2019 Footprints on the James Expedition will travel for 19 days (May 20th to June 7th), covering 185 river miles. The journey begins at the Falls of the James in downtown Richmond and proceeds by kayak downriver through the Tidewater to the colonial capital at Jamestown Island. The class then travels to the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains 🌄 and returns to the river at Lynchburg. From Percival’s Island in downtown Lynchburg, the class travels through the Piedmont by canoe and batteau1, retracing the historic trade routes of the late eighteenth century for the remainder of the class, finishing our journey near the dams above Richmond.

1The James River batteau were handmade wooden boats usually 50-70 feet in length, 7-9 feet wide and carried upwards of 10,000 pounds of tobacco and trade goods up and down the James River between 1775 - 1880.


19 days |
185 river mi.



1The James River batteau were handmade wooden boats usually 50-70 feet in length, 7-9 feet wide and carried upwards of 10,000 pounds of tobacco and trade goods up and down the James River between 1775 - 1880.
The class on the Lower James, paddling from Presquile National Wildlife Refuge toward Shirley Plantation

This year’s expedition will offer students two classes, BIOL391 The Natural History of the James River Watershed and ENVS491 Expedition Management, for a total of 6 credits. These courses will be taught in tandem and have been specifically developed to reflect the immersive nature of the experience.

Learning natural history in an expedition format offers several unique and important opportunities to our participants. BIOL391 emphasizes observation and application of quantitative and qualitative field skills to observe and evaluate the natural features of the James River. ENVS491 encourages students to work as team members and provides introduction to expedition management, group dynamics, and leadership skills 📣. Students will learn best practices for frontcountry and backcountry camping, outdoor living skills, multi-day canoeing and kayaking methods and practical application of Leave No Trace principles 🏕. These will be assessed periodically by the review of reflection and observation journal entries and cumulatively by a final practical exam.

FACTOID: 2018 was the wettest year for the James River in the last 124 years
Students learn sampling techniques and examine estuarine fish populations at the VCU Rice Rivers Center
“In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Field lessons on the James River

The class course work will be presented in several formats. First, there will be ample opportunity for primary experiential education. This will include elements of community ecology, stream ecology, vascular plant identification and hydrology. Students will be tasked with periodic goals relating to these topics over the course of the journey. Second, will be presentations from faculty and topical experts🦄 throughout the course. Third will be peer to peer presentations based on topical subjects during the course.

All work will be recorded in a bound journal. This journal will contain daily entries, natural history observations, lesson notes and data and personal reflections on the journey. Students should count on writing and sketching for approximately one hour per day. These journals will be provided to you as part of the course fee. Student progress will be assessed by student participation, periodic journal reviews and a final written and practical test.

Each student should undertake this experience with an open mind and a clear sense of purpose. This includes developing an expedition mindset to maximize the opportunities for personal growth. It will be up to each of us to do our part to generate and maintain an environment conducive to safety and learning. We must each do our part to treat our classmates as we wish to be treated.

FACTOID: By January of 1608, only 38 of the 104 colonists left by Captain Newport the previous June remained alive.

Trip Life

All participants will be living, travelling, and learning in variety of camping locations in close proximity to the James River and its watershed. From the first night out 🌌, everyone will be living out of a backpacking tent and eating meals prepared by our classmates. Most of the nights will be spent in a different place from the evening before. While there will be a night back in Richmond, we will spend nearly three weeks in the field. No experience is expected or necessary to apply for this experience. All we ask for is an open mind and willingness to challenge yourself to live and learn in new ways.

The class at Jamestown Beach, excited to finish the first leg of their journey!

Showers, grid electricity and refrigeration will be infrequent if not absent. The class will take place during the early summer in Virginia; students will have ample opportunity to consider mosquitos, heat, sunburn, ticks, chafing, and body odor 🧟. To accommodate this, the day to day operations of this trip will be largely the responsibility of the student participants. This will require both self discipline and cooperation among our members.

Living arrangements are established enough to maintain a smooth flow of work and life without being burdensome. Our goal is have everyone cooperate to ensure a healthy environment in which is conducive to learning. To this end, students share group responsibilities by rotation. These responsibilities include traditional expedition management practices,participating in educational opportunities, writing daily journal entries ✏, and managing the unexpected. Student Trip Leaders from the Outdoor Adventure Program will demonstrate skills, delegate authority, define duties, and make all final decisions when necessary.

Running the rapids in Higginbothams Falls aboard the batteau 'Slate River' near Appomattox County, VA
“The advantages to accrue to the United States, from opening this channel of intercourse between the eastern and western States, are those which necessarily result to the whole body from whatever benefits its members, and those which must result to the United States, particularly, from savory measure which tends to cement more closely the union of the eastern with the western States” – Chief Justice John Marshall

Course Goals

Students should be able to:

  • identify the major features of a river system and its related watershed
  • discuss the distinguishing features of the James River and its watershed
  • identify, compare, and discuss features of a biological system of interest in each of the regions of the river
  • recognize and understand many of the ways in which human habitation and development have impacted the James River, and vice versa
  • understand & explain connections between the river and the land which surrounds it
  • understand expedition goal setting
  • understand logistical, gear, food and field support considerations for expeditions of this nature
  • identify risk management concerns and how to address them
  • understand the elements of group management in the back country and proper expedition behavior and leadership

If you have any questions, please contact Daniel Carr at or Katie Schmidt at To apply, please complete the online survey no later than March 29, 2019.