Lazy River

Tubing lets multiple generations unplug and reconnect.

Kyle LaFerriere

VA Living Tubing

My family has always felt at home on the water. To us, a salty ocean, brackish bay, or freshwater river feels like a baptism. We feel renewed, made whole. So when my parents visited us in Richmond to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, I knew they’d be up for a tubing trip on the James River.

When we moved from Louisiana to Virginia last year, our family discovered one of Richmond’s greatest assets is the James River Park System, which covers some 600 acres right through the city center. Richmond happens to be the country’s only urban area with class IV rapids. You can stand downtown and watch expert kayakers and rafting guides navigate the whitewater. But for our tubing trip with my parents, young sons, niece, and nephew, we stuck to calmer waters upstream with a short stretch of class II rapids at the takeout.

Tubing trips booked through an outfitter usually include a shuttle bus to the starting point, so tubers can pick up their car at the end. As do-it-yourselfers, we needed two cars, stashing one at Pony Pasture, our endpoint, then driving the other to our starting point at Huguenot Flatwater, just west of the Huguenot Bridge. Both are part of the park system’s extensive urban network. Since the car wasn’t big enough for eight people and eight inflated inner tubes, we brought along an electric air pump to fill them in the parking lot.

As we pumped up one tube after another, the kids started to get antsy, my mom and dad started to sweat, and I began to wonder if all the effort would be worth it. But when we finally launched into the river, the cold water caught our breath, and we let out a collective aah. Our flotilla was off, with my parents in front and the four grandchildren bobbing behind like baby ducks. 

With little current, the first leg of the trip moved slowly. The kids splashed in the water, raided the snack bag, and ate Doritos with damp fingers. Mostly, we just floated. Out on the James, you simply go with the flow. Hours later, we’d moved just a mile and a half downriver. But when I looked over my shoulder, I was surprised to see the distance between us and the bridge. We’d made more progress than I thought. 

Time is funny like that. Sometimes the days feel long, but the years fly by—fast. Five decades ago, my parents started with nothing but love and a sense of adventure. They eloped after college and scraped through years when money was tight. After law school, they bought a tiny beach house and sailboat. When my brother and I came along, our family of four traveled by train from our home in Alabama up to Boston, hiked Glacier National Park, went whale watching in Canada, and put 2,000 miles on a rental car in Utah. Other times weren’t such a joy ride. My brother and I, close in age, were toddlers—and worse, teenagers—at the same time. My mom and dad have had to bury their own parents, ensure they’ve saved enough for retirement, and navigate health scares into their 70s. But through it all, they’ve stayed afloat.

Up ahead on the river, the kids spotted a rope swing. They climbed ashore a muddy bank and took turns flying through the air before splashing down into the water. 

After a picnic, we launched our tubes again, staying close to Williams Island. To avoid going over the potentially dangerous Z-Dam, we followed signs to portage our tubes around it on land. Safely back in the water, the current picked up speed. The roar of the rapids grew louder. The river pulled us into the swirling whitewater, spinning our tubes around boulders in a thrilling finale.

Getting out at Pony Pasture, my skin tingled from the cool water, and my heart thumped with adrenaline. Back in the car, we retraced our half-day journey in mere minutes. But out on the river, time didn’t matter. Our cell phones sealed in their waterproof cases, we had no schedules, no agendas, no emails or texts to return. Instead, we tuned into the water, the trees, the sky, and each other. We fully immersed ourselves in the moment, and could simply be, all of us together, three generations.

Tubing Tips:

Do your research—carefully plan put-in and take-out points, check weather and water conditions, and make sure there are no hazards along your route. When in doubt, call a local river outfitter.

Wear a life jacket at all times and make sure everyone in your party can swim.

Buy a good quality tube with a headrest and cup holders. Black inner tubes may be nostalgic, but they’re hot and not as comfortable. 

Bring along a waterproof case for your cell phone and a dry bag for car keys, first aid kit, glasses, and other personal items.

Leave valuables and your nice pair of sunglasses at home.

Wear secure waterproof shoes (not flip-flops) for hot parking lots, rocky shores, and muddy river bottoms.

Pack an extra inflatable tube for carrying a cooler, snacks, and trash bag. 

Bring rope to secure items to your tube or to tie up to others in your group.

Drink plenty of water before and during your trip, especially when temperatures are high.

Wear waterproof sunscreen and insect repellent.

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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