Riding the James into the center of the Confederacy. An exclusive book excerpt. 

Finding the Wild Heart

When Captain Christopher Newport left England for the New World early in 1607, he and the 103 souls in his command were fortified with the advice of their bosses back home. "Do your best Endeavor to find out a Safe port in the Entrance of Some navigable River making Choise of Such a one as runneth furthest into the Land," the advice ran. Once they did that, they were to discover whether the river they chose sprang from mountains or a lake — for a lake might well have a river running from its far side to the East India Sea.

So it was that Newport and his fledgling colony, among its members a stout, bearded adventurer named John Smith, sailed into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and struck up a broad, powerful river they found there to a marshy peninsula. And that within days of its landfall on what it dubbed Jamestown Island, the colony dispatched a party up the river it called the Powhatan. And that just 100 miles from the great river's mouth, the explorers were halted by an unexpected, and unwelcome, spectacle: where they had hoped to find a lake, they were confronted instead with a noisy tangle of whitewater and granite where, as Smith put it, "the water falleth so rudely, and with such a violence, as not any boat can possibly pass." Newport, Smith, and company had reached the Falls of the James.

No greater obstacle has confounded navigation on the James River than the boulder-strewn rapids at present-day Richmond, where for six miles it gnaws through the last vestiges of an ancient volcano on its drive to the sea, its waters split and squeezed into a chaos of chutes, cascades, and swirls within sight of downtown's skyscrapers.

o other city on the planet has such a natural wildness in its heart. The James tumbles 105 feet in this noisy, foam-flecked obstacle course, careens through some stretches of whitewater rated Class IV, even Class V — and in one place at high water, the absurd Class VI.

On top of nature's perils are those of man, for here the river is laced with broken dams, bridge piers, slabs of concrete, iron pipes, gnarled daggers of torn rebar. Arms and legs and skulls have been shattered on the rocks and submerged hazards lying in wait below the ledges and dams. Canoes have been split, bent, wrapped into doughnuts. And many a swimmer has drowned in these falls, where hydraulics can suck the strongest underwater and spin him in place. The Williams Island Dam, an innocuous-looking concrete weir that zigzags from either side of its namesake island to the James' banks, has by itself claimed 11 lives.

So it's with grave trepidation that Ian Martin and I eyeball the river at the Pony Pasture, a riverside park above the rapids that overlooks an archipelago of dark boulders and rock slabs stretching far from shore. Dragonflies dart among these tiny islands. The morning sun winks on the water, reflects off hundreds of small, mirrorlike puddles in the stone. I consciously note that it's a beautiful scene, but feel nothing but edgy.

Today's the big day, the last great hurdle before flatwater, the place where the waterway we've followed for 16 days and more than 300 miles finally, violently, displays the strength it's gathered on its journey from Hightown. The last rush before the river becomes a tidal arm of the Chesapeake. And I'll soon be in the middle of it, fighting rapids that dwarf all those that have come before.

We rock-hop 30 yards out toward the river's middle, find it passing slowly, quietly, peacefully. Too peacefully: the river's silence, its denial of any clue as to what waits just downstream, hints of menace. More than hints, actually. "You scared?" Ian asks, as we stand on a ledge, staring down into the languid, almost syrupy James.

"Half to death," I tell him.

Long before setting out to raft all the way down the James, I'd read enough about the river to know that Richmond posed its toughest challenge. The falls here make those at the Balcony seem mere ripples. A week or two before Ian and I set out to find the source of the Jackson, I called my friend Lillie Gilbert, owner of Wild River Outfitters in Virginia Beach, and asked whether she could recommend a guide to help me pick through the Fall Line's rock gardens and rapids. She answered without hesitation. "Floyd Baker."

"He knows the river?"

"He knows it as well as anybody," she said. "He's very good." She gave me his number, then offered to have Floyd bring me a paddle better suited to rapids-running than my skinny-bladed touring model. "He's a little scary-looking," Lillie advised. "He's got a shaved head, and a goatee. But he's a sweetheart."

So I called Floyd and won his agreement to meet us in Richmond to guide me through the falls. Shortly after we leap the rocks back to shore, he pulls up in a mini-pickup. As he parks, I see that under the truck's shell is a plastic kayak, a tiny, playtoy-seeming thing with a stubby snout and a pinched tail. Next to my canoe, it seems suicidally small. Floyd gets out, thick-chested, strong-armed, bald head gleaming. He does, in fact, look a bit scary. He shakes my hand. "We're mighty glad to see you," I announce.

