Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Richmond by raft delivers adventures on the James
“This is not an oar. It’s a paddle, and you are going to be the power for our rafts,” Dave Fary of Richmond Outfitters told a small group of rafters, dressed to get wet on a September morning. They stood under a railroad trestle along the James River in Richmond. At 10 a.m., it was already 85 degrees. The day would be a hot one.
Fary and the other guides hauled 12-foot rubber rafts toward a sandy beach and checked each craft for safety gear. The shallow water revealed a jumble of rock ledges, boulders and small islands crowned with the green of sycamore and river birch saplings.
Just up the hill from where Fary spoke, steel and concrete skyscrapers — including the Federal Reserve Bank, SunTrust Bank and the pair of James River Towers — rise above the city’s downtown and serve as landmarks for people on the river.
But the accessibility of the James River and its dramatic drop as it travels through Richmond (falling 178 feet over 7 miles) have made this section of the river one of the nation’s best locations for urban kayaking, rafting and other paddle sports.
Richmond sits on the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, a granite outcrop that stretches from Georgia to New Jersey. Here, the harder rock of the uplands gives way to softer sedimentary rocks of the Coastal Plain. Rivers that cross the fall line are often marked by rapids and waterfalls. The Susquehanna, Patapsco, Potomac and Rappahannock rivers all drop across this glacial remnant through the cities that have grown up around them — Harrisburg, Baltimore, Fredericksburg, Richmond and Washington, DC.
At the fall line, most of these rivers are inaccessible to paddlers. They are either obstructed by dams or too dangerous for all but the most experienced whitewater paddlers. But the urban James is more approachable, offering something for everyone in every season, at almost any water level.
Fary and his guides moved the paddlers onto the river. As the rafts began to slide effortlessly over small drops, the city’s sights and sounds became part of the experience. Cars thudded their way across the Lee Bridge and, at times, the hum of tires could be heard from the Downtown Expressway. The wheels of a train squealed as it slowed for a curve in the tracks near the river.
As the rafters rode through shallow channels, their presence barely disturbed the cormorants standing still as statues on boulders washed smooth and round by the current. They passed a gaggle of teenage boys, lolling in a pool midriver that they had claimed as a swimming hole.
Laurence Hill, an information technology supervisor for Capitol One, was part of the September float trip. Hill brought his team onto the river as a way to get out of the office together, something they do quarterly. Their office is less than a half-mile away but, to Hill, they had entered another world. “As we were getting on the water, I thought about the office for about one second. But that was it,” Hill said.
Their two-hour raft trip launched near Tredegar Iron Works and ended in the flatwater take-out point at 14th Street. It was a relatively short trip, because the river was at its lowest level of the season. There had been little rain, rendering upriver sections of the river impassable for longer excursions.
But in the spring and most of the summer, rafters start upstream at Reedy Creek for a half-day trip or farther upriver for a day trip that includes lunch and ample time for cooling off in the water.
Relics of Richmond’s history are everywhere, on the banks and in the river.
Communities of American Indians existed in this area for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. When Capt. John Smith and Christopher Newport explored the river in May 1607, they met Indians living in fishing settlements on the islands near present-day Richmond. They also planted a cross at the bottom of the rapids; today, this location marks the start of the James River section of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The falls of the James River spurred the growth of commerce and industry. The bottom of the falls was the head of navigation for ships coming from the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay, bringing supplies to settlers in Richmond and farther upriver; on the return trip, ships carried tobacco to European markets. Settlers built trading posts along the banks and used granite quarried from the river and the islands to build docks and canals. The river’s steep descent powered mills like the Gallego Mill, once the largest flour mill in the country.
The remains of dams that diverted river water for Richmond’s growing demands are still in place and provide whitewater challenges for experienced kayakers and canoeists. Downstream, pipeline crossings dam the river in low water but make fun rapids for experienced paddlers during higher flows. The names given to each set of rapids tell the story of a developing city.
Many paddlers launch at “Pony Pasture” to avoid some of the difficult upstream whitewater. In a place where horses once grazed, there’s parking, bathrooms and easy access for rafts, kayaks, paddle boarders and those floating the river by inner tube in the summer.
“Choo-choo Rapids” is named for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Bridge — its graceful concrete arches were designed to mimic European aqueducts — which spans the river below. It’s just one of several bridges that cross the James in Richmond.
Some say that “Mitchell’s Gut” got its name from a Civil War soldier from Ohio who lost his life near the rapids. The “Hollywood Rapids” are named for Hollywood Cemetery, where 18,000 Confederate soldiers are buried just up the hill from the river.
In spite of being the nexus for industrial and urban growth, the river experienced repeated floods on both sides, driven by storms dropping rain in the nearly 10,000-square-mile watershed. And the river, itself, became fouled. By the early 1970s, the section flowing through Richmond was an industrial waterway. Its polluted water was more dangerous than the rapids, and few paddlers ventured out on it.
Through the years, some of the structures that mark the banks of the river — highways, railroad trestles, restored canals and even the flood walls completed in early 1990s — have served as obstacles that deterred intense development. More than 550 acres of shoreline on both sides of the river, plus some of the larger islands in the river, are protected by the James River Park System, which REI named one of the best river park systems in the country.
And thanks to the tireless work of river advocates, including paddlers, the James River is cleaner than it has been in several centuries.
On the September paddle, the guides explained how Richmond’s history is intertwined with its river, telling stories as the rafts looped lazily from one pool to the next, bumping into rocks and sliding down small chutes. And they pointed out the wildlife that is drawn to the river and its now-cleaner water. On a sun-dappled island, a white egret was poised in fish-catching stance. An osprey hovered overhead, signaling a pending dive with a repeated cry. Beyond, a fisherman cast his line, hoping for a strike.
Fary alerted his crews to a tricky drop ahead at Pipeline Rapids, the biggest on the day’s trip. This spot was named for a 3-foot diameter sewer line along the bank. The catwalk atop the length of the pipe is popular with photographers and birders.
“See how it drops a bit? We’re headed right in there,” Fary said. He called out instructions to the paddlers, and they braced for the drop by tucking a foot under the inside edge of the raft.
Then it was time to play. Fary coached his crew to paddle hard back upstream where the water was tumbling back on itself at the final drop of the James River’s course through Richmond.
“Everyone to the front of the raft. Let’s get the bow down into it,” Fary urged. The weight of four bodies in the bow held the boat in the wave, dousing the paddlers who hooted and hollered as the raft slid through the “sweet spot” of the rapid.
Traffic overhead began to swell as lunch hour in the city drew near. But for everyone on the river, it was hard to imagine a workplace even existed.
Rafting Resources for the James River
Remember that the James River through Richmond has many natural and constructed hazards. Beginner and intermediate paddlers of all craft should seek a local guide for at least their first run.
- You can find an overview map of the James River through Richmond at www.richmondregional.org/Publications/maps.htm.
- Find guides for whitewater rafting and other river activities at visitrichmondva.com/things-to-do/sports-recreation/james-river/.
- To check water levels and information about activities at the James River Park, see jamesriverpark.org/visit-the-park/index.php.
- For water quality and river conditions on the James River, go to jrava.org/jrw/.
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