Bay Journal

A cool way to experience the James

Park yourself in a tube, let the river do the driving

  • By Leslie Middleton on July 05, 2017
Young tubers float their way downstream near James River State Park, where a number of outfitters help people explore the river. (VA Department of Conservation and Recreation) The James River flows gently by the James River State Park in Buckingham County, VA, where you can rent tubes, canoes and kayaks. (VA Department of Conservation and Recreation)

If you find yourself hankering for relief from summer heat — and who doesn’t? — consider finding a tube and floating down a river.

Traveling partially immersed in the river with your legs and arms dangling over the edge of a big fat inner tube is a sure bet for a cooldown.  It’s about the most relaxing way to float as can be found.

And if your goal is also to be surrounded by trees, gliding over river cobble in the moist cool air rising from the river, consider a tubing trip on the middle James River in central Virginia as it flows flat and steady through the Piedmont.

“Tubing is a really good way to introduce people to nature and to the river,” said Ashley Noble of Reeling and Rafting, an outfitter located in Scottsville, VA, a river town 30 minutes south of Charlottesville.

“First timers really fall in love with being on the water,” Noble said. “The river does the work. Your job is to sit back and relax.”

There’s no need to worry about capsizing, having adequate paddling skills or bumping into anything — that is, unless you’re trying to raft up with your buddies or engage in a close quarters water fight.

It can be tempting to go to a big-box store and buy your own inner tube, but Noble recommends renting one from an outfitter if you’ve never been on the river before. Outfitters not only provide the tubes, but knowledge of the route and river conditions, the shuttle between put-in and take-out, and a place to change your clothes after your time on the river.

Several outfitters support trips between Howardsville and Scottsville, where the James River is broad and mostly flat, flanked on both sides by forests and fields.

A few miles upstream, the James River State Park canoe livery can put you on a different stretch of the river. Rock outcrops laced with water willow, sandy beaches and islands provide picnic spots and places to stretch your legs. Overhanging trees along the banks offer shade. 

And the best thing about tubing is that you don’t have to do much of anything, except push off from a rock or two or slide into the shallow water occasionally to cool off.

Unless there has been recent rain, summer water is usually clear and shallow. Three to five feet below your tube, you can see gar fish swimming upriver and catfish hiding in wild celery that waves in the current.

“If you’ve never been to this section of the James River, it is absolutely gorgeous and you can see all kinds of wildlife,” said Paige Wilkes of James River Runners, an outfitter based in Hatton Ferry, where the last poled car ferry in the United States crosses the river on weekends. “We see bald eagles, kingfishers and even the occasional otter, as well as deer, and sometimes even bear.”

The nearly unbroken tracts of forests and fields along the James account for the abundance of wildlife. From the river, you will rarely see beyond the maple, willow and sycamore, but you might hear the squeal and clatter of railroad cars from the CSX railroad. The trains use a former canal towpath, built in the 1850s, for their modern travels.

Outdoor displays in Scottsville chronicle the town’s relationship to the river, including floods that repeatedly washed water and mud into the downtown until a levee was built in the 1970s. Now, Scottsville is a growing hub of commerce, with a Saturday morning farmers’ market and a selection of fine eateries accustomed to paddlers — and floaters — of all stripes.

Try these outfitters for a cool tubing or paddling trip on the middle James:

You might also want to stop by the Scottsville Museum and the Hatton Ferry, or check out the Horseshoe Flats Campground (see their Facebook page).

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About Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read more articles by Leslie Middleton

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