You didn't think Richmond won Outside Magazine's Best River Town in America contest just by stuffing the online ballot box, did you? Well, maybe. But the city had help backing up the title when it was time for Jon Billman to write the article.
Bryan Smith, owner of Black Dog Paddle, taught the Oklahoman how to stand-up paddle board in a deep-water section of the James River near Bosher Dam.
"He instantly fell in love with it," Smith says. "I still text with him about it."
Smith describes paddle boarding as the best of canoeing, kayaking and surfing on one device, adding that people enjoy it because it's unconstricting and offers a different perspective on the environment.
Smith's loved the water since he was a child. He was a lifeguard in his teens, and later, a whitewater guide in West Virginia. He now helps hundreds of local youth — through the Chesterfield and Henrico county public schools, Virginia Commonwealth University Outdoor Adventure and others — to learn safe practices on the water.
Working with Team River Runners, Smith also has helped amputee soldiers and those with traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries from McGuire Veterans Medical Center. "They reawaken in the water," Smith says — "their eyes come alive."
Smith recounts a story about a Navy SEAL with a traumatic brain injury, whom he took into the whitewater program. His balance and confidence quickly improved and "his spirit came back," Smith says. Nine months after being in a coma, he was out of the hospital with a job.
"He once asked me to let him roll over so he was upside-down — we had a heated conversation about it," Smith says. "I finally understood he was saying, 'Bryan, I'm a Navy SEAL, I can hold my breath for six minutes. Let me be underwater.'"