I first became acquainted with Les Parks through his gardening blog, A Tidewater Gardener, where he shares beautiful photographs of his own garden as well as those of gardens he visits. However, I must confess that I was even more excited to hear that he had started a new website, A Tidewater Paddler, focused on his kayak paddles through the Tidewater Region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. I’ve been wanting to add more information on US 17 Coastal Highway regarding the wonderful kayaking opportunities along the US 17 Corridor, and this seems like a good place to start. I think you will agree.
All of the photographs shown are those of Les Parks, and are posted here with his permission.
US 17: First, share a bit about yourself – and how you came to live near a stretch of Highway 17 in Virginia.
Les Parks: With the exception of a three year vacation in Charleston, SC, I have lived in Virginia my entire life. I was raised in Richmond, but was born on the Eastern Shore, where my ancestors first settled in the early 1600’s. With a lineage that long you might think there would be some famous member of the Parks family or an old plantation or something, but no. Apparently they were content just to hunt, and fish, raise crops and babies – there are a lot of us on the Shore. The first time I lived in Norfolk was to attend Old Dominion University and shortly after graduation I left swearing to never live in the city again, which I considered uglier that it had to be. However, love has a way of changing a man’s mind, and I moved back to be with my wife after my all too brief stint in the Low Country. Today I am old enough to realize that life is where you make it, and I enjoy living in a vibrant Norfolk. Part of what makes the city more livable is the Norfolk Botanical Garden where I work. If any US 17 Coastal Highway readers come to the garden for a visit, please introduce yourself.
US 17: I’d like you to tell us about your webpage, A Tidewater Paddler – when did you start this project?
Les Parks: For several reasons, I started A Tidewater Paddler over a year ago. After I began kayaking intently, I was soon taking my old point-and-shoot camera with me, but I was unhappy with the quality of the photos. They just didn’t capture the beauty of the places I was seeing where water, land and sky meet (though they are the only photos I had available for some of my older trip reports). I knew my other camera would do a much better job at capturing what I wanted, but I was afraid to bring it on the water. So with some birthday money, I invested in a waterproof case large enough for my good camera, but small enough to be a good fit in the limited space of a kayak. I quickly built up a library of photos and started looking for new waterways to explore and photograph. I initially documented some of these adventures on my first blog, A Tidewater Gardener, but thought I could only post so many of these trips on that site before my gardening audience might drift away. So I began A Tidewater Paddler, which from the start I wanted to be more of a resource for other paddlers, less editorial and more practical than my other blog, yet I still wished to convey the beauty of what I was seeing. Although I am not religious, when I’m on the water, just me in the world, I often feel very spiritual, and if what I do on the blog causes someone else to seek out these places, then my work is done.
US 17: How do you geographically define the Tidewater region of Virginia – and what do you think contributes to the region’s uniqueness?
Les Parks: Technically Tidewater is the area of the state between the fall line and the ocean, where the water is affected by the tides. The area is special to me because it is home, but there is also great natural beauty here that comes from the combination of water, land and those marginal places in between. Tidewater also has different plant and animal communities than the rest of the state. This is especially true in southeastern Virginia, where the environment and climate have more in common with coastal Carolina and Georgia than it does with the rest of the state. Tidewater is also unique culturally with a cuisine largely influenced by what can be pulled from the water and grown on the land. In places, you can also hear people speak with a distinct Tidewater accent, but sadly this is fading as our society as a whole becomes more homogenized. Another thing that makes this area special is its rich history, which does not just figure importantly in the story of Virginia. Many key events in our nation’s history took place here, and many of its important figures walked here.
US 17: Your photographs are just beautiful on A Tidewater Paddler – when did you become interested in photography?
Les Parks: I have been interested in photography since I was a young adult, but with the advent of digital photography it became an affordable hobby for me. I can now take hundreds of photos and not be concerned that only ten would be keepers. I currently work with a Nikon D5000. I had wanted a nice digital SLR for a while, but a pending trip to the Colorado Rockies prompted me to make the purchase. I unashamedly process all of my photos with Adobe Photoshop. Sometimes things have to be cropped, and color and light need to be tweaked.
US 17: For readers of US 17 – what paddles along the Highway 17 corridor in Southeastern Virginia or (Northeastern North Carolina) do you recommend?
Les Parks: I can recommend a couple of different places. Paddling the Nottaway and the Blackwater Rivers is like going back in time. The shoreline on both rivers is rich with ancient bald cypress, wildlife abounds and you may have difficulty recalling what century it is. These two rivers meet at the state line to form the Chowan in North Carolina which 17 crosses in Edenton. I also like paddling Merchants Mill Pond just south of here in Gates Co., North Carolina. This manmade pond was formed about 200 years ago and is also full of bald cypress, only these are draped with lots of Spanish moss. It is an eerie, otherworldly place, and is one of the most northerly homes of the American alligator. My favorite trip this fall was to Waller Mill Pond in Williamsburg, but only because I got there for peak fall color which was spectacular. My Waller Mill and Blackwater trip reports have yet to be posted on A Tidewater Paddler, but that will give me something to do this winter.
US 17: Are any of your favorite paddles threatened by regional growth/development? Are there groups working to protect these areas that perhaps US 17 readers might want to know about in case they’d like to get involved?
Les Parks: I do not know of any specific area that is under immediate threat from regional growth or development, and fortunately there are now many regulations about what can take place along the water’s edge. I’d say the biggest threats to Tidewater’s waterways and wetlands are from sea level rise, and off-site pollution in the form of agricultural runoff and the overuse of fertilizer and insecticides by the lawn obsessed. There is a local group here called the Elizabeth River Project that is trying to change how people live and work near the water, and they are diligently working to clean up the Elizabeth River, parts of which flow parallel to 17 in Portsmouth, Virginia. They recently converted a former EPA superfund site into a nature park only a few blocks from 17. I would also like to sing the praises of The Nature Conservancy, which has done much to help get critical and vulnerable wetlands in eastern Virginia protected.
US 17: Now I have to ask – how much of Highway 17 have you traveled down? Do you have a stretch of Highway 17 (besides where you live in Virginia) that is your favorite – and what makes it special?
Les Parks: I have travelled 17 from Winchester, Virginia to Brunswick, Georgia. For 16 years of my life I worked at a garden center right on highway 17 in Suffolk, Virginia, so parts of it I know like the back of my hand. My favorite part of 17 is the stretch from Gloucester to Fredricksburg, Virginia. This stretch follows the south shore of the Rappahanock through rolling hills and forests, interspersed with tidal creeks and wetlands, past small towns and centuries old farms and houses. It is hard for me to believe that such a bucolic and unpopulated landscape still exists so close to overdeveloped Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
I’d like to thank Les for sharing with US 17 a bit about the wonderful waterways in the Tidewater Region, and for sharing his beautiful photographs with us. Please check out A Tidewater Paddler – and keep checking in as he updates it with new paddles. Also, if you’re a gardener, check out his other website, A Tidewater Gardener – what a treat!