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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.
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.