Igrew up in Newport News, Virginia, in a home on the James River near the mouth of the
Chesapeake Bay. I learned how to swim in
the river, how to row a dinghy, how to fish
and crab, how to read the wind and waves,
and how to lose myself in the river’s daily ebb
And like all kids, I knew every inch of my
neighborhood. I knew every beach, pier, jetty,
and seawall. I knew exactly where to wade to
find soft crabs at low tide, on which rocks
and pilings to net hard crabs at high tide, and
under which sunken logs lay fierce-looking
(and biting) oyster toad fish. The river was
truly a wonderland of life—clear water and
vast underwater grass beds full of crabs, fish,
oysters, mussels, and clams. In the fall,
dozens of white deadrise workboats hovered
offshore harvesting oysters. And during the
winter, the river was black with waterfowl; on
still nights the air was filled with their quacks
It was an idyllic youth, a Huck Finn-Tom
Sawyer childhood, and the James River was
its focus and heart.
But as I became a teenager, the river changed.
The water grew persistently muddy, making
it impossible to see crabs and fish beneath the
surface. Sandy beaches eroded away to rock
and clay. The grass beds full of life disappeared. Tar balls and litter washed ashore.
And the wintertime flocks of ducks thinned
to just a few birds. The James River seemed to
be fading with my youth, and while I had no
clue why, I distinctly remember wishing it
wasn’t so but feeling helpless to stop it.
Eventually I concluded the changing river
was just another difficult part of growing up,
of letting go of childhood, of accepting those
unfortunate realities of teen life like report
cards, gangly bodies, and broken hearts. The
older I got, the farther the James River of my
youth receded into memory. Then it was off
to college, adulthood, relocations, jobs, marriage, and family. I never solved the mystery
of the river. I thought I never would.
Fast-forward 25 years and an 18-year career
with CBF. At CBF I learned about nitrogen,
phosphorus, and sediment pollution; about
excess fertilizer and manure; about wastewater; about sprawl development and urban
runoff; about lost wetlands and forests; and
about cloudy water and dead zones. And I
learned that the health of the Chesapeake Bay
had been declining for centuries, finally bottoming out in the 1960s—just about the time
I noticed the James River begin to die.
And then it hit me. What was killing the
Chesapeake Bay was the same thing that was
killing the James River: too much pollution. I
was thunderstruck. At last, a riddle that had
frustrated me for decades was solved, thanks
to CBF. Even more significantly, CBF was
demonstrating every day that the James and
Chesapeake were fixable. There was nothing
absolute or immutable about pollution. It is
caused by man; it can be stopped by man.
But most profoundly, CBF allowed me to be a
part of the team working to ensure the Bay
and the James River will be restored, so that
one day another kid growing up beside
another river can discover its wonders.
Thank you, CBF, for the answer to a lifelong
mystery, for bringing my life full circle, and
for one of the most satisfying careers I could
ever have had. Save the Bay!
Ebb and Flow
By Chuck Epes
Chuck Epes grew up scrambling
over rocks along the James
River hunting for critters.
Chuck retired from CBF in
August to go scrambling again.
Growing up on the James River,
Chuck Epes witnessed firsthand its decline.
He worked with CBF for 18 years to
educate the public through the media.
CBF was demonstrating
every day that the
James and Chesapeake