Archive for the ‘kayaking’ Category

Taking the path less traveled on the James River

James River Railway Bridge, viewed from below Grant's DamI’ve taken many trips down the James River from Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek, but I almost always follow the normal paths that generally track the southern banks of the river. When the river levels are low, that is sometimes the only floatable path.

Since the water levels in the James are a little higher than normal for late August, I decided to stick to the north bank of the river once I reached the James River Railway Bridge (AKA the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge). I needed to explore a little and see the river and the scenery from a different angle.

Some of the rapids in this area may be the results of quarried or blasted rockI’m often a guide for friends and family that have never been on the river, and I try to keep it easy, predictable and safe.  I also find that I seek consistency and predictability in my life and sometimes it is good to break away from the routine. 

But when I kayak alone, I usually get a rush from trying the unknown of a new course, even if it isn’t a tremendous challenge. So with reluctance, I skipped Choo Choo Rapids, Cooper’s Rifle and Mitchell’s Gut – the prescribed path for most paddlers.  I love that course, but I was pleasantly surprised by the little drops and tight runs between the rocks and trees along the way.

Entrance to Lower Arch blocked by trees and overgrowthInstead of shooting down Choo Choo, I took the channel through what used to be Grant’s Dam past the entrance to the Lower Canal. Someday the overgrown area where it passes under the CSX railway line on the north bank will be cleared all the way to the Pumphouse, giving  paddlers access to the Kanawha Canal through George Washington’s Lower Arch and creating a new river access at the Pumphouse.

I found plenty of scenery and views of the riverscape that were new to me. According to the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout, much of the river in this section had been altered by man to create and maintain Grant’s Dam, which was built to direct water into the Kanawha Canal at the Pumphouse.

I love the area between the Powhite Parkway and Boulevard bridges.  It is so natural, wild and remote, yet right in the middle of the city. You can feel so free there among the honking geese and hunting osprey — only to hear an Amtrak train streaking its way across the arched railway bridge or a freight train roaring through the trees on either bank of the river.

Crude log table on a sandy island west of the Boulevard BridgeAs I passed under the Boulevard Bridge along the north bank, it again occurred to me how isolated that section of river is, despite the thousands of cars that pass over that area every day by the bridge.

Even though the area south of the CSX tracks is part of the North Bank Park, one would have to hike a long way to reach that area legally, due to the fences that block access along the tracks and the only allowed access is by the walkway tower at least a half mile down river.

Creating an access at Pumphouse would form a needed second access and a loop to the trail.  Plans for bike trails in the area are already in the works.

Trash collected from the James RiverAt the end of the trip I’d collected more trash than normal — likely due to the fact that I’d taken the path less traveled by most everyone.  It was that much more satisfying snagging a few odd bits of river trash, like an inner tube and a broken piece of a styrofoam pot. Sadly, I also found an empty woman’s purse — a sign that not everyone on the river has the best intentions.

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Dusk vs. dawn on the James

Dusk vs. dawn. Vibrant colors and distinct features on one hand and shadows and blinding sunlight on the other. 

I had the pleasure of two distinctly different points of view over the same James River water course — from Pony Pasture Rapids down to Reedy Creek. One late in the evening and the other just after dawn, with both trips offering challenges and appealing features.

The physical aspects and timing of the two were the same. The visuals, however, were extremely different and each trip had their own flavor.

James River Railway Bridge at duskFor the evening trip, my brother-in-law, Mark Pruett, and I left from Pony Pasture at around 7:30 p.m. The sun was already setting, and immediately we knew it would be a good run. I had never paddled the James that late in the day and was amazed by the colors brought out by the angle of the sun, which is behind you as you head east down river. The trees, rocks, bridges were so distinctive and colorful. It was beautiful.

I’ve provided a shot of the James River Railway Bridge (also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge) to show the coloring at that time of day — around 8:10 p.m. with sundown at around 8:40 p.m.

