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Canoeing the James

Here are notes that offer a competent paddler some tips on undertaking an extended trip on the James River.

Distance. The James River is the longest river in the U.S. contained entirely within the borders of one state. My son and I paddled 301 miles of the roughly 360-mile river. We began at Iron Gate (near Covington) and finished at Hampton Roads. We excluded a section from Balcony Falls (where the river breaks through the Blue Ridge Mountain range) to Lynchburgóthis section has seven hydroelectric power dams that are difficult to portage around and reduce the current enough to give you the sense that you a paddling on a lake rather than a river. That section is poorly served by access roads. We could find no one who recommended paddling this section of the river. At a flow rate of about two miles per hour, you could simply float to Hampton Roads in about 150 days. Itís not hard to add another two to three miles per hour in paddling speed. We finished the trip in 56 days, spread over two- and three-day bits from 1999 to 2002.

Three rivers in one. The James has three principal segments. From Iron Gate to Balcony Falls, the river traverses a mountainous section with cliffs, outcroppings, and forests redolent of the Appalachian Mountains. From Lynchburg to Richmond, the river waters relatively flat farmland. Below the fall-line at Richmond (the same geological fault line that produces the great falls on the Potomac) the river becomes a tidal estuary. We switched from a two-person canoe to two sea kayaks at Richmond and learned to pay attention to tides and wind. The reserve fleet, anchored just below Jamestown, was a memorable sight.

Maps. USGS maps are OK, but are enough out of date as to be not totally reliable for guidance on boat put-ins, recently-build roads, and other structures. We used a CD-ROM collection of maps available from Mapquestóthis helped greatly with charting access roads. To find put-ins, we used maps from local sporting-goods stores along the route.

Where to stay. Both shores of the river are privately-owned. You should obtain permission from the owners to camp on their property. Between Iron Gate and Richmond, we camped on islands in the river, the ownership of which is indeterminate. Downriver from Richmond, we stayed in motels each nightóthis required a spotter from our family to pick us up on the river each night, thus increasing the trip cost and coordination with others.

Safety first. Bring a first-aid kit and personal flotation devices (pfds). Put the pfds on before you get to turbulent water (most of the James is flat easy water, which in warm weather, merits not donning the pfd.)

Respect turbulent water. Most of the rapids on the James are Class I or IIómany of these are the remains of Jefferson-era dams created to promote trade on the river. These are fairly benign. But if in doubt, get out of the boat on the riverbank and scout out the rapid before entering it.

Avoid strainers and other obstacles. Strainers are submerged trees in which you donít want to get caught. Give a wide berth to bridge abutments and boulders.

Always check the weather forecast before you get on the river.
Always check the height of the water the night before. High water grants speed, but itís also dangerous. Donít enter the river at heights greater than six feet. See the USGS Water Resources web site for height measures on the James.

Always check the tidal action in advance of your trip. Itís wearying to paddle against the tide. Plan your departures and exits from the James estuary to coincide with the tides. See the NOAA web site for tidal predictions.