A caucus of congressmen engaged in teasing banter, occasionally splashing each other with their paddles, as they kayaked down the Clinch River in mid-July.
The afternoon paddling adventure in St. Paul was part of the Virginia Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus’ first weekend field trip (they’d had a muddy ATV roller coaster ride through some of the town’s 100 miles of mountain view trails that morning), and it was up to The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley program director to make a good impression.
Between the joking and the fun, Brad Kreps interjected St. Paul’s selling points, highlighting the Clinch River and soon-to-come State Park—hopefully with the congressmen’s support.
“The Clinch is a national treasure,” Kreps said. “It has one of the highest populations of rare species in the country.”
The Field Trip—Why St. Paul?
Less than 1000 people live in St. Paul, Virginia. So why did the caucus decide to take their very first field trip to a town barely one square mile in size?
The answer—Kreps. Taking the caucus paddling on the Clinch River created the opportunity to discuss the national importance of the river and the economical opportunities the recreational hotspots in the area have to offer.
“We want to have a conversation about recreation that’s good for the economy and the environmental resources we have in the region,” he said. It’s important “to protect and restore the river…that can connect with supporting local communities.”
St. Paul’s been looking for new business opportunities, since its coal mining industry isn’t what it used to be.
“Production and jobs associated with the coal industry have been on the decline,” Kreps said. “There’s this need for economic diversification.”
The Western Front Hotel—where the caucus’ members stayed during their trip—and the Clinch Life Outfitters saw the opportunity to profit from St. Paul’s surrounding natural treasures.
General manager of the hotel, Catrina Mullins, said the boutique place, which opened this year, is planted in a hotspot for recreation, located right by the river.
“I’m self-proclaiming this as a resort destination,” she said.
For Donna Johnson, owner of the river outfitters, business has doubled this year. She said the company went from having one bus to two, and is looking to get a third soon.
“We’re always booked,” she said.
State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, said he, along with all those who participated in the field trip, are interested in supporting the construction of the Clinch River State Park. The General Assembly already approved $2.5 million for the first phase of the park in 2016.
Kreps said the finished park will run along the Clinch, which begins in Tazewell County and travels through Russell, Wise, and Scott counties and ends up in Tennessee.
“Our vision is to have anchor properties 300 to 400 acres in size on the river large enough to eventually have things like campgrounds and visitor centers,” he said.
These properties will be prime locations to use on multi-day paddling trips.
“If there’s an opportunity with [the State Park], we’ll work with it,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s outfitter company and the hotel are only two examples of jobs that will benefit from the State Park.
During the construction phase, they’ll be engineering, architectural and carpentry jobs, then the permanent park staff and seasonal employees, Kreps said.
And they’ll be “indirect economic benefits and jobs related to the park…when people coming to visit buy food, fishing licenses, tackle, gas…” he said.
After their paddle along the river, the congressmen rested their sore muscles while they learned about the mussels they’d help release a little later.
More than 40 species of mussels call the river home. Twenty of those are listed as federally endangered.
Take the golden riffleshell—the Clinch River is the only place in the world where it can be found. Its species became almost completely extinct after an oil spill that leaked into the river in 1998.
Earlier this year, 700 captively grown golden riffleshells were released into the Clinch River in an effort to save the species. The animals are key to water cleanliness and quality.
“The mussels are cleaning the water for free for us,” Kreps said.
Not only are mussels little Brita filters, but they’re also full of fascinating personality.
“Mussels have developed an ingenious way to attract fish species,” Kreps said. “Some of the mussels will create an appendage off of them that looks like a little fish.”
A host fish will bite on the appendage as if it’s bait, he said. That’s when baby mussels explode off of their mother and attach themselves to the fish like parasites.
The parasites “live and grow on the fish for a period of time,” he said. “That’s how [mussels] move around a lot.”
They use the fish as a transportation device, developing a key relationship between the two creatures.
There are also more than 130 species of fish in the Clinch, according to Kreps.
“Most of the fish are the little guys—shiners, sculpins, darters—they’re incredibly beautiful,” he said.
The Caucus—What’s Behind the Members’ Love for the Outdoors?
“When you’re behind a screen 24/7, it’ll get you out,” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg. “Out here…I don’t have to look at my phone. I can’t answer…political drama.”
For Hurst, the outdoors is an escape from a job that seems to follow him almost everywhere he goes. For Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, it’s a passion—he grew up on a farm and hunted and fished often.
“I have an explorers heart,” he said.
Speaking to the caucus’ field trip, Edmunds said, “We get to hang out in areas we talk about but never see.”
The caucus is made up of bi-partisan delegates and senators who share the common goal of protecting and promoting outdoor sports in Virginia, such as hunting and fishing.
“It’s a non-partisan issue,” Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, said, grinning at Democratic Party’s Hurst. “Everyone can support outdoor recreation.”