Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Snorkeling the shallow waters at Texas Beach

What can you find under the water?Richmond’s North Bank Park is one of the best places to visit the James in late summer. The shallow waters and calm sands of Texas Beach are a great setting for an afternoon of exploring.

For one, Texas Beach is never as crowded as Pony Pasture, Belle Isle or even the Main Section, which is located across the river on the south bank. Two, the people there generally are more laid back. We observed some college-aged kids kicking back playing guitars, people with dogs and a couple of groups that brought their own folding chairs and beach towels.

When the river levels are low (it was at 3.3 feet that day), a new world of opportunities opens. With no recent rains, the water is clear and the bottom is easy to see. The shallow pools and slower rapids make it safer, including for little children. We brought our masks to see what was going on under the water.

Read more in Snorkeling at Texas Beach at Richmond.com

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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.

Taking ownership of Pony Pasture

Crowds at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.Pony Pasture Rapids Park is an urban paradise for many. A cheap way to make the best of one’s day for those that can’t afford a trip to the beach or don’t have the time to leave the city for a vacation.

The exposed granite boulders are a big draw for Richmond’s rock hoppers and sunbathers. Family gatherings are as popular as inner tubing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and partying.

But there are many people who take the pristine park conditions for granted. It takes a lot of work to keep human interference from tarnishing Pony Pasture’s natural beauty.  Between the James River Park System’s staff and the many volunteers and dedicated park-goers, the work gets done.

I am one of those proud people and Pony Pasture Rapids Park is now my park. Actually, many people own the park, and taking ownership is encouraged. After all my years of using the park, I’m now volunteering my time to maintain it and defend it from those that abuse it.

Aluminum cans left at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.I spent five hours clearing trash and helping people park cars at the west Richmond park on the hottest day of the summer. The official high that day was 105 degrees, beating the record of 99 for July 25. Didn’t matter, the park was packed.

I can claim four garbage bags worth of trash and recycling. I had help, as people who saw me coming with my trash bag would volunteer things they had collected from the river. It was good to have children helping a little, especially with aluminum cans.

Other than all the of senseless disposal of diapers all over the place, the worst part of clearing trash was a six-pack of glass bottles smashed on the rocks.  That malicious act took the longest to clean. I also found an enclave of more than 80 cans, bottles, boxes and food containers that was about as bad as it gets. The worst part was that a trash can was only 15 feet away. Trash in, trash out people.

Cigarette butts left at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.I think the cigarette butts were the most disappointing thing I found. Smokers know better and should be prepared to clean up after themselves.  I found 70-plus butts in one spot. The location suggested to me that it was obviously a good spot to see nature more than people-watch and I was disgusted by the lack of respect for the outdoors.

Parking is another issue at Pony Pasture. Between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on most summer weekends, the lot gets full and the park system workers and volunteers help manage the flow of cars into the park and keep everyone happy, according to park manager Ralph White.

Lines for the parking lot at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.By 3:30 p.m., the line to get into the lot was 20 cars deep and the wait was about 20 minutes. The lot — which is the largest in the park system — has 80 parking spaces but can be expanded with creative management to 110 spaces, White said.

“In the early ‘80s, riff-raff was so bad, people petitioned to have the park closed – twice,” White said. The Pagans and Hell’s Angels motorcycle gangs were a big part of the problem, he said — doing donuts with motorcycles in the gravel, smashing car windows, starting fights, drinking, doing drugs, womanizing, etc.

Pony Pasture was a rowdy and untamed place in those days and citizens weren’t happy, but the park was never permanently closed.

That was a long time ago. The park seems to be more popular now than ever and keeping peace and harmony for a diverse and multiculural crowd on a hot day is beneficial to everyone. 

“It’s a parks issue, not a police issue,” White said. Having the parks department and volunteers run the parking lots at peak hours frees police from having to dedicate several cars to patrolling the park.

White said Richmond police usually dedicates one unit to Pony Pasture on the weekends.

“There is no one breaking into cars or starting fights… and everyone gets along much better,” White said. Having attendants manage the parking lot at peak hours has helped ease tensions and people seem to respect the park more now.

While I was there, the police mostly concerned themselves with the cars in line for the parking lot that blocked westbound Riverside Drive. There were no calls for Emergency Medical Services, no rescues, no arrests that I saw.  Everyone was getting along, despite the close quarters, heat and huge crowds.

There were at least seven volunteers, including a two couples that lived near the park that like to ensure that their neighborhood is well-maintained. Another young man volunteered in the park all day doing whatever the parks department had for him. He is a regular and has taken ownership of his Pony Pasture.

I will continue to volunteer. The afternoon didn’t seem like work.  I was earning time to enjoy my James River. 

If you see something you don’t like about any city park, take action. Take ownership. Make the park yours.

