The River Wild 

While the city renews its love affair with the James, there's something you should know: It wants to kill you.

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It seemed like a good idea.

It was a very, very bad one.

On April 25, an unusually warm day in Richmond, the young man was hanging out with friends on the river when he saw a floating tree. Not a modest log. A 25-foot tree with a trunk this big around.

He decided to ride it down the river. Fun, right? Then he hit the First Break Rapids at the western end of Belle Isle. The massive tree swung around and slammed into a rock, pinning the man's foot. He was trapped.

Belle Isle bystanders, including a Roanoke firefighter, heard the man's screams and came to his aid. They brought him a lifejacket and called rescuers.

"It was an ugly situation," Greg Velzy says. He and a friend were the first paddlers on the scene. He says the man was so firmly pinned that there wasn't much they could do beside get a rope to him and let him know that rescuers were on the way.

The man stayed calm until the Richmond Fire Department showed up, Velzy says. "You could see the guy's eyes just go, 'Oh my God, I must be in a horrible position now, because these guys are all worried.'"

They were. They couldn't just yank the tree off him and let it float away, Battalion Chief John Harkness explains. "What's the current going to do? It's going to push it downstream and put it in the guy's lap."

Instead, rescuers rigged a line to pull the tree upstream. At least 10 firefighters and several bystanders pitched in to haul on the rope. "It was all we could do to get it up off of his leg," Harkness says.

With a tug, the tree rider was freed. Wearing no shirt and one shoe, he was brought to shore and taken to the hospital. Harkness, who has seen 30 years of river saves, calls it "probably the strangest rescue" he's ever witnessed.

He knew, however, that the Tree Guy rescue would be followed by many more. Already this year, the Fire Department's river rescue squad has received 40 calls for service and made 19 rescues (as of June 17). Last year it got 85 calls for service and counted 49 saves. Between 2004 and 2010, the department has averaged 76 calls for service each year.

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After decades of neglect, the James is considered the best thing about Richmond. Visionaries believe it's the key to the city's revival. Kayakers revel in its wild rapids. For many, the James is their playground, the city's backyard pool. Plunking down on a sun-baked rock with a six-pack is a classic Richmond pastime.

But the more we celebrate the river, the more people forget how dangerous it can be. The James drops 100 feet between the Williams Dam and the Mayo Bridge, churning through rocks and creating white-water rapids.

"This is not Water World," James River System Park Manager Ralph White says. "This is not a Kings Dominion ride. This is the real thing. You can die."

The good news is that experienced river users are leaping in to help people in trouble. It happens with spectacular saves, like Tree Guy. And it happens every day, with rescues no one ever hears about.

The bad news is that people still die. In the last four years, at least 14 people have drowned in the James River. Some jumped. Some fell. Some were swept away.

Will the river ever stop claiming Richmonders' lives?

Thirty years ago, the James River was a rough and lawless place.

The water was polluted. The banks were jungled. Belle Isle was a haven for biker gangs to drink and do drugs. They'd throw bottles and rocks at firefighters who came to extinguish brush fires there, Harkness says. White recalls bikers boozing with floozies around the Pony Pasture Park area. A 1974 Richmond Times-Dispatch article describes "bands of roving youths" holding drag races and "wild and nude" parties near Williams Dam.

River accidents were a growing problem, and rescue operations were basic. In 1980, Harkness had just joined the Richmond Fire Department as a rookie. There was no dedicated rescue squad. There wasn't any fancy equipment, either.

"We had one inflatable boat and one metal V-bottom boat and one old civil defense-style vehicle," Harkness recalls. Kayakers often had to save themselves, hauling out stuck friends with ropes.

Around three to six people drowned in the James every year in the 1980s, White says. Some were kayakers who took risks. Some were young and ignorant of the river's dangers. "We used to have a senior drown almost every year," Harkness says, when local high-schoolers organized senior skip days in the spring at Pony Pasture.

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Concerned about increasing numbers of rescues — five to 15 per year, the Fire Department reported then — in 1981 the city instituted the rules about river use that stand today. When the river level exceeds 5 feet, lifejackets are required for swimmers; when it's higher than 9 feet, only expert paddlers with permits are allowed in the water.

