Watch the Water

If you’re like most of us, you get tons of emails from groups interested in conservation, outdoor recreation, and more. Many of us subscribe to magazines that focus on the same things. A quick glimpse of our YouTube feeds would show you videos of mountain bikers, rock climbers, kayakers, and more.

A friend sent us a video that popped up in his feed a few days ago. It shows a group of kayakers out for a leisurely paddle when things go horribly wrong. They are attempting to cross a pretty common river obstacle – a “low head dam.” As one member of their party crosses, he gets pulled into the hydraulics of the dam, and is very soon in life-threatening danger. It’s only the quick thinking of his partners that saves his life.

* Before you watch the video, embedded below, be forewarned that they use some colorful adult language.

A few things helped this group with a successful rescue:
* They were paddling as a group.
* There was a high level of communication.
* They had the right safety and rescue equipment.
* They knew what to do.

The James River has two spots within the James River Park System that are nearly identical to the feature in the video: Bosher’s Dam and Z-Dam at Williams Island. They are “low head dams” that stretch across the river, generally from bank to bank. Water flows continuously across the top of the dam, and that water flow creates a powerful current that washes everything that crosses back into the dam. This type of dam is also referred to as a “drowning machine.”

Over the years, many folks have tragically lost their lives trying to cross Bosher’s and Z-Dam. Just over a year ago, a group of 12 people went over Bosher’s Dam using floats, tubes and paddleboards. Tragically, two members of their group died and were only found days later.

There are many spots on the James that are appropriate for the casual paddler or an innocent float. There are other spots that require a bit of skill, and some that could challenge an experienced professional – especially if the conditions are right. You can always refer to our River Safety Page to pick up helpful tips for a safe day on the river, but here are a few basics:

  • Always paddle as a group.
  • Don’t paddle under the influence.
  • Be aware of fallen trees and other obstructions that may trap a kayaker or swimmer (and know that these obstacles are often submerged).
  • Check the river levels before you venture out.
  • Know your route.
  • Wear a life jacket and shoes.
  • Communicate with your team.

Thanks to your support, we’re designing and installing signage for some of the more treacherous spots on the James. You’ll know when a dangerous rapid is coming up, when you need to exit the river and portage around an obstacle, and more. Until then, review our River Safety Page, and safe paddling!



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