By Chris Gragtmans
I couldn't believe that I'd never paddled in Richmond before.
Sure, I’ve driven around and past the Virginia capital city a number of times, but I never took the time to stop and paddle the James River. In spite of being largely overlooked, Richmond is definitely one of the country’s best urban playgrounds.
"Who wouldn’t love the James?” is the question that local Richmond paddler and videographer Hunter Davis asked me, pointing out the world-class play features 365 days a year, warm water, wildlife—and thousands of bikinis lining the banks of the river. “Dozens of rapids offer up some incredible whitewater right in the heart of the city, not to mention, its not uncommon to see flows of over 100,000 cfs,” Davis added. “High water is what we live for—big waves and big surf. But as the river drops into low summer flows, we still have some incredible play features, including the infamous Z Spot. You gotta come here, its amazing.”
This year, I listened, my visit occurring because of the May 17-19 Dominion RiverRock festival. This is a true mountain sports festival, featuring trail running, mountain biking, kayaking, SUP events, dog jumping, slackline, and more. It's always cool when athletes from these different sports converge, and RiverRock provides one of the only opportunities for this on the East Coast. Within striking distance of D.C., Baltimore, Greensboro, and Norfolk, athletes flooded in for a weekend of competition.
As soon as I arrived, I knew that I liked something. I cruised right in with no traffic, and within minutes was flying through the air on a massive rope swing into the river! The cold, rain-swollen water of the James washed away hours of driving. I knew it was going to be a great weekend.
The festival proper began with a bang on Friday, as the whole outdoor adventure gamut—road races, mud runs, freestyle bike practice, SUP demos on the canal—unfolded beneath the city skyline, putting the greenways, pedestrian bridges, and trails to great use.
My weekend was also packed with competition: Kayak Boatercross, SUPCross (whitewater), SUP Enduro (flatwater), and Kayak Freestyle. The Boatercross event was definitely a highlight. Five total rounds of sprints through the gated rapid right next to the festival site … as exhausting as it was exhilarating. I was matched up in the final round with Eric Jackson and locals Tom Daley and Rob Tompkins. Eric and I had a hell of a battle (see video below), but I wasn't able to hang onto him and ended up taking second. All of this occurred in front of a big, high-energy crowd listening to live music.
After an exhausting two days, I came out with a third-, second-, and fourth-place finish, at the other events that I competed in. No firsts, but no complaints with an awesome weekend spent working hard, seeing old friends, making new ones, and enjoying the seamless confluence of outdoors and city lifestyles. One thing is certain—I’m sold on the Richmond adventure sports culture. I know I’ll be back.