If you have never had the chance to walk the islands in the middle of the James river in downtown Richmond, do it someday. What ever you have done downtown, if you haven’t taken the time to look at the islands just west of Mayo Island, then you’re missing the best of The Falls of the James.
I’ve walked Pipeline on the north bank at least 20 times. I’ve done the same with the Floodwall on the south bank. Crossed the Mayo and Manchester bridges by car countless times. They all form a square around the area I’m talking about — the last of the 8-mile stretch of the Falls. One of the wildest and most beautiful areas, and the least accessible.
On my visits, I’ve tried to do so legally. No spur line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad to cross the river. Just paddling. Not that there’s anything wrong with walking. The islands are known to have permanent campers and the occasional derelict, so I’ve tried to go in broad daylight, stayed mostly on the perimeter trails of the islands and respected the more shielded areas.
The best part of the area visually is Devil’s Kitchen Rock, and the view of the James and the buildings downtown. Especially when you consider how many people can see the area from downtown skyscrapers, but will never take the time to see from the top of this 30-foot cliff overhanging the wild river below.
The area is full of ragged results of floods, quarries, blasted rock and more man-made alterations. The view can be obstructed in summer with full vegetation, but there is never a lack of interesting colors, site-lines and natural wonders.
Shad Island (to the south), Devil’s Kitchen (in the center), Bailey’s further northwest of DK) and Vauxall Island (to the north) and of course Mayo Island (the biggest and only developed land here) make up this tree-covered, Heron rookery-hosting, wilderness.
Just west of Devil’s Kitchen is Soda Water, described in Bill Trout’s Falls of the James Atlasas a pool in the river fed in part by a 3′ waterfall that was a popular swimming hole long ago. The name may come from the bubbles “boiled up from the falling water.”
I’ve never paddled in Soda Water, or even swam in the pool, but I’ve admired it many times and wished I had the guts to just do it someday. I might have to wait until I’m sure my kids can handle themselves, but the scenery and experience is too great to pass up.
The real key to visiting this area is how easy it is to feel isolated and removed from the busy city. The easy paddles are launched from the Floodwall parking area at 14th Street on the southside or from Great Shiplock Park or Ancarrow’s Landing further down the river. Those paddles begin in the tidal waters of the James, and bring you right up to the last white water of the Falls.