Find out how to help the James River Park System or any of the volunteer groups: Friends of the James River, James River Outdoor Coalition and the City of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities.

Granite rocks are a big draw to Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.

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

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

Pipeline Rapids: Downtown Richmond’s best kept secret?

Pipeline Rapids, viewed from the Manchester BridgeI think the Pipeline Rapids walkway is the downtown Richmond’s best kept secret. It’s been open to the public for almost five years, but seemingly few take advantage of it. Unless you go when there is an event like Dominion Riverrock on Brown’s Island or a paddling event, it’s often just you and the raging James River in a setting mixing the wild and natural river and the urban landscape of the bustling city.

Great Blue Heron rookery in early spring at Pipeline RapidsI love the sound of the water as it roars through Pipeline Rapids. There’s a chance a train will add to the noise. When it’s quiet enough to hear, the birds take over your ears. In the spring, the area has fascinating views into the world of a Great Blue Heron rookery.

Environment beat writer Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch loves this spot. I’ve seen him here on several occasions, and he has often found the most unusual migrating species here: Blue crab, fish that looked like eels, scads of fish and of course, the heron. It’s a wonderful place to watch nature and escape the city for even just a few minutes.

The metal catwalk at Pipeline Rapids, under the CSX ViaductThe walkway is so named because there is a large city water pipeline running the length of the path. Both the pipeline and the metal catwalk on top of the pipeline are located directly under the busy double track CSX railway viaduct. The area surrounding the Pipeline is part of the James River Park System and under its care.

When water levels are up, just watching the river rage is enough — sometimes its too loud to hear the person next to you. When the river is low, giant granite boulder are exposed, giving visitors more vantage points.

In full view from the pipeline walkway are Bailey’s Island and Devil’s Kitchen Island, in the center of the river. They are a worthwhile visit too, if you get the chance. A spur line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad crosses over these islands (walking on them is trespassing) past the far eastern end of the path and the 14th Street (Mayo’s) Bridge can seen under the tracks.

New bike rack and staircase at Pipeline RapidsThe city is still working to improve and enhance the area. There is now a bike rack and although the ladder at the eastern end of the catwalk is still an obstacle for some, there is a new wooden staircase.

TO GET THERE: Pipeline runs along the river at the Riverside on the James condominiums, is easy to access from the Canal Walk at South 12th and Byrd streets or from the east end of Brown’s Island.

Pipeline Rapids is a great place to watch white water rafters, kayakersPADDLERS: The Pipeline Rapids, a hazardous eighth-of-a-mile stretch considered Class IV, are considered as treacherous to paddlers as the Hollywood Rapids at Belle Isle. There are several large boulders in the midst of the Pipeline Rapids. A friend of mine lost his father at Pipeline on a kayak trip, so please use all safety precautions. Normally the rapids in Downtown Richmond are Class II-III. Many intermediate paddlers prefer to take the Second Break Rapids, which run toward the south side of the river.  The entire area is a great (and safe) place to watch white water kayakers and rafts up close, mainly on the weekends.

Great Blue Heron fishing in the James at Pipeline RapidsBIRD-WATCHING: Plenty of Osprey, blue heron, ducks and geese. The islands in the area are wild and there are multiple trees with nests in the area. Heron like to fish in the shallow waters below the rapids and among the islands in the middle of the James, often hidden from view.

FISHING: Upstream of the Mayo Bridge, where the falls begin, catch smallmouth bass, channel catfish and sunfish. In the tidal area below the falls, the catch includes large blue catfish. Rockfish and others migrate through in spring, and they like to make their runs up the more shallow banks of the river instead of the raging rapids in the middle. A license is required.

HIKERS: This area makes a great loop with the Canal Walk, or an out-and-back from Brown’s Island.  If you start at Brown’s Island, walk under the Manchester Bridge toward the river. There is a rocky trail down to the river, and follow it east along the sandy shoreline. The trail picks up under the viaduct.  From the east, the pipeline walkway starts under the viaduct just west of where the train tracks cut through the doorway to the floodwall (below the Vistas on the James condos, or behind the Alcoa property).

TRASH IN, TRASH OUT: I have done river cleanups in this area, and anywhere you go on the James there will be some washed up trash. The water usually moves too fast to do much cleaning. Please make sure you respect the river by not allowing anything to be thrown or dropped in.

Watch out for the residents of PipelineWARNING: The area is known to have a few full- and part-time “residents.” I snuck a photo of this guy napping the sun, which I admit, made me jealous. You might encounter a person’s overnight campsite or what looks like all of someone’s possessions stuffed into an old dirty bag.  Those guys know to stay clear during the day, so you make sure you stay clear at night. Park closes at dusk anyway, so protect yourself.