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On the James River, It's a Mild Ride

By John M. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Every time I get out on the river on a weekday I feel as if I've pulled something off. As if I've cleverly escaped the world of workaday drones who are right now sitting at their desks, as I would be if it weren't for the fact that -- I'm actually here! On the river! Sitting in a kayak! Thinking about nothing more important than the best way to maneuver the next rapid, or whether the bird that just flew by really is an osprey.

I manage this escape only about once a year, and it's usually with my friend Jim Barns. We have to get the timing just right, a complex confluence of schedules, water levels and off-season months. That generally means going out in late spring, as we did recently, picking the nine miles of the James above Hatton Ferry, one of the finest stretches of river in central Virginia.

I don't own a kayak, so we rented from James River Runners, a few miles upstream from Scottsville, and the folks there drove us to our put-in point. There were only two other kayakers in the van: four people on nine miles of wide water.

On the way up, livery operator Chris Wilkes told us that the river was running about six feet deep; any higher and he wouldn't have rented us a kayak. The summer is the busy season along here, Chris explained. On nice days he has 800 inner tubes out on the river, plus kayaks and canoes.

Chris has been running this stretch of the James since he was a youngster, and when the 30-year-old business came up for sale two years ago, he saw it as a natural fit. "I was a contractor before this," he said, "and got out just in time. It's kind of rare that you can make your hobby and passion into your living. So I'm lucky. But I'm at the mercy of Mom Nature, and we may be due for some remodeling." He was referring to the fact that floods come every 10 to 15 years, and the last one was in 1996. The river rose to nearly 30 feet, not by any means a record, but enough to pour into the 1882 building that has served as a railroad depot, post office, general store and river outfitter.

Chris helped launch us, and then we were out on the river. The thing I like about this part of the James is that there are long, lazy periods, where you can paddle or just sit there and let the current carry you, but there are also just enough Class I and II rapids to build a sense of excitement.

We meandered along the first couple of miles, talking about our children, TV shows, places we've been -- the conversation, like the river's flow, both random and connected.

Then from a long way off we could hear the first rapid. With sound amplified on the corridor, it seems as if you're heading toward something you would maybe rather not. We had been over these shelves before but not for a while and not in water this high, and neither of us is an expert river reader. On the approach, we could see piles of logs and tree limbs from the recent storms, arranged here and there. There was a deep chute we had been told to aim for on the left. We both missed it. I paddled my kayak like mad around one boulder, only to be staring at a snapped-off tree pointing right at my face. I got around it and looked back, expecting to have to collect Jim's overturned boat. But he was coming around another way, upright and smiling. We were wet, and our shallow boats had filled with water, but we didn't have to go chase down a paddle or a kayak. "So anyway," Jim went on, "we were waiting to catch this ferry, and there was the travel writer Jan Morris, and she was with the same woman who had been her wife when she was James Morris. . . . "

We went around Rock Island, with its 30-foot cliffs, and up a side creek where cows waded up to their bellies, lowing at the intrusion. Then we worked our way down along the river's edge, in the shade of leaning sycamores that printed rippling patterns on the water's surface. There were lots of places to pull out for a picnic, but we had a different idea in mind. After negotiating a few more rapids and riffles, we arrived back at the boat ramp, where the hand-poled Hatton Ferry still runs as it has since the 1870s.

In sleepy Scottsville we had only a few options for lunch, downtown consisting of about three blocks. A recent streetscape beautification project hid electric lines and put in new street lamps and trees, but the work went on for so long that many businesses closed. To bring the subject up is to get an earful, which we did at Pee Wee's Pit Barbecue, along with plates of delicious pulled pork, baked beans and creamy potatoes.

Afterward, we walked down to Canal Basin Square park, which has an old wooden bateau from the days when the river was a highway for transporting whiskey, tobacco and flour. The boat measured about 40 feet in length, and I tried to imagine Jim and myself rowing one of these unwieldy beasts down the river. It was easy to picture a boat smashed on the rocks and barrels of whiskey bobbing all around us. But it was more pleasant to picture a molded-plastic kayak shooting on through and a paddler pulling off another narrow escape from the office.

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