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The Roanoke River, once a polluted and odiferous mess, is enjoying a new life as an outdoor destination for people fishing, riding, walking, floating or just looking around.
When I was growing up in Salem in the 1950s and 1960s, the Roanoke River was a loathsome place where my mother said I “would get sores” if I wade-fished it.
Mom’s warnings had some basis in truth. On one secret angling expedition where I defied her admonitions, I observed great gobs of foul, foamy blobs floating by as well as dead fish lining the shore. On another, I stepped on a car hood that left a gash on a leg.
Some 50 years later, our urban waterway is a far different place, and on several weekends I set out to talk to folks who enjoy the Roanoke these days.
On a Sunday, I arrive at the Salem Rotary Park access point on Route 419. The first person I meet is Cushing Holland, member of the Andrew Lewis High School Class of 1972 and still a proud Salem resident.
Cushing patiently sits reading in her tan kayak while her husband George and his friend Larry Howell fiddle with their fishing tackle.
“I don’t like to fish, but I do like to spend outdoor time with George,” she says. “So I paddle and read while he fishes. What I like best about the Roanoke is that it’s a small river and easy to float, not like the New River with all those big rapids.”
Next, I talk to George.
“This river is a whole different place than it used to be,” he says. “I remember back in the 1960s when the pollution and smell from the Leas and McVitty Tannery would take your breath away and foul the river. The Roanoke was so trashy that nobody wanted to fish it, except in the spring when it was stocked with trout.
“Now, I love coming here. It’s close to home, and the scenery is great.”
“Oh, and I saw a bald eagle here one time,” chimes in Cushing. “Who would have thought that would ever have been possible.”
I walk over to Larry Howell, clearly a serious angler. Tackle boxes and a rod are neatly arranged on his kayak, and he already has a light brown plastic salamander tied to a jig with a pink head.
“I caught a 16 ½-inch smallmouth bass here once,” he proudly—and justifiably—proclaims. “I’ve got a secret bait.”
“Light brown plastic salamander on a pink jig?” I inquire.
Howell looks to the side, sheepishly grins… then changes the subject.
“I started out fishing the Roanoke from the bank near my home in Wasena,” he says. “The fishing was so good for trout and smallmouth that I decided to start floating the river and been doing it ever since.”
The next person I meet is Jamie Gold from Sterling. While the previous interviewees are all in their 60s and retired (except for Howell who works part-time at a dry cleaner’s), Gold is a hard-charging, 46-year-old D.C. data analyst who travels all over the East Coast to fish. When he could have paddled two nearby, nationally known rivers—the James and New—how did he end up spending this day on the Roanoke?
“I like to fish new places,” he replies, “plus James Revercomb [see sidebar] told me the river from Rotary Park to Wasena offers great fishing and is one of the few places where float fishermen can catch both smallmouths and trout. And he was right, I’ve caught rainbow and brown trout, smallmouth and rock bass, and redbreast sunfish today. I’ve never caught such a variety of fish anywhere I’ve been.
“James also told me that the Rotary float would feel as if I were fishing out in the country and that the shorelines were covered with trees and vegetation. For an urban river, that was hard to believe, but he was right about that, too. I’ve heard the sounds of trains and cars, but once I floated under the 419 bridge, all I’ve come across are a few buildings and you’re the only person I’ve seen. This part of the river really has a remote feel.”
Gold adds that he has experienced two events for the first time: watching a mink capture a fish and a black-crowned night heron stalk prey.
Rain begins to fall, then comes down in sheets, and I don’t see another person until I’m almost at the Wasena access point where I encounter two little boys (in their Sunday-best white shirts plastered to their skin from the downpour), chucking rocks into the river as their respective 30-something parents look on. When I debark from my canoe and approach the assemblage, one of the women shouts, “It’s Mr. Ingram, my Lord Botetourt English teacher. What are you doing here?”
I explain my presence to former student Jenny Powell Brady class of 2000, now a stay-at-home mom who keeps an eye on three-year-old Jamison as he continues to hurl rocks.
Her husband Brian, a small-business investor, approaches, smiles, says that he too graduated from LB, though was not in my English class.
“We come to Wasena Park a lot,” he says. “It’s not far from our home in Bonsack, and Jamison loves the playground. We like the combination of the greenway, a walking bridge, and the water. It’s so nice to have a place like this in the city.”
Andy Brady, a cellular retail store manager, and wife Mariah, a physical therapist, who live “just 100 yards from the park,” then introduce themselves and their three-year-old son Cormac.
“Mariah and I come to ride bikes, visit the playground, watch baseball games, and for Cormac to play in the water,” Andy offers. “We don’t have to put swings and a slide in our backyard. We just come here to do those things and meet other families with children. This is where Cormac learned how to ride a bike. Living in this neighborhood is a real quality of life issue for us. Wasena has pretty much everything a kid could want.”