"Yeah, man," Ian agrees.

Floyd doesn't say much. He glares at me. He glares at Ian. He glares at my canoe. He clearly has doubts. We pass a few minutes of awkward small talk, during which Floyd eyes the James and proclaims it the lowest he's ever seen. Then he hands me my loaner paddle, changes into his wet suit, cradles his kayak under an arm, and leads the way to the rocky shoreline. He shimmies into his blue speck of a boat while Ian and I struggle to lower the canoe to the water, then pulls on his helmet and straps it under his chin.

I reach for my own helmet, never worn, its bright red plastic unscuffed. I have to pry it open to clear my ears, then pull it snug. The foam inside grips my skull as tightly as talons, and only a little more comfortably; within seconds my temples ache. Still, it beats slamming bare-headed into a boulder at 20 miles an hour. I buckle the strap under my chin, and we shove off.

Right away, Floyd points out places that testify to the water's low level. We're surrounded by bent-back rocks normally submerged, thousands of them.

"Usually can't see that one," Floyd says as we paddle through the barely riffling water. Floyd points out another: "Water's usually up over that one." And another: "I've never seen that before."

We head downstream in the river's middle, 100 yards from either shore, the water's speed building around us. It is a bright, blue-sky morning, the sun intense, a cool breeze whispering from the south, but the shallows command our attention. We scrape our plastic hulls on riverbed rock, scoot and pole the boats over sand bars, notice Canada geese standing in the middle of rapids that normally run fast and strong and a couple of feet deep. The water remains startlingly clear, seemingly clean enough to drink. There just isn't much of it.

"With every foot of water," Floyd tells me, "this becomes a different river. At five feet it's one way; at six, completely different. I've seen people run it when it was up 20 feet, and the water covered the parking lot back at the Pony Pasture.

"Today will be something new for both of us," he says, "because I've never run the river at this level before."

The Powhite Bridge looms overhead, and we sloop down a few quick bumps — the Powhite Ledges, a mild warm-up for the craziness to come. A little farther on, we hook right around a rocky shelf and slide down a fast-moving chute at the Choo Choo Rapids, named for a tall, arched railroad bridge overhead and created by a blown-out dam. In a second I'm catapulted from standstill to sprint. The canoe flies smoothly over a chain of standing waves as I paddle furiously.

Floyd flips his kayak around effortlessly at the bottom, tucks it into an eddy. I grunt through the turn behind him. As I do, I'm aware that the canoe is doing everything I ask of it, and I detect a foreign sensation spreading through me: relaxation. I'm suddenly at ease. My newfound dexterity is the work of my loaner paddle, which has oversized blades that I can dig into the water with far more bite, with which I can swing the canoe's nose around with speed and control. Plus, of course, there's Floyd, who leads the way through each set of rapids, plays my Sacajawea among the thousands of rocks that dot the river.

My calm doesn't last long. At one rapids I somehow catch the bow against a boulder and the canoe switches ends at the lip of a three-foot drop. I shoot a hand out to hug a rock on my right, and hang there for a minute, facing the wrong way, unable to paddle against the current, unwilling to risk a backward run, poised at the brink of disaster.

Floyd, having already descended the falls in the traditional, facing-forward style, studies my situation from the flat water below. "You're going to have to let go," he advises. I look over my shoulder. The falls is a steep, gushing braid straddled by boulders, a dogleg to the left at its bottom. "There's nothing else you can do," Floyd says.

It seems certain that I'll dump the boat on the way down. If somehow I don't, I'll slam into the rocks lining the dogleg and surely flip there. I reflect sadly that I've been undone by a rapids rated only a Class II. Child's play. But Floyd is right. There's no way out but surrender. I crouch as low as I can in the boat, lean forward to grab the front thwart bracing its gunwales, and pull my other hand from the rock. Instantly the canoe tilts over the lip and free-falls backwards down the hole. Then, perhaps two seconds later, I realize the rushing water has steered me through the dogleg and onto the flat. Floyd is laughing, shaking his head incredulously. The toughest rapids so far, and I've run it with no hands.

At the rapids called First Break the James pours through a hole blasted into the concrete Belle Isle Dam by Hurricane Camille, creating a muscular spigot of water 20 feet wide. We eye the stream from above the break for a minute or two, trying to choose the best spot to hit the cascade's lip.

