Workout, Learn, Play on the Water
Snaking along down the northeastern edge of the Hill City, gleaming turquoise as flecks of gold ripple along its undulating surface in the hot summer sun, the James River cuts the border between Downtown Lynchburg and Amherst County.
Last summer, James River Adventures opened up in Riveredge Park, right across from downtown (150 Rocky Hill Road in Madison Heights), offering the community and its visitors exactly what the name implies: adventures on the James. The operation is a branch of the James River Association (JRA), a Richmond-based organization dedicated to protecting the river through advocacy, education and community conservation.
Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Tuesdays and Wednesdays, James River Adventures offers hourly rentals for canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, as well as half- and full-day paddle excursions (approximately 3-6 hours, respectively) with a kayak or canoe and 3- to 4-hour tubing trips. Guided trips are available for a more enriched experience.
“Our trip is a good snapshot of Central Virginia, of James River floating,” Rob Campbell, JRA Community Conservationist, said. “It is very quintessential of what the river looks like from here to Richmond.”
The shorter trip flows under three bridges, ending just before the abandoned Norfolk/Western Railway crossing. The longer trip continues on for a total of nine miles, ending at a boat ramp off Mount Athos Road. All sorts of wildlife can be seen, including an impressive bald eagle’s nest, “about the size of a VW bus,” according to Campbell.
For the hourly rentals, which are great for testing out a new skill or for a quick evening paddle after work, there’s still plenty to experience right outside James River Adventures’ front door.
“It is a great place to paddle up to Scott’s Mill Dam,” Campbell said. “You’ve got the beautiful cascading water and the nice sandy island to stop up there to enjoy a little picnic or a great place to swim and fish and all that good stuff.”
Safety is a top priority. All guests are provided with lifejackets and given basic instruction on how to use their equipment and navigate the waters. Shuttle service is offered not just for customers but also (for a small fee) to paddlers who aren’t able to have cars at both ends of their trips down the river.
Waters are not very rough, so excursions with James River Adventures are great for beginners and families (with certain age/supervision requirements) but even experienced paddlers can appreciate “the beauty and appeal,” Campbell said.
In a society filled with sedentary vices (many of the electronic variety), being active and getting outside is critical. And a workout on the water offers great cardiovascular fitness with low impact on the joints. According to Better Health Channel, physical benefits also include muscle strength targeted in the back, arms, shoulders and chest from paddling and torso and leg strength from rotating and applying pressure through this motion. Standup paddles include the added benefit of balance. That doesn’t even account for the mental benefits.
“The serenity of it, floating down the river without the typical noise distractions,” explained Brooke Newton, JRA Upper James River Educator, “being able to flow along and hear the movement of the water, all the natural sounds … helps enhance how people go on with their personal lives.”
As James River Adventures guides people across the surface, they invite them into a deeper understanding. Education is a key element of what the operation is all about.
“We do hope that when people go out with us we can personify stewardship,” Newton said. “We focus mostly on the positive aspect of what our river is and how awesome and historic the James is for all of us.”
She pointed out that many in the community cling to the idea that the water is “nasty,” while in reality it is booming with a healthy underwater ecosystem.
“That’s part of our mission; to outreach and get people to understand that these local tributaries are vastly important,” Newton said.
“It tells such a better story; it paints a much brighter picture of the James than people ever had,” Campbell added.
Firsthand experience also helps people care more about the environment and spurs them to be more mindful of how they impact it.
“If people become connected to the river and they begin to care about it then they want to be a part of that solution,” Newton said.
Throughout the year, James River Adventures takes area middle and high schoolers out on excursions, both to have fun outside the classroom and to have a meaningful educational experience related to what they are learning in class.
“It’s a double-whammy” Campbell said.
The school trips include macro-invertebrate testing and water quality samples, checking the chemical makeup of the river. It all relates to local landscapes, giving students a better appreciation for their community. (Weeklong summer camps were also held in June.)
“We get them to start thinking about things that they do on a daily basis and things that they can do to lessen their impact on water quality,” Newton said. “They are learning about nutrient pollution in textbooks; we try to get them to think for themselves about where this potential pollution is coming from in order for us to come back full circle to see what we can do as individuals to think globally but act locally.”
This deeper educational experience is also incorporated into the guided tours offered by James River Adventures.
The vision is for the organization to flow deep through the community, as vibrant as the waters it seeks to protect, celebrate and enjoy. James River Adventures supports the annual James River Batteau Festival, a historic, weeklong floating adventure that starts in Lynchburg. Campbell and Newton are also partnering with the Lynchburg Outdoor Social Tribe, as well as local businesses, to host outdoor events that connect and support the downtown community (ideas include “Paddles and Pints” and “Paddles and Pizza”). In the long-term, there are hopes to partner with local bike, skate and rock climbing shops to host multi-sport events that include paddling, as well as to offer more educational opportunities (their current offerings help meet statewide Standards of Learning for science but Newton sees more interdisciplinary applications, including for art, history and physical education).
James River Adventures is also a tourism boon for Amherst County as it elevates Riveredge as an attraction.
“Big things are coming from this little park,” Newton said. “We are hoping to open up a whole new realm.”
Book your adventure online or learn more at JamesRiverAdventures.org.