An hour past a September sunrise, two women pushed a purple canoe down a grass bank and into a slightly choppy sea. A north wind and a rising tide had been piling water into this western reach of the Lynnhaven River for two hours. Alone in the chop, the women were striking out on an unlikely adventure – an expedition to chart the headwaters of Thalia Creek, a scribble of intermittent serenity that winds past schools and marshland, snippets of forest and the towers of Town Center.
Lillie Gilbert is 60 years old, an author, activist, naturalist, champion canoeist, conservationist, compulsive explorer and owner of Wild River Outfitters in Virginia Beach, the area’s oldest outdoor adventure store.
Lillie-the-author and her sidekick, botanist Vickie Shufer, needed to find and photograph the headwaters of Thalia Creek for their book due out in December. It’s their third paddling guide to local waterways, this one from Corolla, N.C., to Cape Henry.
Lillie-the-activist had a concurrent mission: scouting locations along the creek that the city could designate as launch sites for canoes and kayaks. These would allow more people to discover what Lillie-the-conservationist knows so well: Tidewater is a tangle of waterways alive with nature and layered with local lore, worth seeing … and saving.
But today, Lillie-the-explorer would also get an aquatic adventure, charting a creek she’s not sure anyone has paddled before.
And so, with the wind and tide at their backs, the pair maneuvered the purple canoe toward the mouth of Thalia Creek.
In 1975 , Lillie’s phone rang and her life changed forever.
Want to take a canoe out into the Dismal Swamp? It was her friend, Nancy Andrews .
Nancy, an avid sailor who grew up in Tappahannock , knew something of the sea. Lillie, raised in Florida , knew almost nothing. Golf and tennis, those were her games.
But Lillie had heard tales of the swamp, about how it provided refuge for runaway slaves and how it teemed with wildlife. She wanted to hear its hum, taste its murky, tannin-stained waters, see Spanish moss dripping from the trees and float into its center, Lake Drummond .
In short, both women felt compelled to explore this wilderness, and the hour long drive with a borrowed canoe strapped atop the car made the trip feel even more like an adventure. Then they put in at a ditch and made their first discovery: “We didn’t know how to paddle,” Lillie said.
The pair banged one side of the bank, pushed off, paddled and then banged into the other.
This is stupid, Nancy recalls thinking. Both women had master’s degrees. Lillie was a Virginia Beach school teacher, Nancy a forensic chemist. It can’t be this hard, she thought. We’ve got to figure this out.
When the women reached the mouth of Lake Drummond, serene waters stretched out before them, a respite from the banging. But Lillie sensed something else.
A bear, she whispered. There’s a bear up there. We should go back.
Be calm, Nancy whispered back. It will go away.
Nancy hadn’t realized Lillie wasn’t wearing her glasses.
“When we got up to that bear, it was a cow,” Lillie said. More than 30 years later, it still makes both women laugh.
The two never saw another soul in the swamp, and as the day went on, they made another discovery.
“We found out,” Nancy said, “that we could make a canoe go straight.”
For Lillie, exploring nature under her own power stirred something inside.
“I instantly loved it,” she said, and she’s never stopped exploring.
On the Thurston Branch of the Lynnhaven River, the tide was still rising, pushing Lillie and Vickie closer to Thalia Creek. They passed a green day marker, No. 57 , posted on a piling. It signals the southern terminus of the dredged channel. Large houses gave way to modest ranches, most without docks.
It’s surprising how many places you can get to by water, Lillie said as they approached a fork in the river.
A turn to the right would take them to Pembroke Mall. For Lillie, that murky vein represented a bit of unfinished business. The no-name flow traces a row of houses and ends abruptly at a tall cement wall, streaked with dirt and tide and topped by a vine-covered chain link fence. Water flows into four holes in the cement, which extend underneath Constitution Drive and then, perhaps, the mall’s parking lot? The largest hole is about four feet across and dungeon-dark.
Once, Lillie asked Nancy to go in there with her, to paddle to the no-name creek’s end and into the culvert to see where it would take them. Nancy declined.
