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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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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