I’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.
I’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.
Instead 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.
As 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.
At 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.