The local company behind the James’s growing national appeal.
“The reason the city of Richmond is here is because of the James,” says David Fary, guide at Riverside Outfitters, purveyors of rafting, kayaking, biking, climbing, and many other Richmond outdoor activities. “When we had those big wooden English sailing ships, they couldn’t go past the fall line. So they had to stop right where the tidal section ends and the end of the falls are, right at the Mayo Bridge at 14th Street.”
Unknown to Major William Mayo, who laid out Richmond’s first grid system in 1737, the James River would become one of the city’s most appealing characteristics.
“You can start up here in Pony Pasture and get completely lost in some of the trails systems of the James River Park,” Fary said. “And then when you take a bend in the river, there’s the city skyline, so you’re taking this huge transition between this nature scene and wilderness and natural environment, and you come around and see this urban environment.”
Richmonders needn’t travel far to enjoy whitewater rafting. “Some of the biggest rapids are right there in downtown Richmond,” Fary said. “Richmond has the Class III and IV whitewater running right through the city.”
In 2012, Outside Magazine named Richmond Best Town Ever for being the “unlikeliest river-recreation mecca in the country.”
Riverside Outfitters is arguably the cornerstone of that mecca. Its mission is to “significantly and responsibly” increase recreational use of the city’s landscape on and around the James.
The idea for the company came nearly ten years ago from Scott Turner, who ran a local tree care company called TrueTimber Tree Service.
“He was very interested in seeing how a lot of the same climbing systems that they use for work could be applied to recreational climbing systems for kids,” said Matt Perry, president and co-owner of Riverside Outfitters. “He had a strong passion for getting kids outside more, reconnecting them with nature more, having more natural fun. And he thought the climbing systems that they use, whether to zipline down a log from a tree or to climb and explore out on its branches and limbs” could apply to recreational climbing. His vision grew to include kayaking and other activities. Riverside Outfitters opened in August 2005.
In 2006, Fary worked at then-competitor Richmond Raft Company. “I just rode by Riverside Outfitters and saw some kayaks and asked them if they were doing any rafting, after Richmond Raft Company had shut down at the end of 2006,” he said. “There was definitely a void left there by them that we were able to slip into.” Fary eventually became manager for the company’s rafting and boating program, which launched in 2007.
Instead of focusing on a specific kind of rafter, either experienced or newbie, Fary said Riverside Outfitters appeals to everyone. “[From] complete beginner, or those who maybe canoed or kayaked a couple of times in their life, or maybe kids who weren’t super adventurous. We tried to appeal to the average Joe,” he said.
Perry said part of Riverside Outfitters success has been how they treat customers. “This isn’t going to be a factory operation where we want to get people in and out and get through as many numbers as we possibly can,” he said. “Don’t just shove somebody down a rafting trip because it makes you money, but maybe a tubing trip that’s more chill would have been better for them, even though it makes the company less money.”
“I think that approach really connected with people and was appreciated by [them],” he said. Business booms accordingly. “That first year definitely felt like an explosion out of the gates just because we were growing from such a small size to something that was bigger.”
The company’s now arguably the biggest outdoor recreation company in the city. It offers guided mountain biking rides, along with guided raft, kayaking, and canoe trips. There are climbing seminars, camps for kids. The company also rents equipment and sells water tubes.
While rafting is the most popular activity Riverside Outfitters offers, a relatively new activity has been catching on: downriver stand up paddle boarding, which the company began offering last year. “You can surf stationary waves on the James with a standup paddle board. So that’s a thing a lot of people are coming back to,” Perry said. “You can’t find many other places that offer downriver paddle boarding trips.”
New this year is the Riverside Outpost located on Brown’s Island. Perry and Fary said the outpost serves as a quick way for people to enjoy the river. People simply walk up to the outpost, without reservations, to rent stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, and mountain bikes. The outpost is open seven days a week.
While its business grows and its summer camps regularly fill out, Riverside Outfitters (and the James River itself) does have one hindrance: public perception.
In 1975, officials closed the James to fishing after the pesticide Kepone was flushed into the river. For some perennial Richmonders, that event still sullies the river’s reputation 40 years later.
But organizations like the James River Outdoor Coalition, and the stewardships of park legend Ralph White and his successor Nathan Burrell, have gone a long way to clean the James: both its water and perception. “These are giants in the community who almost singlehandedly turned that perception around for the public and made [the James River Park system] something that’s attractive,” Perry said. The quality of the river, he said, has done a “complete 180” in the last 20 years. “The water quality is much better than what people assume,” he said.
But once people have an enjoyable experience on the river, the James inevitably earns an ally. “Now the park system has one additional person who’s going to take care of [the James] because they have a relationship with it,” Perry said. “The river gets them hooked.”
Riverside Outfitters is located at 6836 Old Westham Road.
photo by sdreelin