James Madison University

NEW COLLEGES FORMED A plan to reorganize the College of Integrated Science and Technology into two colleges took effect July 1, 2012. The new colleges are the College of Health and Behavioral Studies and the College of Integrated Science and Engineering.

READ MORE »

Shenandoah Sojourn Raises River Awareness

September 28, 2007
By: Amanda Rivera

View the Shenadoah Sojourn Photo Album

PHOTO: Shenandoah Sojourn PHOTO: Shenandoah Sojourn PHOTO: Shenandoah Sojourn PHOTO: Shenandoah Sojourn

Many groups try to raise awareness for their cause by planning golf tournaments, but for the Shenandoah River, something more meaningful seemed fitting.  After a little brainstorming, the Shenandoah Valley Pure Water Forum decided to host a five-day canoe trip down the historical river.  In hopes of creating a “signature event” to promote water issues, the JMU-initiated organization was able to touch on a lot more through their innovative program. With ten full-time sojourners on board, including one JMU student, the first sojourn took place from May 26-30, 2003, under the wing of a Pure Water Forum board director and JMU ISAT professor, Dr. Tom Benzing.  “The theme of it was building a watershed community…Weaving it into how it touches on the community at a variety of different levels,” he says.

Starting at the beginning of the south fork of the river in Port Republic, participants included “day-trippers,” such as several elected officials and representatives of the farming communities, alongside the core group of sojourners.   Conveying water quality and chemistry concepts at his day-job, Dr. Benzing hoped that the trip would provide a much more subtle appreciation for the Shenandoah.  Although this didn’t mean that opportune times for discussing existing concerns would be wasted, “We weren’t actually monitoring water quality as we went down the river, but we did highlight some areas where erosion was taking place, which is a big problem for the river,” says the JMU professor.  Visiting factory sites that are host to major companies like Coors and Merck, sojourners were able to see firsthand the use and subsequent discharge of the plants’ water source.  Following the first sojourn, ideas supporting a curriculum for elementary school children to learn about water issues were put into place.

“What happened after the first sojourn was kind of interesting.  It was so well-received, we decided that we wanted to continue the trip, we didn’t want to stop after just five days,” says Dr. Benzing.  Inscribing their John Hancock’s on a paddle, the sojourners made their mark for the next crew to continue where they had left off on their trip.  The Shenandoah Sojourn has been repeated three times after the first voyage, with great strides each year.  “We’ve floated all the way from the beginning of the south fork through the confluence of the north fork of the Shenandoah and through the main stem of the Shenandoah all the way to the Potomac River.  Of course, along the way, the program has changed a little bit [because] the issues change as you go downstream and the community changes as you go downstream,” he states.  In the 2006 sojourn, paddlers came across a major fish kill, warranting substantial concern as to why this happened, although remaining in the dark.

Logging in 70 miles of water time the first sojourn and almost 20 miles this latest sojourn, Dr. Benzing confides that the trip has shed a new light on his perception of the river, “It made me realize that people aren’t just connecting to water because it came out of their tap or they like to fish in it or something, but it’s actually a spiritual connection to the place.  I don’t think I fully appreciated that until I was there to experience it.”  It has also allowed him to bond with colleagues, as well as share the experience with his daughter who donned her own life jacket this last time.  “For me, I remember who was in my boat each day and the ones that were sojourners and stayed there for the whole trip…even when we see them four years later we talk about spending time together on the river.  It was a unique experience in that regard.”

Although Dr. Benzing hopes to educate others on water quality, he wants the learning to start at home.  Walking around the JMU campus, the professor admits that there are areas for improvement, concerning water management and the effective uses of landscaping for irrigation.  “I think it’s [the sojourn] really made people realize that water quality is a local issue,” he says.