Rapids Transit

Virginia: Most of the country knows the James only as a river of history. But in Richmond, those who like wet, wild rides know better.

October 17, 1999|By Carolyn McCulley | Carolyn McCulley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The first time I went whitewater rafting, my emotions were as turbulent as the water beneath me. Goaded into making my maiden voyage down Richmond's James River by my whitewater enthusiast boyfriend, I battled fear and exhilaration as we approached the first big rapid. But by the end of the trip, I was eagerly surfing the last rapid, exulting in the thrill of keeping my feet firmly planted inside a contorting, wet rubber raft while I paddled furiously into the roiling whitewater. I was hooked -- and exceedingly glad this grand adventure was so nearby.

The James, according to regional river rats, is the only river in the nation offering Class IV urban whitewater. Referred to more often as "the historic James River," it tends to be better known outside Virginia for its contributions to early American lore than for its diverse recreational opportunities today.

Yet, from whitewater rafting to a riverboat dinner cruise and a new Canal Walk, visitors could enjoy a highly entertaining weekend completely centered on the James.

The restored historic buildings and glistening glass of modern office towers present an unusual scenic backdrop for river fun. Richmond was founded where the falls of the James impeded upstream navigation, and historical markers abound everywhere.

Riding the James

My most recent visit started with the Richmond Raft Co.'s bus trip from the south end of the rapids past the Edgar Allan Poe museum, old tobacco warehouses and trendy restaurants now in the 19th-century Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, to the James River Park put-in north of the falls line. The company runs nine guided raft trips on weekends and two or three guided trips daily on weekdays, all of which start with whitewater instruction. The longer trips include lunch served on the rocks near the notable Hollywood rapid, so named for the prestigious, historic and much-photographed Hollywood cemetery on the opposite bank.

The two biggest rapids on the James are Hollywood and Pipeline. Hollywood is a Class IV rapid because it's more difficult to recover there if something happens.

The hydraulics are challenging and require precise maneuvering, especially if the river is low. Pipeline is so named because of a Virginia Power pipeline that crosses the river here, and it is the last one on the trip. Most guests take the opportunity to surf the rapid here -- turning the raft to face into the whitewater and attempting to ride it out as long as possible. About one in 20 people go in for an involuntary swim while surfing Pipeline, according to Buzz Kraft of Richmond Raft Co.

After paddling calmer sections of the James, indulging in water fights between rafts and propelling through the rapidwe enjoyed the relaxing tow back by the company's johnboat through tidal water for the last mile of the trip.

Guests disembark right next to the Annabel Lee riverboat, a paddlewheel replica that features lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch cruises. The riverboat's normal cruise route goes downriver about 10 more miles on the James, while its plantation lunch and supper cruises venture nearly 25 miles to tour the antebellum plantation houses of Westover, Berkeley and Evelynton between Richmond and Williamsburg. With three decks, two full bars and two dance floors in air-conditioned comfort, it's a delightful way to end a raucous day on the river. (Or to provide alternative river fun for traveling companions who don't appreciate the adrenaline surge of whitewater.)

Rafting isn't the only way to thrill-ride the James. Richmond Raft's sister company, Adventure Challenge, provides whitewater kayaking trips and lessons with decked kayaks or open-top kayaks, as well as tubing on the upper section of the James. An important note on sweltering summer days -- these are not the hot, black truck tubes, but colorful vinyl tubes with convenient handles.

If you want to dedicate an entire weekend to whitewater kayaking, Adventure Challenge offers a two-day beginner course. With a class size limited to eight students, personal instruction is guaranteed and all equipment is included.

A walk along the river

Richmond's newest river attraction is the Canal Walk, a recently refurbished two-mile segment of a system that once ran up the James for 197 miles. Our guide on the Richmond Raft Co.'s bus pointed out the large image of the whitewater kayaker hung at the beginning of the Canal Walk, so I made sure to leave time to explore its entire length.

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