James River Railway Bridge at dawnFor the morning run, my friend George McCurrach and I put in at 6:30 a.m., before I had to go to work. The sun was rising in front of us and was at times blinding.  Obviously the colors were dimmed or lost in shadows. The temperature that morning was already near 80 degrees so there was no morning mist or fog to give the river any eerie appearances.

The James River Railway Bridge was again a feature, but very different colors were on display in the morning. This photo was taken at around 7:10 a.m. and the sun came up at around 6 a.m.

For better photographic opportunities and the fact that I wasn’t blinded, I’d choose an evening run. A morning run sets the day up nicely and gives me the rest of the day to work and live life (despite the sleep deprivation).  

It is still a toss-up, though in general I prefer paddling in the morning — watching nature wake up is generally more exciting than shutting down for the night.

In either case, the sun’s low position in the sky caused a lot of glare on the water, hiding many large boulders lurking just inches below the glassy surface.  We bumped plenty of unseen rocks on both trips.

Camping on the James River during fireworksOne great thing about our morning run was that it was the morning after Independence Day and we saw several camps on the islands east of the James River Railway Bridge — the ideal location to watch fireworks and experience the outdoors.

It wasn’t ideal in 2006, when at least a dozen people gathered on the rocks on the river near the Boulevard Bridge were attacked and robbed by a group of teenagers with rocks and bats during the July 4th fireworks at Dogwood Dell. That smirch or our city has made many people cautious about being on the river during fireworks. It was great to see these folks there and I’m sure they had the best seat for the Dogwood Dell show.

An ode to the James River Railway Bridge

James River Railway Bridge, also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway BridgeMy favorite place to stop on a paddle trip down the James River is the area around the James River Railway Bridge.

The bridge, also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge, is located between the Boulevard Bridge and the Powhite Parkway. The areas east of the bridge on the south shores of the James are part of the Main Section of the James River Parks System. [See a slideshow]

People can see the bridge from many angles, but the best way to view this entire area of the James is from the many huge exposed granite boulders that surround the bridge. The feeling of solitude and serenity is a place surrounded by the sounds of commerce is a unique pleasure.

CSX train crosses the James River Railway BridgeListening to the roar of the river; watching birds soar above; catching glimpses of wildlife and looking for the perfect photo — contrasted by the train horn blasts and hum of diesel engines; the droning of the cars on the Powhite Parkway.

There are unofficial hiking trails from Riverside Drive, but parking is limited. Access to these areas includes crossing railroad tracks and the trails are not maintained for high traffic, so read the signs and proceed with caution. The northern portion of the area is accessed from trails that lead from North Bank Park and the bridge is in view from Pumphouse Park, though not accessible due to fenced-in CSX tracks.

Exploring in this area is a treat. There are many nooks and shallow pools of water to explore when the water is low. I fell in love with this area during a hike in late summer of 2007 when the water level was absurdly low. The rocks looked so unique, smooth and odd — a complete landscape change.

I now drive by this area almost every day on my commute to work on the Powhite or the Boulevard Bridge and longingly steal glances of the beautiful arches and the river.  I’ve had many conversations with readers, friends and fellow James river lovers that feel the same way about the bridge.

Kayakers stop at the Choo Choo Rapids just below the James River Railway BridgeThe remains of Grant’s Dam are nearby, and what’s left of that dam helped create the whitewater run known as Choo Choo Rapids. There is a nice beach right after the rapids and multiple places to stop for a food break or just to relax. These rapids can be run over and over again if you carry your kayak back up the rocks on either side.

The Lower Arch of the Kanawha Canal isn’t much further along the north bank of the James, just below Pumphouse Park. The famed George Washington’s arch is there, though the entrance from the river is blocked.

There are two main islands just east of the James River Railway Bridge that have areas worthy of picnic spots as well. At times you might find a picnic table left on the southernmost island (Cedar Island) though on my last visit, it seemed to have been washed away.