In 1986 the city went a step further by forbidding swimming in the river. The reason was to protect the city from being sued, leaders explained. River advocates, including White, scoffed. Education, not prohibition, was the way to keep people from getting hurt, he said.

During the next decades, the river changed. Canoeists with 12-packs gave way to serious kayakers. White successfully lobbied for better access to the James at places such as Pony Pasture and encouraged families to come, driving out the rowdy crowd. In 1991, a pedestrian bridge was built to Belle Isle, turning the island into an oasis for joggers and dog walkers. The city improved its sewer system, and the water got cleaner. The James River Park System now sees around 750,000 people a year, White estimates, up from the last official count of 600,000 in 2006.

While the river attracted more people, White says, it also got safer. He credits not only the Fire Department's well-trained squad, but also the river community. When someone gets in trouble, like the tree-riding man, recreational river users are often the first to leap into action.

People still die. But the deaths that happen now are mostly because of "uncontrollable" situations, White says, in which first responders can do little. Park staff have prevented a great deal of death and injury through common-sense management, he says. Nevertheless, "there are going to be a certain number of tragedies that are simply unpreventable."

Last year Phil Riggan, editor of the James River News Hub blog, created a Google map showing Richmond-area deaths on the river since July 2007. He says he was inspired to make it after the death of a friend's father. Jerry A. Nutter, a knowledgeable kayaker, died in 2007 when his boat overturned.

Riggan says he wanted to remind himself, and others, that anything can happen on the river. No matter how careful you are, no matter how much you prepare, he says, "you can still have something unexpected happen and you can die."

Of the 14 drowning deaths he recorded on the map, two were incidents involving recreational swimmers. Two other incidents, involving women ages 49 and 61, were ruled accidental drownings. In two more drownings, investigators believe the victims suffered medical problems.

In two incidents, kayakers drowned. Even the best, most experienced paddlers aren't safe in the James. Hydraulics — powerful, relentlessly circulating currents — can trap them. Particularly deadly are strainers. These are obstacles, such as submerged tree branches, that allow water to pass through but trap boats and people. Karen Abse, a beloved river volunteer and expert kayaker, drowned in a strainer at the base of Hollywood Rapids in 2006.

The most common reason for river drowning deaths, at least in recent years, remains suicide. Six suicides have been recorded since 2007, including the only two river deaths to date this year. A man jumped from the Manchester bridge on March 2 and died. And on May 31 a man leaped from the Route 288 bridge in Goochland and died.

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Just a few days later, on June 3, a man was pulled from the river under the Lee Bridge shortly before 4 a.m. He swam to the middle of the river with the intention of killing himself, he told police, then changed his mind.

The river can be deadly no matter its size.

"Lots of times, some of the worst things happen at low water," says Velzy, a kayaking instructor and adventure programmer for Chesterfield Parks and Recreation. "People don't expect that. It lulls people into a sense of complacency, really low water."

By low, he means when the James looks like a wading pool and sunbathers have their pick of rocks. The current is weaker, but there are still pockets of deep water that catch swimmers unaware.

Low water's also dangerous for kayakers, who have to contend with hazards the water usually covers. Once, Velzy paddled over a buried pipeline near Hollywood Cemetery that had been exposed by the low river levels. Passing over it, he leaned back and the circulating current started to suck the tail of the boat back under the pipe.

"So then I was stuck, pointing toward the sky," he says. "Stuck in my boat. Nothing I could do." Fortunately, Velzy was paddling with friends who were able to wrench him free. Volunteers have since filled the gap where he was caught.

High, muddy water isn't inviting to rock sitters or any but the most adventurous paddlers. But it can be perilous for those who find themselves caught in the current.

On Friday, May 20, a man tumbled off a 30-foot wall by the Mayo Bridge downtown into a rushing 9-foot river.

It was just before 5 p.m. Howling fire trucks parked on the bridge while commuters gawked. A friend who saw the man fall paced back and forth on the grass nearby, smoking a cigarette with trembling hands. "Ooh, I'm worried," she said.

A few minutes later, Fire Department rescuers pulled the man up at the 14th Street takeout. He had been clinging to a tree limb until kayakers retrieved him, bruised, scraped and a bit belligerent. Hand on jaw, he tried to crack his neck while emergency personnel examined him. "Don't do that!" one said. They hustled him off to the hospital.

