Friday, September 19, 2008

White-water Kayaking in Richmond

If you look at a map of the Eastern United States you will notice that there are a number of large cities that are located near, but not ON the coast, including Trenton NJ, Philadelphia PA, Wilmington DE, Baltimore MD, Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg VA, Petersburg VA, Richmond VA, Roanoke Rapids NC, Columbia SC, and Columbus GA.

All these cities owe their geographical location to the fact that early settlers could bring their ships only so far up rivers before they encountered places where the salty, tidal rivers ended suddenly where rapids spilled fresh water down over short expanses of steep, rocky terrain, creating impassible rapids. This is called the Fall Line.

The rapidly moving water makes the fall line a good location for water mills, grist mills, and sawmills. Because of the need for a river port leading to the ocean, and a ready supply of water power, settlements often developed where rivers cross a fall line.

In the city of Richmond, Virginia the river front was once heavily industrialized, and the rapids were merely something to be avoided. Early in the history of our country such notable people as George Washington were invested in the Kanawha Canal company whose goal was to build canals and locks around the Fall Line so that narrow shallow draft boats carrying heavy loads could be poled or towed up rivers to communities farther inland.

Just a few miles east of downtown Richmond the James River begins its turbulent trip down across the Fall Line. A series of dams were constructed across the James River at various times, to back up the water to provide smooth deeper water for boats, to power the grist mills of industry, to spin turbines that generated electricity for the city. One by one the commercial uses of the dams have ceased, and although the dams remained, they remained a barrier to fish attempting to swim upriver to spawn.

It has only been in recent times that notches have been blasted in several dams in Richmond and a fish-ladder constructed around the Bosher Dam, allowing fish to swim upstream for the first time in more than a hundred years.

The James River in Richmond has experienced a huge increase in recreational use. It may be the only city in the United States where you can go white water rafting through the center of the city. It has become a popular recreational activity to play in the rapids of the James River in Richmond.

The City of Richmond James River Park stretches out along both sides of the river, including 11 miles of river front and over 500 acres of woods that provide a semi-wilderness area within the city limits. One of the more popular destinations in the Jame River Park is "The Pony Pasture", where there used to be, you guessed it, a pony pasture in an area by the river where in long gone times men labored with hammers and drills to quarry the granite for Richmond's cobblestone streets, curb stones, and buildings.
Today all traces of the old industrial railroad are gone, placid ponds hint at the location of old quarries, and the pony pasture now has a shady parking area, a place to launch canoes, kayaks, and rafts, and miles of woodland trails to explore. The favorite activity here though, is playing or sunbathing on the rounded worn rocks that protrude from the shallow, swift moving water.

Just a quarter of a mile upstream from the Pony Pasture, a notch has been cut in the Z-shaped dam that stretches from the bank on Riverside Drive across to Williams Island in the middle of the river. The water roars, cascading down through the notch, creating a turbulent hydrolic churning area just below where it plunges into the deeper water below. This is a dangerous spot! Many people have been drowned here, caught in the spinning currents that forced them under the falling water and kept them there.

It is also a place that attracts expert white water kayakers, who deliberately nose their tiny craft into the treacherous waters that grab, shake, and even flip their boats upside down.

Swift strokes with paddles and sudden shifts of body weight allow these daredevils to right their kayaks easily, and they spend hours darting and diving, spinning and rolling in the Z-dam notch.

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