An Aquatic Playground

You can paddle, swim or even spend days traveling the James. For different people, on different stretches of the waterway, it is a different river – and that variety and unpredictability is the essence of its appeal.

Neal Iwan

An Aquatic Playground

On a windswept, overcast early spring afternoon, some 15 wet-suited triathletes stood shivering on the bank of the James River near Richmond. In pairs, they sprinted down a boat ramp and dove into the river, taking half-a-dozen rapid strokes in the 60-degree water as the current carried them downstream, then turning to fight their way back up to the ramp and dive in again. Others were already in the water, practicing techniques for which they’d just received crash-course instructions. It was an open-water swimming clinic sponsored by the Richmond Triathlon Club and overseen by Michael Harlow, owner of a fitness and endurance coaching business, Endorphin Fitness.

“The water’s not cold at all!” Harlow shouted encouragingly to the athletes huddled at the edge of the water. “I’ve been swimming in it for weeks.”

For years, actually. A triathlete since he was 10, the now 26-year-old Harlow says he hates pools and swims in them only when he has to. So, from early March to late fall every year, he trains in the river. “It’s so much better than a pool,” he says. “It’s so dynamic. It changes. It keeps your attention all the time.”

In our ever-more manicured, micro-managed and market-tested society, the river’s unpredictability is, for some, the essence of its appeal. For any two different people, or on any two days, or in any two different places, the James can be entirely different rivers. Here it might be placid and slow-moving, there it tumbles wildly through a fun-house of rapids and boulders. Now it’s crowded with pleasure craft, water skiers and people fishing from johnboats, and later it’s as wild and empty as it might have been when everything west of Richmond was open frontier. If you paddle Balcony Falls, west of Lynchburg, you know it in a different way than if you shoot the whitewater in Richmond, and a different way than if you regularly take the Jamestown-Scotland ferry. If you’re plucking monster blue catfish out of the tidal waters near Hopewell, you’re fishing a different river than if you’re angling for smallmouth bass along the rocky, burbling western reaches of the James and its mountain tributaries.

And sometimes, the river’s just a scenic backdrop for the fun. On a warm Saturday afternoon in May, a field of knee-high grass fills with cars and the sound of dueling radios, with a mostly country twang. Pickup beds and car trunks are surrounded by tight packs of tailgating friends. It’s the 28th annual James River Runners chili cook-off at Hatton Ferry (the proceeds to benefit the Scottsville Volunteer Rescue Squad), and hundreds of revelers clearly have marked it on their calendar as the first serious party of summer.

The spring weather hasn’t been kind to James River Runners, a paddling, rafting and tubing outfitter. With rain and more rain, the water’s been too high to put anyone on it. On a busy summer weekend when the weather cooperates, though, Chris Wilkes, owner of James River Runners, will put as many as 800 tubers on this stretch of river near Scottsville. He’s seen a huge growth in the number of people who want to get out on the river, and his customers have found their way down the winding country road to Hatton Ferry from all 50 states and 13 other countries. “A lot of people like to get out and soak their feet and drift along rather than banging down Class IV rapids,” says Wilkes. Tubing “is one of those things that exposes people to the river in a fairly safe environment.”

Today, the water shoots past the boat landing in roiling swirls and eddies, and while the party rolls onward on the south bank of the river, the water itself is deserted. A few hours later, however, and a few miles downstream, a lone paddler in a small recreational kayak comes racing down with the current to the Scottsville landing. She put in at Warren, takes out for a few hours at the chili fest, then re-embarks to continue her trip Scottsville. “Well that didn’t take long,” she says, glancing at her watch.

Ten years ago, Earl Swift, a feature writer for the Virginian-Pilot, accompanied by photographer Ian Martin, traversed the entire length of the James, plodding through the trickling headwaters of the Jackson, then floating by tube, then paddling by canoe and finally by kayak, in a 22-day journey chronicled first in the newspaper and later in Swift’s delightful book, Journey on the James. “I’ve never written anything that has had such a sustained and enthusiastic level of response that the series did, and eventually the book,” says Swift. “It tapped into … what is evidently a collective dream in a huge part of the population to make exactly the trip we did.”

For all of us who only can continue to dream, Journey on the James recounts details from the amazingly rich history, geology and lore of the river: the violent confrontations between Native Americans and white settlers, the building of the James River and Kanawha Canal, Hurricane Camille’s murderous devastation of Nelson County. Against this backdrop, Swift’s adventure has its own moments of drama—thunderstorms, rapids and a good deal of humor. There is the morning, for example, when Swift drifts into a willow tree bristling with wolf spiders—hairy, fist-sized monsters big enough to saddle—that rain into his canoe.

Photographer Ian Martin, who plays the role of faithful sidekick in the book, drove the support vehicle—Martin’s then-14-year-old Volvo station wagon, with 275,000 miles on it—and was tasked with finding and picking up Swift and the canoe at the end of each long, hot, exhausting day on the river. Then, before bed (usually sleeping bags in tents), the two would have to prepare the day’s story and find somewhere along the often remote route where they could transmit words and pictures by phone line, all with very last-century technology: no cell phones, no wireless, just a Tandy Radio Shack laptop and a first-generation Nikon digital camera that cost the newspaper $15,000. It was a grueling pace, in which small victories merited celebration.

The journey was tiring, bruising and full of uncertainty, and, Swift says, “I have not had a Gatorade since.” Still, he admits, “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was still paddling on the river. You get a real sense of ownership the longer you stay with the thing. I came away with a greater sense of this remarkable gift in our midst. If I had a hope for the book,” says Swift of Journey on the James, “it’s that people came away with a better sense of what they could lose if we don’t take care of it.”

As he knows better than most people, there is no one way to experience the James. It’s impossible to capture, to keep still. Late in April, for example, students and their families crowd the riverbank at Robious Landing Park for the James River Regatta, a high school rowing competition. Nine teams are in attendance with a collection of four- and eight-rower shells—sleek, narrow craft, graceful on water but unwieldy on land, the larger boats more than 60 feet long, oarlocks bristling several feet on either side.

Each 2000-meter heat starts far downriver, the shells at first out of sight around a bend, then distant, dark slivers against the water. Up close, you can hear the rowers grunt with effort, the coxswains shouting instructions, the boats creaking as the oars power through the water in (sometimes) perfect synchronization.

A little more than a month later, spring’s pale green has given way to dense leaf-cover, and on a weather-perfect Memorial Day, Riverside Drive in Richmond is so crowded with cars there’s very nearly a traffic jam. At the Huguenot Flatwater at the far western edge of James River Park, the parking lot is packed and people queue up patiently at the top of the wooden steps leading down to the water. The kayak and canoe people accessorize with Labradors, life jackets, and fishing gear. The college crowd—girls in bikinis, boys in their slouchy shorts—clutches mini-coolers and rubber rafts, pool toys, anything inflatable. In twos and threes, with the occasional shriek at the first touch of the cool water, they all launch onto the current and drift away, a colorful, rag-tag flotilla.

Summer has arrived, and the James moves along, slow and easy. Late in the day, a small group of children splashes and shrieks happily in a shallow stretch of the river as late afternoon slips into early evening. Their parents wait on the bank with towels. It’s time to come out, time to get out of those wet things, time for supper. But the children dawdle and delay, lingering until the light is nearly drained from the sky.

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