“It’s probably better left unpaddled; there’s so much good stuff out here,” Lillie said grinning impishly, as she and Vickie turned the canoe left into Thalia Creek.
At the creek’s mouth, they passed Princess Anne High School , the stadium scoreboard visible through the trees on the right. Almost immediately afterward, they passed the playground of Thalia Elementary on the left, where Lillie spent part of her 17 years teaching.
“There are so many waterfront schools in Virginia Beach,” she said. To her, that means dozens of potential put-ins for paddle-powered boats.
The pair paused at what appeared to be a bank of waving grasses. But Lillie and Vickie, who toss around plant names like the names of old friends, saw something far different – a stand of invasive phragmities fronted by native cordgrass. Indians used tough phragmities stalks for arrow shafts, but today it’s choking mid-Atlantic marshes. Lillie pointed to the grasses with her black carbon fiber paddle. Could the nonnative grass take over the banks of Thalia Creek? She lobbed the question to Vickie.
“It’s too salty and too inundated with water,” Vickie answered. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
The incoming tide slid them through a dark, cement sluice where Virginia Beach Boulevard crosses the creek. There was more marsh on their left and soon, a wall of apartments on the right, built snug to the creek bank. A yellow and green street sign screamed that this was the corner of Constitution and Castilian .
A pair of oaks clung to the bank, providing shade and a point of reference for paddlers. They stopped. Vickie snapped pictures. It was a perfect spot to suggest the city designate as a put-in.
Where to put the canoe in? Soon after that Dismal Swamp paddle, it became a constant question for Lillie and Nancy.
Not many people were paddling back in the mid-1970s. Luckily, Lillie and Nancy had two buddies, Charlie Barton and Joe Edwards , who introduced them to “real camping in the woods, which meant not in commercial campgrounds but in the wild,” Lillie said. The highlight of these weekend adventures was canoeing. The women progressed from the placid Tidewater terrain to raging whitewater.
And they loved it – the danger, the speed, the athleticism and brain work involved in navigating boulders shouldering tons of roiling water. Never mind that on one early foray they wrapped their borrowed aluminum canoe around a rock. Forget that in the Appomattox River they broke a boat in half. They were in.
Together Nancy and Lillie bought a tough, ABS plastic canoe, a huge improvement. “If you hit a rock with aluminum, it will stick to it,” Lillie explained. “Plastic boats slide off right easy.”
One weekend on the Potomac River , Lillie and Nancy witnessed their first whitewater canoe race. And there, paddling furiously through the froth, they saw women’s teams.
Their lives changed.
Lillie looked at Nancy and said, “We’re going to paddle a race!”
In 1977 , they entered their first, the Southeastern U.S. Whitewater Championships . They finished third in the women’s open-boat division, three minutes and 49 seconds behind the first-place team.
Later that year, they took silver at the Dan River Wildwater Canoe Races in Virginia. Racing – and winning – became an obsession.
The off season was spent sprinting across their home court, the Lynnhaven flatwater, paddling mightily, imagining whitewater hazards like hydraulics and holes. Nancy ran for miles on days off the river, and Lillie lifted weights at whichever gym offered a free membership that particular week.
All of it was to build endurance for the coming season’s races, intensely competitive miles-long courses that required teamwork, strategy, paddling skills and more than 60 strokes.
They spent the early part of the 1978 race season collecting silver and gold in regional races. In August, they upped the ante.
Lillie and Nancy arrived at the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania a couple of days before the American Canoe Association National Whitewater Open Canoe Championships . The Tidewater contingent pulled into the campground with two tiers of canoes tied to the top of Lillie’s converted International mail truck. The entourage included Lillie’s husband, Joe , a few friends and R.E.B. Stewart III , who owned a small outdoor outfitter company in Suffolk.
The Youghiogheny is a raging, dam-controlled river. The race course traversed eight miles of flatwater, one mandatory one-third-mile -long portage where they would have to carry the canoe on land, and eight miles of rapids ranging from Class II to Class IV . (Class VI is the most dangerous of the East Coast classified rapids.)
