The prettiest office in the world

The James River Riverkeeper serves as the river’s eyes and ears

Illustration by Shawn Yu

If you’re Chuck Frederickson, it’s hard to have a bad day at the office. Then again, Frederickson’s workplace is a 340-mile-long river, its tributaries and the surrounding land—a 10,000-square-mile office that comes with an open-ended job description: Be the eyes and ears of the river.

Frederickson is the James River Riverkeeper, a public advocate for the wellbeing of the river. While he works under the umbrella of the local nonprofit James River Association, the Riverkeeper program is allied with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which focuses on watershed and waterways protection worldwide. On the James, Frederickson’s job is to be aware of what’s happening all along the river, to help monitor its day-to-day health, to be alert to anything that might adversely affect it, and to call in the appropriate parties to rectify existing problems or address potential ones. One day, Frederickson might be reporting a fish kill he’s discovered to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, another day testing water quality, and on another taking a local erosion and runoff control supervisor out for a waterfront tour.

All these things he does in collaboration with a broad network of government agencies, nonprofits, scientists and researchers, individuals and businesses. “They’ve got the confidence that if I report something—if there’s something I’ve seen—it’s because I’m out here all the time, actually seeing what’s going on,” says Frederickson. “We have strong laws on the books to protect the river, and we’re helping to enforce the laws we have, and we’re coming up with creative solutions to other problems.”

On the Monday before Memorial Day weekend, the day’s assignment is to check for signs of spring growth of underwater grasses (or SAV—submerged aquatic vegetation, if you want to talk the lingo) in Herring Creek, a beautiful tributary stream bordered by hundreds of acres of marshland, just below Westover plantation.

Frederickson sets out from the marina at Jordan Point in Hopewell, where dozens of large, sleek pleasure boats are docked. The sun is bright in a clear blue sky, but a stiff wind out of the west bends saplings on the shore and blows the water into whitecapped, two-foot peaks, what the Beaufort wind scale would call a “fresh breeze.” After the weeks of regular rainfall this spring, last year’s lingering drought has finally been put to an end, but the river is looking like a textbook tale of runoff. At the marina dock, the water is the color of strong, milky tea, but in the main body of the river it’s nearly opaque, with an orange-brown tint that speaks of countless mud-stained creeks, eroding stream banks and bare-clay ground somewhere up-river.

With the wind behind him, Frederickson cruises easily downriver in the Riverkeeper’s boat, a 23-foot Maritime Skiff Patriot. A burly man with a ready laugh and an amiable manner, he rides the water with an ease born of long familiarity, one boat-shoed foot kicked up on the starboard gunwale. In 1960, when he was 12, Frederickson moved with his family to Hopewell, where he lives still, and he hasn’t been able to keep away from the water since. Even in his teenage years, when one of the foulest stretches of the river lay between Richmond and Hopewell, he’d go water skiing, though he admits that you didn’t want to stay in the water long, “and if you fell in the mud, it was kind of greasy and hard to get off.” Now, he says, that same stretch is home to blue catfish, eagles, sturgeon and other wildlife and is a popular destination for boating, wakeboarding, kayaking and fishing.

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