The decision made, Floyd attacks the rushing water, swoops downward, drops almost out of sight — I can just see his helmeted head from where I wait in the canoe. He waves me on, so I plough into the foam. It shoots me downhill as if from a slingshot, the canoe riding butter-smooth and nose-high over a spine of standing waves to the shoreline of Belle Isle.

This half-mile-long, rock-ringed oval of land is littered with the remains of its busy history: Floyd and I beach the boats and drag them high and dry on the island's sloping granite fringe, stepping over chunks of slag left over from an old furnace, then hike up the bank and into the trees and past an algae-choked pond that fills the bottom of a long-derelict quarry. We walk a broad, well-tamped path through sun-dappled forest, side by side with the ghosts of a Confederate fort, a crumbling concrete power plant, antebellum mills and a Rebel prisoner-of-war camp. In the summer of 1862, the Confederates began housing captured Federal officers at Libby Prison, a converted warehouse on the north bank, and the Union's enlisted troops here at Belle Isle, on four well-guarded, fenced acres of sand at the island's lower end.

It was not a happy place. As many as 6,000 Northern soldiers were crowded on the grounds. The best accommodations were canvas tents, and at times a third of the prisoners didn't have even those. Death by freezing claimed many. In the fall of 1863, a Red Cross-style outfit called the United States Sanitary Commission started shipping relief from the North — clothing, food, shoes and such—with the Confederacy's permission. It helped for a while, until a captured Union general coordinating the handling of the shipments in Richmond wrote a letter suggesting that the commission slip cash into cans marked as preserved fruit, for use in bribing guards.

The Rebs tightened the cuffs. Shipments were carefully inspected. The flow of goods to Belle Isle slowed to a dribble. Before long, starvation started to consume the place. Eventually, the Confederacy decided to relocate the prisoners, and Belle Isle was shut down after having housed more than 20,000 men in its two-and-a-half years. The POWs were taken to a new prison — in Andersonville, Ga.

Sunbathers squint at us as we step out of the trees and onto rocks at the island's north side, still wearing our helmets and life vests. The river forms a rushing panorama around us, roaring as it races among thousands of soft-shouldered rocks on the streambed. Beyond the boulders, a sheet of water spills over the Hollywood Dam, a diagonal obstruction that shunts the James' middle toward its north side. Beyond the dam rises the old canal's towpath, and past it, the river's high bank. And on top of the bluff I can see the white marble monuments of Hollywood Cemetery.

There's nothing left of the prison on the island behind me. But up there, at Hollywood, Civil War memories remain far more intact. Walk among the cemetery's knolls, beneath holly, oak, and magnolia, and you find Southern troops unnamed and buried dozens to a grave. "Gettysburg," one granite slab reads, the open turf around it home to nearly 3,000 dead. Nearby, another stone stands sentry: "Unknown." Farther off, a third: "Seven Pines Unknown." And beyond that, "Unknown Soldiers from Shields Woods." Grids of small numbered headstones sprout from the hillside below, but most of the 18,000 soldiers interred in Hollywood's Confederate section rest as they died before the Federal guns — together, a sea of faceless gray, cells in a collective ideal more than individual men.

It was among these Rebel graves that one of America's earliest Memorial Day ceremonies was held. Here that widows and mothers erected one of the South's largest monuments to its fallen. And it's the Southern dead, as much as the two American presidents buried within the walls, that have made the graveyard a tourist destination. Hollywood is consecrated ground. The Arlington of the Confederacy. A shrine to the Lost Cause. Meander through the 135-acre cemetery today, and you'll hear defiant grief rustle through the trees as surely as the breeze off the nearby James.

In the heart of the Confederate section, amid legions of marble monuments withered by wind and rain, a 90-foot pyramid of granite looms over the platoons of fallen Rebs, a headstone for the unidentified. It is an imperfect but curiously compelling monument, its stones rough and unpolished, like the men they honor, and held in place only by the slabs around them. Stand at its base, peer up at its peak, and if the wind's up, and blowing through the magnolias, you might mistake their rustle for a snare drum's drumming, far away.

There's something beyond the physical about Richmond — a quiet mourning, a palpable sense of tragedy. A Yankee visitor might be tempted, on seeing Monument Avenue and witnessing the quiet reverence of docents at the Davis mansion, to conclude that Richmond is stuck in the past. He might be right, too. But how many other American cities can lay claim to the kind of history Richmond has seen? How many other cities have survived the indignities Richmond has suffered, can say they've been burned, violated, and shamed in two wars? That twice their populations have abandoned their homes and run for the hills?