“This was big whitewater,” Nancy said. “We were like, ‘Oh no!’ “
Most of their competition arrived days earlier to learn the “Yough” (pronounced yock), and their boats were sleeker and lighter than the 68-pound Mad River Canoe they borrowed from Joe Edwards . A wisecrack about their “pig” boat from another team sent their competitive nature into overdrive.
A championship run would require memorizing the swiftest and safest route through rapids with names like Dimple Rock, Bottle of Wine and Cucumber . During hours-long practice runs on the days before the race, Lillie and Nancy scouted the best course, and then Lillie scrawled “left” or “right” on the bottom of the canoe, a sort of topographical cheat sheet.
“If you’re not in the right place, you’ll turn over,” Nancy said. “That’s death in an open boat.”
On race day, two competitors dropped out because of practice run injuries – a broken shoulder and a sprained ankle.
Before boarding their “pig” boat, Nancy and Lillie employed a bit of low-tech strategy by duct taping water bottles to the back of their life vests. Tubes snaked over their shoulders so they could drink water without missing a stroke.
Lillie recalls they paddled as fast as they could for more than two hours. At the end of the course, they had no idea they were the new national women’s champions, winning by about 2.5 minutes.
The pair went on to win national titles in ’80, ’81 and ’85 , when they upped the ante again by also competing in the mixed division with male partners. Nancy and her partner finished first; Lillie and her partner second.
“That,” said Lillie, “was an incredible day.”
Lillie doesn’t do whitewater anymore. Although she looks perfectly fit, she says she no longer has the strength. Oddly, the oxbows in the placid waters of Thalia Creek remind her of those days.
Her eyes lit up when she and Vickie approached some switchbacks, narrow ribbons of water curving through dense marsh and curving back again. It’s a scene so serene that it seems impossible this creek could be the official dividing line of two of the most heavily populated ZIP codes in Virginia Beach.
“Isn’t this wonderful,” Lillie said as she and Vickie maneuvered expertly around the bends. “Wouldn’t this be great for a race?”
In 1983 , when Lillie was teaching gifted children at Old Donation Center , a man from the city’s planning department gave her a giant map of Virginia Beach, taller than her 5-foot, 4 -inch frame.
It changed her life forever.
Lillie hung it in her classroom and asked her students to mark the locations of their homes with a red dot. They all spent a lot of time looking at the map, and one day Lillie noticed a blue line that seemed to squiggle unbroken from top to bottom.
Lillie knew the local waterways as well as the roads, but she had never heard of an inland route from the Chesapeake Bay to the North Carolina line.
Is it really there? she wondered. A waterway like that would have to traverse tough terrain that had probably never been navigated – swamps, bogs and stretches choked with brush snakes, but also an abundance of wildlife.
Is it really there? I’m going to find out.
She called Nancy.
“Let’s do it,” Nancy said.
The pair put in at the wide expanse of water at Lynnhaven Inlet, packing loppers, a saw and a pocket full of shiny dimes. They crossed under the low, concrete bridge over Virginia Beach Boulevard near Great Neck Road and then shot under I-264.
Winding waterways took them past grass marshes, neighborhoods built flush with the creek, past forests, stretches littered with trash and wetlands. Whenever they passed under a bridge, they beached the boat. Nancy ran one way, Lillie the other, both trying to pinpoint their location. Then they’d run to find a pay phone to call a landside friend who was helping them map out the trail.
They paddled down London Bridge Creek , near Lynnhaven Mall , an area choked with garbage and where the lunar tides gave way to wind. The water began to lose its salinity, causing the flora and fauna to change.
Farther south, in West Neck Creek , the water darkened, and they passed a thick stand of maple, sweet gum and tulip poplar trees. Off to the east stood a towering bald cypress, which Lillie would later learn was centuries old and one of the largest bald cypresses in the state.
