By Abby Seaberg
It’s a cloudy April day on the James River, and the kayaks are out on Belle Isle.
In them, paddling as hard as they can, are fourth and fifth graders from the Patrick Henry School of Science and Art. They are among a group of school kids participating in River Romp, an annual multi-sport race designed to educate young people about recreational river activities and the importance of teamwork.
“You got it!” shouts a young woman in a purple bandana paddling with smooth strokes in a neon green kayak. “Nice job!”
Her name is Rachael Moffatt, and sharing her love for the river with children is an essential part of her job. As an outdoor recreation instructor for the James River Park System, her duties include teaching recreational skills such as biking, kayaking and hiking to the park-going public. Along with her obvious skill and confidence on the water, Moffatt’s energetic personality is just the thing to corral tippy children in kayaks.
Every day at work, Moffatt is trying to expand access to the river. Some days she’s at a pool teaching children how to correct themselves in a flipped kayak, other days she is maintaining the bikes belonging to the James River Park. But her favorite days are spent outside in places like Reedy Creek, teaching the public about the river she loves.
She calls her job a “godsend.” The James, her workplace, she refers to as “my home river.”
She came to know it well during her years at VCU. Hailing from the coastal town of Poquoson, VA, Moffatt never imagined she would go to school in a city because she’s always been a very outdoorsy person. But such easy access to the river gave her the perfect fit for her college experience. She told me how she would often go to class, paddle the rapids and then head back to class. She has developed a connection so strong with the river, she even joked with me about being able to paddle it with her eyes closed.
“This is definitely the river I first connected to,” Moffatt said. “The James River will always hold a place in my heart for just the experiences that I’ve had on it, and the amount of growth that I’ve experienced over the past couple years because of it.”
Moffatt, now 22, graduated from VCU in December with a degree in environmental studies. She was also one of the first students to graduate with a certificate from the River Studies and Leadership program. Along with her studies, she also spent a lot of time on the river working with the outdoor adventure program at VCU, serving as a whitewater rafting guide on the James and working with the James River Association as a water quality monitoring intern.
Moffatt knows the river is a unique aspect of the city, a “haven of the natural world” within the urban environment that all people are welcome to use.
“We don’t charge people to use our parks,” Moffatt said. “Anyone can recreate in the river, as long as they’re taking care of it.”
Although this is only a short-term job for Moffatt, she knows she will take a piece of the James with her when she goes. Her next stop: Idaho. There she will work as a rafting guide on the Salmon River until September. After that, she’ll be paddling down the Colorado River, “the pinnacle of whitewater,” with characteristic gusto.
“She’s a bad ass,” one of her coworkers told me. I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.