Richmond's years as the Confederate capital, and its fall to a long Union stranglehold, would take an entire book in themselves to recount. Suffice it to say that by the time the War Between the States opened, Richmond was a century and a half old, and had acquired the trappings of a sophisticated, modern metropolis. That during the war its people lost everything, were widowed and orphaned and practically starved. And that by the war's end, it was a smoking ruin, torched by its own troops and inhabitants as the Yankees pushed into its streets. A Currier and Ives print of the city's April 1865 evacuation depicts throngs of Richmonders streaming over the Mayo's Bridge, an updated version of which still crosses the James, while fire devours homes, warehouses, and factories behind them. It's not pretty.

Far less frequently recalled is the city's first abandonment, in January 1781, when 900 British troops under the brilliant turncoat Benedict Arnold sailed up the James to a couple dozen miles below here, then marched on the capital. Gov. Thomas Jefferson called out the militia, and if the soldiers had dug in for a fight and opened up on the Redcoats with cannons, Richmond might have put a serious dent in Arnold's movements, perhaps even stopped them cold. But what few troops responded to the governor's call never fired their artillery, and they turned tail when violence seemed imminent. Jefferson busied himself trying to move the revolutionary government's arms, supplies, and records upriver, then got out of Dodge, a good percentage of the city's white population right behind him. Meeting no resistance, Arnold's men raced through Richmond to Westham, on the north bank near the present-day Williams Island Dam, and burned a foundry, a magazine, a boring mill, and several houses there. They dumped five tons of American gunpowder into the water, destroyed a pile of government records, and carried off five cannons that Jefferson had ordered hidden in the James. They broke into warehouses, and split open casks so that liquor ran in streams down the gutters, and cows and hogs partaking freely, were seen staggering about the streets. Then they marched back east. It was not America's proudest moment: In just 48 hours, Arnold's small force had marched far into enemy territory, invaded and ransacked a city of 1,800 inhabitants, and returned to its boats without losing a single man.

Four months later, in early May, the Virginia General Assembly abandoned the capital for Charlottesville. As Jefferson's term as governor wound down in the closing days of the month, the assembly was poised to investigate his behavior in the face of the British invasion; one legislator, George Nicholas, introduced articles of impeachment against the governor for incompetency. Fortunately for the future president's reputation, the British headed for Charlottesville, and the legislature had to run before it could act on the matter. After Yorktown the lawmakers dropped the investigation, instead extending the governor their thanks. They didn't applaud his military prowess, however.

Echoes of war wouldn't be the only things to give the city away to the blindfolded skydiver. There is, of course, the James, which Richmond shows off with wild enthusiasm. Thirty years ago, the Fall Line was a cesspool, clogged with raw sewage and industrial filth that collected in the eddies behind its rocks. Today, it is a playground, the city's getaway, clean and clear and the centerpiece of a remarkable park that hugs the river's south bank and includes Belle Isle. On a sunny Sunday, the rocks and pools and swimming holes are busy with splashing children, lounging couples, solitary readers. James River Park is arguably the best-conceived and naturally blessed fusion of urban parkland, water, and raw beauty in the country. And the ruined dams and discarded stone bridge piers breaking the water only add to its appeal, standing as reminders of the great and terrible things that have unfolded on this little stretch of river.

Floyd and I boulder-hop along Belle Isle's north shore, and stride across a ledge that sweeps upward, like a sailboat's bow, to a pinnacle of granite overlooking the sharpest, toothiest rapids on the Fall Line. Today, with the river so dry, Hollywood Rapids is a dangerous blend of unstoppable force and immovable stone. A heavy, racing tongue of water spills into a chute walled with boulders and met at its end by two other rocks, hard-edged and deadly. Missing them requires a hairpin turn while moving at high speed.

"You normally don't even see those," Floyd says of the rocks. "And you sure wouldn't want to get up against them. If you make a mistake here, you're going to get hurt." I stare at the roiling water, mesmerized. Its speed, its mass, its power, are daunting enough. The rocks — and the gymnastics it would take to miss them—are another matter entirely. "Can it be done?" I ask him. I know the answer — kayakers run Hollywood all the time — but at the moment, I can't understand how. He pauses a moment, cataloguing the maneuvers necessary to stay alive, and concludes, "It's probably doable."

"Could I do it?"

"You?" Floyd asks, looking at me. He scowls. "No." Well, I think, that settles that. "Me?" he adds quietly. "Probably not, today."

So we portage the boats around Hollywood.

From "Journey on the James," 2001, University of Virginia Press.

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