Stone pillars at James River Railway BridgeThere are many 25-foot granite piers left from the previous railway bridge. A couple of them have ropes and ladders to allow for a climb to the top. Use your best judgement if you dare climb, but let me just say…the view is worth it.

HISTORY: The railroad bridge was completed in 1919 for the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, and used by the RF&P and the Atlantic Coast Line, which are now part of CSX.

David D. Ryan wrote in The Falls of the James about the term “Falls of the James” and to what it refers:

Majestically arched stone and concrete Seaboard Coast Line Railway Bridge and the remains of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad Bridge. The SCL Bridge was opened for rail traffic in 1919; the RF&P Bridge was constructed in 1891 and razed twenty-eight years later.

Remains of the RF&P bridge are still standing below the arches of the James River bridge. The James River Bridge project was among the earliest major projects to rely on poured concrete, Portland cement. Up to that point, railway bridges were made of heavy timbers, iron or stone. In the early 1900’s, concrete was introduced as a new material for bridge construction.

The purpose of the James River crossing was to provide a straight route through Richmond for passenger & perishables trains running between Florida and the Northeast.

James River Railway Bridge, viewed from Riverside Drive

Father’s Day on the James River

Mitchell and Carly swimming below Pony Pasture in the flatwaterI got what I wanted for Father’s Day…a day on the James River with my wife and kids. Sharing it with the people who made me a father.

Trish and Phil under the James River Railway Bridge at Choo Choo rapidsWe launched from Pony Pasture Rapids and rode down to Reedy Creek — a familiar trip for us. My wife, Trish, and I each put a kid in our kayak with a pack lunch and set out for a fun time. There were plenty of chances for the kids to get out of the boat and swim. They were so happy and had a blast — it was a joy to watch.

My daughter, Carly, had never been down the James past Pony Pasture, so this was a particular treat for her. We saw some friends that were also headed down the river at the put in, so between her being excited about the sites unknown to her and the expectation that she could see the friends down river, there was plenty of excitement for her.

Mitchell and Trish braving the pipe at the Boulevard BridgeMy son, Mitchell, rode with Trish. He’s been down the river several times and knows the key spots like Choo Choo Rapids and the pipe at the Boulevard Bridge. At this point, he’s been on the river about 10 times and is starting to recall all the spots where we’ve done something cool and fun — like the time he lost a tooth on Cedar Island while we were hunting for geocaches with his Uncle Mark.

We counted six trains as we passed between the Powhite Parkway Bridge and the Boulevard Bridge — a 45-minute span — which was a thrill for Carly. She hadn’t seen trains from that perspective before and it was clear that she was really taking in the scenery as we sat on the rocks below the James River Railway Bridge to watch trains roll by overhead.

Wildlife wasn’t much of a part of the trip, but we at least caught a glimpse of one brave turtle that refused to move as we paddled by to enter the millrace to the takeout.

Downtown Richmond skyline at the Reedy Creek takeout signOne last big thrill for Carly was when we could our first view of the downtown skyline. She has always been awed by big buildings and the way the building seemingly sit on the river was a unique perspective for her — it always is for me too.

I love these days of preparing the kids for a life of enjoying and respecting the outdoors. Trips like this aren’t easy since there are so many little things to coordinate and plan to make it happen. They are now learning to do their part of the packing and planning to go along with the safety rules we’ve been enforcing since the first time they hit the water.

I don’t want to be one of those dads that gets ties, mugs, etc. I’m hoping that Father’s Days like this one will make it the type of day the whole family will look forward to and enjoy.

Open the canal to paddlers in downtown Richmond

Let's paddle the canal from the Cross monument to Brown's Island!I want to paddle the canal in downtown Richmond. I love that area and want more!

I’ve written about my desire to form a circuit for paddlers between the James River and the Lower Canal from Tredegar to Pumphouse Park. That one might be a tough sell to CSX and would require a lot more work for the paddlers.