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Most rescues don't happen when the river's at the 12-foot flood stage or when it's drought-level low. Danger lurks when the river's middling high — 5 to 7 feet — and running clear. It looks cool. It looks clean. Even lazy. But at that slightly elevated level, Harkness says, the amount of water coursing past is three to four times the normal flow. Where the river funnels through Hollywood Rapids at Belle Isle, it packs a tremendous amount of force.

Around 7:30 p.m. on June 13, local photographer Arthur Stephens was on Belle Isle taking sunset shots of the river with a buddy, Otway Chalkley. He saw a couple in the water nearby, a man and woman holding each other tightly.

Stephens thought they were having a romantic moment. Then he saw the woman's terrified face. "Right away, I knew," he says.

Friends of the couple ran up and pulled the woman out. The man tried to brace his feet against rocks, but he was being swept into the rapids. The photographers joined the rescue effort. "It took several tries to get him," Stephens says. "His body kept twisting around."

Finally, they were able to haul the man out. Both people were bruised and battered. "You saved our lives," the woman told Stephens. She said they simply got swept up in the current and pulled downriver.

The water was just over 4 feet at the Westham Gauge.

Can the river be made safer?

The short answer is no.

At Pipeline Rapids on a recent Saturday, the water — 8 ½ feet at Westham — is thundering. A log juts up in the middle of a rapid, dividing the torrent like Moses' arm. It's a potential danger to paddlers. But White won't remove it.

"Boaters might," he says. "But we, as a park, don't. And the reason is we cannot be responsible. If we start removing one, then we've got to remove them all. And if we remove them, the implication is now, it's safe. It isn't. We make no guarantee that the river is safe."

No, the river is not safe. But it's exhilarating to experienced kayakers such as Velzy. He launches his kayak from the pipeline walkway into the surging brown water. And he's off, zipping downstream. Young women in bikinis watch while they sip mimosas on the sand. Overhead, great blue herons soar like extravagant kites.

The river will remain as it always has been: wild. But White, park volunteers and the fire department have been working to make its users safer.

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Signs with cartoon depictions of hazards — including broken glass and no diving — and the river rules stand at most access points. White says the park has begun upgrading signs and maps to help people understand where the dangers are. He'd like to add bar codes that people could scan with their smartphones, which would bring up videos and information about the river and its rapids. "You get a sense of what you're going in for," he says.

Last year, as part of the mayor's safe city initiative, the Fire Department began sending a two-person bike team to patrol Belle Isle on summer weekends. The team, which includes an advanced life-support provider and a trained swift-water rescuer, circles the island, talking with people and intervening in dangerous situations.

"The number of problems has gone down," White says. But rescuers aren't counting on a quiet summer. "Some of it's just luck," Harkness says of the low number of drownings. There are so many near misses, he says. "We can't let our guard down."

Trouble is, people don't often get in trouble for causing trouble. Many river advocates would like to see a clear policy defining when people should be fined for violating the lifejacket and river-depth rules. Only one person was cited last year for not having a required flotation device while in the James, according to Richmond police. This year, police cited one other person who repeatedly refused to put on a life jacket.

In the case of Tree Guy, White notes, everyone praised the rescuers but few criticized the young man's behavior. "He should be fined," White says. "Because you're stupid, and you're endangering other people."

Velzy, and other veteran paddlers, don't hesitate to step in when they see bad decision making. Just recently, Velzy says, he saw two young kayakers heading out to some challenging whitewater. Their helmets were tucked away in their boats.

"I pleaded with them to put their helmets on," he says, "and they wouldn't. They just said they didn't think they needed them."

Not everyone listens. But some do.

On the bright Saturday when the river's running at eight and a half feet, Velzy finds two 20-something men in the parking lot. They're preparing to launch inflatable rafts into the raging Pipeline Rapids.

"We just got these from Wal-Mart," says one, who gives his name as Tommy. "They're really shitty."

Velzy advises them to save their rafting for another day. They get a little defensive, then they concur. Tommy says he was planning to assess the river first before launching the rafts.

"You have to be safe out there," he says, maintaining that he would have "probably" reached the same conclusion as Velzy.

"So we're going to go drink instead," he says.

And just like that, the river loses its chance to take two more lives. S

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