Mapping the James River is something that has been done before. You can interact with the James River Parks on their website, and even see the trails you can walk on.

Given the layers of mapping of the James, it was difficult to figure out what we could add. The place has been mapped, but the people have not. The James is diverse, both in terms of people and activities.

We walked the edges of the James, talking to the people we encountered. At first, it was a little awkward. We carefully considered our first Belle Isle interview, but by the time we finished the first day, our group had a system. Jennie conducted the interviews, Hunter worked the camera, and I made the milestone.

The milestones we mapped were the locations of the people we talked to. In order to create the map, I made a map on ArcGIS online and connected it to the App ArcGIS for Collector. Using this app, the members of the group could all collect GPS points and associate notes with each one. Upon our return, I expanded the notes and attached the interviews to the points.

We asked simple questions, such as “What is your favorite place on the River?” and “Have you heard about the latest conservation efforts?” Some of our most powerful answers came from parents, spending time by the River with their kids. “Why do you do this?” I asked my professor as we stood at the Earth Day Festival at Great Shiplock Park. We were distributing petitions for CCAN (Chesapeake Climate Action Network) and telling passerby about Dominion’s plans to dump coal ash wastewater into the James. She pointed at her son, who was running around, his face painted like Spiderman. “I do this for my kids,” she responded without hesitation.

That view of the James for the future is what struck me the most. The James River isn’t ours. We use it and abuse it, but we can’t own it. In one sense, each person we talked to got to be part of the history of the river. In a far greater sense, the James is still wild. It’s been here before the founding of Richmond, and it will be central to the city no matter how it changes.

By Logan Hardin