But a more realistic circuit would be an easy one to create that would require relatively little money and maintenance and would provide a benefit to the city. Let’s open up the Kanawha Canal from Captain Christopher Newport’s ‘Cross’ monument at 12th and Byrd Streets to Brown’s Island. 

Paddlers could get out of the canal at Brown's Island.The circuit would allow paddlers access to the river from the Tredegar Beach and the Manchester Dam through Pipeline — which has class III-IV rapids. The paddle up the canal would only be about a half-mile long and would allow more people to be a visible part of the downtown scene.

Why have all these expensive and cool toys like the Canal Walk and the canal if we can’t use them? More time in the water is greater than more time carrying your equipment and paddlers would get behind this kind of opportunity.

Some dedicated paddlers already carry their kayaks back up the catwalk over Pipeline, up the sandy trail to Brown’s Island and over to Tredegar Beach to make the run again. At the end, getting out below the Pipeline overlook and making a short walk up the hill to the canal before paddling to west end of Brown’s Island would be a huge draw to the area.

Hey, if we could get a contraption similar to a ski lift to run under the famed CSX railroad viaduct, that might be a distant second-place option. Sound like fun?

I’ve seen many white-water kayakers carry their equipment from the takeout at the south end of the 14th Street (Mayo) Bridge and carry it the half-mile along the Floodwall Walk to the Manchester Bridge where they could drop in and run the Southside rapids over and over. If they are that dedicated to making the run, what would they do if you let them paddle up the canal instead?

Riverside on the James is right on the Canal Walk, above the Kanawha Canal.There is a reason to expect this circuit is possible.  This is an excerpt from the Downtown Master Plan [See the full .PDF document]:

Over time, the James River’s role as the heart of Richmond’s industry and commerce has evolved. Today it is known instead for its unique recreational opportunities, such as rock-climbing and nationally recognized kayaking. Allow residents and visitors to fully enjoy this unique natural feature by creating a series of clear connections to the riverfront. Although the James River is the geographic center of Downtown, it is difficult for residents and visitors to directly reach the waterfront. One obstacle to accessibility is the layering of infrastructure that lines the riverfront, including the canals that George Washington surveyed, the railroad lines built on top of the canal tow-paths, and the recently constructed floodwall.

Not convinced? Try this:

Richmond’s reputation for world-class kayaking and rock-climbing should continue to be promoted, and improved facilities for these sports should be provided.

Construct a dock at the low-lying iron fence behind the Cross monument.As for the access to the canal, there is a low-lying iron fence (see photo at right) behind the Cross monument and a small dock could be constructed there. There is already a dock at the opposite end of the canal on Brown’s Island and paddlers would be free to make the short walk over to the boat access at Tredegar Beach from there.

I recently visited the beautiful new pavilion at Byrd Park and seeing all the happy paddle boaters opens up another possibility. Let’s make that same opportunity available on the Canal Walk from Brown’s Island down to the ‘Cross’ monument and use that same dock as a launch point.  During one of the many summer festivals at Tredegar, Brown’s Island and the Canal Walk just imagine the “cool factor” the city would get seeing people using the canal.

Paddlers already use the parking area for Belle Isle and the 14th Street takeout when coming off the river downtown, so this area gets plenty of use. But envision the extra draw here. With a circuit, these folks could be a part of the show during many events. To be able to enjoy a big event downtown while also getting to be on the river and having fun by making runs down Pipeline over and over…

Parking area for old Reynolds Metals property, behind the protection of the Floodwall.What about parking? Well, let’s play with the old Reynolds Metals property for a moment. That property will be open for development at some point soon. It has a large parking area that most certainly will not be available to the public if there is another Vistas on the James or Riverside on the James condominium is built.

The Pipeline Rapids Walkway already has a small parking lot with about 10 parking spots available, but that lot would fill quickly.

Paddling the canal would be a fun time.But if a forward thinker was to embrace the river and allow an outdoor shop like Riverside Outfitters or someone similar to run a business out of that area?

Come on Venture Richmond, let’s make it happen. Let’s paddle the canal and give the Canal Walk another draw it desperately needs.

