After eight days on the water, the group completed the third and final leg of a 340-mile journey covering the entire river. Organized by the James River Association, the James River Expedition is a floating classroom teaching students about environmental science, ecology, biology, preservation and history.
Kyle Burnette, lead educator for the association, said the southernmost segment of the river is often the most grueling because the group is not always paddling with the tide.
"The lower James is a beast," he told the group of family and friends that amassed on the beach to welcome the students back to shore.
J.W. Brown, 16, of Mathews, said he hadn't known anyone else on the trip when he signed up, but wanted to challenge himself physically and mentally.
"You're paddling down the river with the same person all day," he said. "By the end, you're family."
The group huddled together at the end of their journey to share some of the things they had learned.
"Forty years ago, this place was a dumping ground for chemicals and trash," said 14-year-old Kirkland Shaffner, from Mechanicsville. "Now it's kind of awesome."
Shaffner, the youngest member of the expedition, said he had never been canoeing before the trip.
His mother, Dolly Shaffner, said she encouraged her son and a friend to go because of her love for the water.
"We had a boat when I was a little girl," she said. "I knew this would be something a little different for him."
The expedition, in its fourth year, is broken into three parts, each tackled by a different group of 10 students. Much of what the students learn along the way helps supplement what they are learning in classrooms during the school year.
Burnette, one of four guides, said each part of the river differed in many of the same ways that each of the three groups of students differed.
"It's place-based education," he said, "giving them first-hand experiences."
The lower tidal portion stretches from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way the group camped along the shores and toured riverside farms, industrial facilities, power stations and historical sites including Jamestown.
"This doesn't end here," Burnette told the group as they said goodbye. "The river will always be here, hopefully. Go swim in it. Go fish in it. It's your river.
"Our goal is to create the future stewards for the James River."
Rockett can be reached by phone at 757-247-4942.