They turned the nose of the canoe left and into North Landing River, a long stretch that led to the border. Eight hours after they started, the women were exhausted and exhilarated. They had paddled and hacked their way nearly 30 miles from Lynnhaven Inlet to the North Carolina line.
Along the way, Lillie-the-activist bloomed.
The following year , she made a presentation to the Virginia Beach City Council, asking that it work toward “preserving this last little piece of scenic water for all the people who follow us.”
Lilllie’s passion for conservation came on much like her passion for paddling. She began to relentlessly pursue the idea of a series of waterway trails through the city. She plopped politicians and journalists into canoes, fed them lunch and revealed the glory she and Nancy had found. The women organized fundraisers and cleanups where volunteers pulled everything from two-by-fours to television sets out of the waterways. She joined boards and commissions.
At the same time, business was booming. A few years earlier, she and Nancy partnered with R.E.B. to open a tiny store called Wild River Outfitters in the Churchland section of Portsmouth. She and Nancy bought out R.E.B. and in 1983 moved the store first to Witchduck Road and then to Virginia Beach Boulevard, its present location, and tripled its size each time.
The red tape and politics of preservation were no match for a savvy businesswoman who challenged raging rivers for kicks. In 1986 , three years after she and Nancy hacked their way to Carolina, a formal dedication ceremony for the Virginia Beach Scenic Waterway System took place at Munden Point Park , where canoes and kayaks lined up for an inaugural cruise.
Since that first success, she’s never veered from advocating for the environment and recreational waterways.
“It might seem like it’s all in the interest of her business,” said Brian Solis , a Virginia Beach parks and recreation city planner who has worked with Lillie on several projects. “I believe that she has the same passion for showing the citizens of Virginia Beach what’s right in their backyard. She speaks passionately, yet objectively. She has a keen sense of what is a priority to preserve in the city.
“Without her there would be a void in the city’s scenic waterways.”
Nancy has since moved to Vermont , but anyone who knows Lillie wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months or a year she has organized the first-ever Thalia Creek Canoe-a-Thon. Or coaxed someone else to do so.
For 11 years, she was a principal organizer of Paddle for the Bay , an ocean race and paddle-a-thon that has raised more than $12,000 for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation , much of it used to seed oysters in the Lynnhaven River.
When the city was discussing building boat ramp facilities at the Lesner Bridge on Shore Drive, there were no plans for a canoe or kayak launch site. Lillie suggested that a sandy beach on the site be designated as such and that it be left in its natural state. “All we as kayakers want is a sandy beach,” she said. Today, it’s a popular launch.
Lillie assisted in the development of the Horn Point canoe/kayak launch in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge , which provides paddlers access to the brackish bay and creeks, something she wanted for years.
She’s helped shape the (as yet unfunded) $7 million Thalia Creek greenway plan, a winding sequence of small parks and walkways presented to the City Council last month that would connect Thalia Creek to Town Center and Mount Trashmore, and the corresponding “blueway” for which she is scouting canoe and kayak put-ins.
She sits on a slew of commissions and boards, and she’s a charter member of a women’s investment group.
Lillie wasn’t thinking about all that on the Thalia Creek paddle. She and Vickie had a book to finish, and this waterway had a story to tell. There used to be a bridge over the water not too far from Steinhilber’s restaurant; farther back into the Thalia neighborhood there once was a World War II POW camp, and an infamous madam built herself a retirement home there, which still stands today.
It’s the stuff of Lillie and Vickie’s paddling guides – history, biology and topography.
It was hard to guess just where the headwaters of Thalia Creek lay. One turn led to a constricted passage, which must surely be the end. The next revealed a wider stretch of water.
They paddled snakeweed covered in tiny white flowers that Vickie says are poison. Seagulls squawked, and a siren screamed in the distance. They glided past a patch of pink flowers. Unsure of their name, Vickie broke off a few to look up later.
“There are lots of secrets here,” Lillie said, and the pair paddled still deeper into Thalia Creek.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Virginian-Pilot. Reprinted with permission