Finding roses in the middle of the James

Roses in the middle of the James RiverThis past weekend, I went for a long-anticipated paddle up the James River from the 14th Street Bridge into the cluster of rocky islands around and west of Mayo Island. My goal was to explore the many waterfalls, rapids, nooks, cracks and left over man-made debris among these wild islands in search of great photos and scenery.

Roses in the middle of the James RiverI have a story and slideshow coming soon on everything I discovered on my kayak trip, but I wanted to share something neat. At the end of my trip, I checked on something I ignored as I paddled by when I first got on the river at the Floodwall takeout on the south end of the 14th Street Bridge. I had seen some pink spots in the trees in the corner of my vision — unusual in that area.

On my way down river and headed back to the takeout, I checked it out. Seems that some nice hot pink roses had taken up residence on the eastern tip of one of the sandy islands. It wasn’t just a bush, this was a full-blown tree at least six feet tall. They were in full bloom and looked very healthy.

This is a rough and rugged section of the James, at the end of the Falls of the James in downtown Richmond. There is little human visitation to this spot, other than fishing boats or the occasional paddler.

Roses in the middle of the James River

Roses in the middle of the James River

Waking up on the South Anna river

My friend George McCurrach and I had been talking up taking a quick run down the South Anna for a couple of years, and we finally matched up our schedules and got it done. Of course, we picked getting on the river at 6 a.m., but it was worth the sleep loss.

Most of my river kayaking experience has been on the James. When you start with one of the best, why go anywhere else?

One thing with that is losing the sense of adventure and discovering the unknown. A second is, you never know how good you have it if you don’t find something to compare it to every now and then (this does not apply to relationships, married people).

Pitch black at Route 33 takeout on the South Anna RiverWe put in at the Route 33 (Mountain Road) bridge in Hanover County after leaving a second car at the planned takeout on Greenwood Church Road. That’s about three miles, and plenty for two dads that expected to be busy with kids when we got off the river.

The river was at about three feet, which is probably average for the South Anna since it hadn’t rained in about a week [check river levels]. We paddled off at dawn, just as we started to differential the trees from the dark morning sky.

George McCurrach paddling the South Anna RiverThe South Anna cuts through rural western Hanover and thankfully in this stretch, there is little development on the river. The Federal Club and Farrington slept in silence on the hills above us. There was little sound other than birds, frogs and the rapids.

It was mostly calm flatwater, but we were surprised to find several quick rapids — although nothing higher than Class II. We found one worth portaging back up and doing again. I wasn’t looking to get soaked, but I like a river to provide a little challenge. In the three-mile stretch, we encountered a half dozen rapids and plenty of little sandy beachs and islands that created separate channels to explore.

The same strip of Petersburg granite that runs from Georgia to somewhere in the New England that makes the Falls of the James so fun creates some similar, smaller scale falls along the South Anna. The granite boulders were distinctly less white than on the James, something I noticed on the Appomattox River in Petersburg. They were also less smooth indicating the South Anna generates less power to erode the boulders. At least that’s my amateur analysis.

George McCurrach paddling the South Anna RiverThe problem on the South Anna would likely be if the water was up — the debris would likely be bad. There are plenty of strainers along the way too, as there were many downed trees and low-hanging branches. Plus, if you got into trouble, rescuers might have a tough time getting to you. Plan your trip wisely.

We saw no one on the river, and overall the trip took us about 2 1/2 hours on a cool and overcast spring morning. We mostly took our time, as George was scouting for camping grounds and I was constantly trying to take the perfect photo.

The best part of that peaceful trip was a chance to hang with George. We talked about the environment, getting outdoors, rain barrels, bugs, gardening, family life, what we’re good and bad at in life, the future. Things you’re supposed to ponder while waking up on a slow paddle.

We’ll hit the South Anna again sometime and maybe stretch it out to six miles down to the Route 54 takeout.

Beautiful falls along the South Anna River