Imagine a creek on the edge of the Roanoke Valley that when it roars to life has top-notch rapids rivaling those at premier whitewater spots across the East Coast.
It’s a paddler’s paradise.
For more than a decade, that flowing nirvana has been off limits to local canoeists and kayakers, but after a navigability reassessment of more than a dozen creeks and streams across the state, Johns Creek in Craig County is now open for public use.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has re-evaluated the navigability of 14 waterways across the state stretching from Warren County in the Shenandoah Valley to Craig, Franklin and Botetourt counties in the Roanoke Valley and determined that the streams are navigable and thus open to the public.
Johns Creek has long been at the heart of a confusing legal battle that dates back to Colonial times. The issue involving creek navigability and king’s grants, which established creek beds and river banks on land granted by kings as private property, pit paddling enthusiasts against landowners.
“With river access, what I’ve seen is ambiguity creates conflict,” said Kevin Colburn, the stewardship director for American Whitewater.
That conflict peaked on Johns Creek in 1999 when a Craig County farmer whose land borders the creek filed trespassing charges against a Roanoke paddler for running the creek without asking permission. The farmer, Joe Looney, owned a 200-acre farm that included both sides of Johns Creek.
At the time, Looney’s lawyer said the land was first granted to a landowner in 1760 by England’s King George II. About a dozen owners later, Looney purchased the land in 1964.
The paddler, Karl Albert, was convicted and had to pay a $50 fine. Since then, most paddlers have avoided the creek despite its challenging Class IV or higher rapids.
This weekend, Roanoke paddlers journeyed to Johns Creek to clean up an acre of land with parking spaces and a changing area owned by American Whitewater and used as a boat launch. The land has been unused for most of the past 15 years following the Craig County court ruling.
While the water level is too low to put in, the cleanup is a chance for local paddlers to celebrate the efforts of fellow paddling enthusiasts, state lawmakers and members of the VMRC to reconsider the navigability of Johns Creek and other bodies of water across the state.
“Virginia paddlers have been working with leaders in the state to get better clarification over where people can paddle and cannot paddle,” Colburn said. “It’s not a change in law or a change in rules; it’s just the interpretation of a policy they’ve had for many years. With that change, it definitely brought some certainty to a place where there has been a lot of ambiguity for a long time.”
Roanoke attorney Peter Katt, who calls himself a paddling lawyer because of his passion for the sport, has previously helped with legislation that would have clarified which Virginia waterways were accessible to the public. A 2013 bill would have set statewide guidelines for which streams are navigable, something that was previously set on a county-by-county basis.
That bill and others didn’t make it out of the General Assembly.
“It has always been the goal of the paddling community, before I even got involved in it, to get [Johns Creek] back open,” Katt said.
Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, was prepared to get Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring involved, but then he found out the VMRC had set standards for navigable streams.
The state senator solicited a list of waterways that needed navigability determinations. In March, VMRC commissioner John Bull issued a letter saying 14, including Johns Creek, are navigable and the water bottoms are state property because the watersheds of each exceed five square miles.
“If you can put a canoe in it, it’s going to be more than five square miles, said Chip Neikirk, the VMRC deputy chief of habitat.
Craig County Sheriff Clifford Davidson said he hasn’t dealt with any problems between landowners and paddlers on Johns Creek in the past three to five years. During the five to 10 years prior to that, there may have been two or three incidents sheriff’s deputies responded to, he said.
Craig County Commonwealth’s Attorney Thaddeus Cox recently advised the sheriff of the VMRC ruling and said he would not prosecute paddlers on Johns Creek. Cox was not available for comment.
Now, instead of paddlers having to prove that a waterway is navigable, landowners have to prove that it’s not, Marsden said.
“My view is that yeah, we have property rights here in this country, but at the end of the day, we’re all renters,” he said. “We’re not going to be around forever. Let’s share the resources.”