Experience history, wildlife, and conservation efforts with guided river tours

By: Jeremy Angione  |  Photos By: Ashlee Glen

Lynchburg residents have a unique opportunity this summer to learn about the unique history and wildlife flowing through the James River. 

Steeped in the history of Native Americans and early American colonists, the James River served as an instrumental source of hunting, commerce, and drinking water. For Virginia’s modern denizens, the James River is more often associated with fun and relaxation. Considering the James runs through several major Virginia cities, including Lynchburg, Richmond, and Williamsburg, the river acts as a boon for local ecology and everyday life.

For the James River Association—a nonprofit organization that advocates for the entirety of the James from Botetourt County to the Chesapeake Bay—the goal is to cultivate a lasting appreciation for the river and all that it does and represents. The Lynchburg branch of the association is James River Adventures. Just as their name suggests, the best way to help Virginians appreciate the river is by showing them the adventures to be had on and around it.

“Once you have something that you love, it’s something that you want to protect. That’s truly our organization’s goal—to protect the James, now and into the future,” James River Association’s Upper James Regional Manager Robert Campbell said.

Campbell has become JRA’s self-proclaimed “Jack of all trades” since he began his work there in 2013. One of Campbell’s major duties is tour guide of James River Adventures’ seasonal Paddle Downtown Experience, which runs from June to September.

More than just aimless paddling in the river, the JRA tours have different themes depending on the date that should appeal to a wide variety of novice and experienced outdoor enthusiasts. The tour themes include local history, birding, fishing, and “threats to the river.”

Depending on the experience level or size of the groups, paddlers can float on the tour using a canoe, a kayak, or even one of JRA’s historically fashioned batteaux.

“We’re very much geared at people who don’t have experience. In general, we like to have folks who have zero experience. We want to cultivate a love for the James in everybody,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s passion for protecting the James started with the love that his father helped cultivate. Growing up in northern Amherst County, Campbell routinely went on the river to fish with his dad. But, according to Campbell, seeing the James River Batteau Festival hooked him on river life. Campbell believes he can replicate that experience with paddlers who learn to love the river.

“The ones who are the most rewarding are the students and people who have grown up right next to the river, but never had any experience with the water,” he said.

Although to many paddlers the river tours are just a unique day of fun on the water, to Campbell and JRA, the hope is that their values of advocacy, education, and restoration are imparted to paddlers.

Though much of the advocacy work is done at the Richmond branch, Campbell says that the JRA is “constantly working with lawmakers to get good legislation for the James River.”

“Anything related to water; we’re there to advocate not only for the James, but for the community surrounding the James,” he said.

Campbell and the JRA provide a unique, hands-on education for paddlers with their near-encyclopedic knowledge of the river and its history.

Last year, Campbell said that the James River Association was able to get about 18,000 students out on the river for trips, with about 3,500 students coming through the Lynchburg branch.

“Our restoration work is one of our largest growing programs. Over the last five years, we have put in close to 100,000 trees on the side of the James River,” Campbell said.

After a short tour of the James River with Campbell acting as batteau captain, it is clear to see why a float on the James River is a worthwhile venture. Campbell managed to recite dozens of facts about the James all while pressing roughly against the riverbed with a poplar sapling that had been fashioned into a pole-type oar to guide the batteau around the river’s currents.

The light breeze, gentle sun rays, and local wildlife make for a remarkable trip that many Lynchburg residents unfortunately forget is just in their backyards.

The batteau, which is essentially a large canoe, was previously used to deliver thousands of pounds of goods (such as tobacco) across the James River. Charlie Coleman, husband of Sarah Coleman, another member of the JRA team, built the historically accurate watercraft for JRA.

“It took me about 6 months to build. The JRA batteau is built and patterned off an original canal-era batteau that was unearthed in the 1980s,” Coleman said.

As a Lynchburg native, Coleman cites the James River as a personal landmark in his life that hosted countless adventures for him, including his proposal to his wife Sarah, and his young daughter catching her first fish. Coleman’s love for the river underpins his support of it and JRA, just as it does with Campbell.

“I love that they bring people to the river who may not know what it has to offer. If you are open to it, you can find adventure and beauty in so many different spots on the James,” Coleman said.

According to Campbell, Batteau trips are also available with private bookings for up to six people, and guests can even bring along food and drinks.

While the guided tour season runs through September, Campbell says that JRA may extend its season into Autumn for guided tours to observe the changing of the leaves.  

Anyone interested in booking a guided tour can find details on JRA’s website jamesriveradventures.org, where you can find price information and the various dates of and themes of each tour. 

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