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Paddles, Puddles and the Great Outdoors

Exploring Virginia State Parks by water

April 2024

(Courtesy Sammy Zambon)

by Amanda S. Creasey, Outdoors Writer

When Crystal Hughes of Norfolk, Va., finished the Virginia State Parks’ Trail Quest program last year, visiting all 42 state parks, she told herself she “wasn’t going to get all wrapped up in Paddle Quest.”

Not long after, she found herself on the water. “I just felt like I had to do it, even though I told myself I wouldn’t,” Hughes, the AmeriCorps program manager for the state parks, says.

Between May 2023, when the program began, and the end of January 2024, Hughes had paddled seven of the 31 parks participating in Paddle Quest, a Virginia State Parks’ program that encourages visitors to explore the parks on the water. Participating parks offer paddlers the opportunity to explore various rivers, lakes and the bay while earning a variety of prizes for logging their paddling adventures on the Virginia State Parks’ Adventure page.

Those who wish to participate in the initiative and enroll in the program online can explore the water in three ways: a ranger-guided paddle trip, a self-guided paddle adventure using their own equipment, or a self-guided paddle with equipment rentals from the park. Not all parks offer rentals, so checking each park’s page for a calendar of events and equipment availability is important.

While the prizes prove both fun and practical, the experience of paddling the parks is a reward in and of itself.

Even though participating in Paddle Quest means revisiting parks with which she is familiar, Hughes has enjoyed it.

Sammy Zambon, who has worked for the state parks for 22 years and currently serves as the visitor experience specialist, explains, “Exploring a park by paddle is a unique experience. The connection between paddler, boat and water can be very meditative and relaxing. There is no better way to get close to wildlife.”

Jessica Bowser

Jessica Bowser, host of the Virginia Outdoor Adventures podcast, which will feature an episode about Paddle Quest in May, also touts the benefits of paddling parks she has already explored. “I get to go back and re-explore places I’ve been in a completely new way. Exploring a park by water is vastly different than exploring it on land. It’s two totally different experiences,” she says.

Zambon, who has paddled 24 of the 31 participating parks, cites Caledon as his favorite paddle. “While paddling there I have seen bald eagles, bioluminescent jellyfish, and some of the prettiest sunsets in Virginia.”

One of Bowser’s favorite paddles is Kane’s Creek in Mason Neck State Park. “Kane’s Creek in the summertime is covered in gorgeous lily pads and blooming lilies and wild rice, and you often see bald eagles, osprey and great blue herons. There are dragonflies everywhere, and frogs croaking.”

Kiptopeke State Park is another favorite. Paddlers there can paddle out to ghost ships. “Watching the sun set behind the ghost ships, you see the pelicans flying in and landing on the ships, and the gorgeous bright-orange sun. You’re floating on water with dolphins all around you. You sit out there and think there couldn’t be anything more beautiful in all this world.”

In addition to the natural beauty of the parks, Hughes enjoys meeting like-minded people, recalling a full moon paddle she completed at Caledon State Park. It was attended by “this amazing group of people who just wanted to get out on the river and look at the full moon. By
the end of the night, we were all joking around and having a blast.”

Participating in Paddle Quest has also inspired Hughes to try paddling in formats she wouldn’t otherwise have.

“I’ve always kayaked, but I went canoeing for the first time at Hungry Mother State Park during one of their interpretive programs. I was terrified but then I was like, ‘Wow, I just accomplished something that I’ve never done before.’”

Guided paddles like the ones Hughes has done provide opportunities for comfort, expertise and safety. “If you’re nervous, that is an amazing way to start,” Hughes says.

Bowser also advocates for the benefits of ranger-led paddles, which often offer “unique experiences you can’t do on your own. Mason Neck, for example, occasionally has sunset paddles or full moon paddles, but normally closes at dusk.”

Currently, Paddle Quest boasts roughly 600 participants, and Zambon hopes to see that number grow. He started Paddle Quest hoping “participants discover the joy of paddling and it becomes a lifelong activity. My goal is to grow a new group of paddlers that see and value our parks from a different point of view.”