Historic High Water James River
Rain fell steady across Virginia for three days causing gauges to spike across the piedmont and the headwaters of the James. Total rainfall amounts varied from 4-8 inches across the watershed. As flooded streams converged, the wall of water funneled downstream towards the Falls of the James in Richmond. The Westham gauge predicted the bubble with flows topping 100,000 cfs, a volume of water Virginia paddlers have not seen in over decade, if not ever. The City of Richmond prepared for the flood waters by closing the Flood Wall, a move that happens very rarely.
On Nov. 14th 2020 the James River crested at 18.33 ft, which ranks the 24th highest recorded level at the Westham gauge near Richmond. Home on the James caught up with local Richmond paddler, Cooper Sallade, to share his "unreal" experience on the river that day.
Cooper, you are one of my paddling heroes in Richmond. The majority of readers here already know who you are, but for those who don’t, tell us, what is your relationship with the James River? Have you ever seen the river get this high before?
I have been paddling the James close to 15 years now and I have lived in Richmond my entire life. In that time frame, I have only seen the river get this high once and that was my junior year of high school, I think 2010.
We chatted on the phone leading up to the arrival of the bubble, you seemed so excited and full of confidence about making a decent during this very rare opportunity. At these historic levels, the whitewater is physically demanding and the utmost respect for the river needs to be had. Where did the excitement come from? How do you stay focused while preparing for a highwater event like this?
I was most excited for the simple fact of how rare it is for the river to get this high. You know, I have only seen it this high once, and that was such a long time ago, and I was nowhere near as good of a paddler as I am now… it wasn’t a good time to test out my abilities like I can now. That being said, I have run the James hundreds of times at high water, over 15 ft, and this was just a touch higher. It does take a lot of confidence to do this, but you know, I think I know that river about as good as anybody does. So, I was ready, I was excited.
What was going on inside your head while walking through the parking lot and seeing the put-in for your first 18+ ft lap?
I would lie if I didn’t say I was a little nervous, but it was more exciting than anything. I could see the river from the road where I parked, which is different. All the leaves had started to fall from the trees, so you could see the water from a long way away. It seemed like something from out of this world. I had no idea what to expect downstream.
Alright, break it down for us. What is it like being on the ‘Lower’ James River at these monster levels?
I’ve always considered the James to be the quintessential river that just gets better as it gets higher. The rapids just continue to get bigger and faster as the river gets higher, so I totally expected this. What I did not expect is how much the character of the river would change at this level. I feel like 18 ft was a pivotal level in the fact that everything is completely different. Paddling into Hollywood, down from 1st Break, the big wave trains and hydraulics that are normally present at 13 & 14 ft were still there, but 10x’s bigger. The margin for error was super slim. You had to be on line, you had to know the lines from previous runs, or you simply wouldn’t make the ferries around the big, dangerous hydraulics. As you move further downstream towards Tredegar Pool, everything happens so quickly. Below Hollywood, you pass through enormous rapids and waves in the blink of an eye. In total, you move through the Hollywood rapids for about a minute. Afterwards, you are floating through Tredegar pool. That happens very quickly too. Then you are into Vepco levy and Pipeline before you can even think about it. The waves are just enormous. The biggest waves I have ever seen on the James. Finally, the river goes completely flat, much farther upstream into Pipeline than I would have ever expected. The 3rd drop of Pipeline was almost class II, the tidal section of the river moved up another few hundred yards.
Guide's Hole is the massive hydraulic that forms at Hollywood during flood stage. It’s a BIG one and terrifies me. Is it similar to 15 ft, or a different feature at 18+ ft?
I think Guides Hole was the thing I was most worried about on the entire lower. That was the feature that I knew I could absolutely not go into, and I think that if I were to go in that hole, it would be a guaranteed terrible situation. I could drown. I really wanted to make sure that I avoided that hole. I ended up running a direct line through Stripper above Hollywood, just so I could avoid that hole. And rounding the corner and catching the tongue at Hollywood, it was just the biggest thing I have ever seen. It was a 7 or 8-foot-tall pour over into a hole that would pull you back in from 15 yards downstream. I don’t think there is any way somebody could get out of it. It was surreal paddling around that monster. That was the one thing on every run (we did 10 runs that day) that would make the hair on the back of my neck stand up while paddling around it - every single time.
Guide’s Hole at Hollywood during a highwater event always has a sound that is so much different than the rest of the river. It’s like a vortex, sucking water and air down deep… I can’t imagine the noise at over 18 ft, did you notice it being more intense?
At that river level, it was just like a freight train on the entire run, but especially coming through there. It sounded like you were standing next to a railroad track as a train was coming by. It was deafening how loud that hydraulic was.
There are many must-make moves on the river at this level, what was the crux?
The crux was certainly making sure that you hit the main tongue of Hollywood at the right angle. Going around Stripper and Flipper, and ferrying back to the right, and catching the tongue to boogie left. The s-turn you make while paddling through Hollywood was super-fast and super-compact at that level. That was certainly a very hard move, and much harder than I have ever experienced before.
Z Dam recieves a lot of the highwater glory with media these days, but the real magic with big flows on the James is the natural features downstream. What are your thoughts of Z Dam?
Z Spot is really fun and I love it. I spent some time there this week, however I think it is more like pulling up to the beach and getting on your boogie board. It’s a very fun spot, it’s pretty low risk, but I think getting downtown and surfing the waves at Hollywood is like surfing a big wave day at Mavericks, or something like that. It’s really risky, but if you're confident in your skills and you know what you are doing, you can get out there and have the best day you have ever had. It challenges you both physically and emotionally, but it is really rewarding. When you do get the air, it's way bigger (giggle).
When you look at the river at flood stage from shore, it doesn’t compare to the features that you encounter when you are actually on the river. It is intense, disorienting, and very hard to navigate. What’s it like to be on the water over 18 feet?
I think some of the biggest waves out there have peaks that are 12 or 13 ft tall. When you get on the top of a wave and you are about to crest over it, it feels like you are dropping over a waterfall.
How do you navigate waves that are that big?
Luckily, I know this river like the back of my hand. If you don’t know this section, there would be no way to really navigate a flooded James River by sight. You have to see 20, 30 yards downstream while you are at the top of a wave. You lose sight as you go down the backside of a wave. Until you get to the peak of the next, you only get glimpses between the surge of the waves. It’s good to know the river!
Simple question, what is your favorite rapid?
My favorite rapid is certainly Hollywood. There is no way to describe the feeling of going through that rapid at this level. I have been waiting for it for 10 years and finally getting back out there, and having so many laps on it, it was unreal.
Best 'surf spot' when the James is over 18 ft?
To be truthful with you, and you know I am a connoisseur of the Lower and the waves it provides, but I think the best surfing feature on the river at that level is probably river left side of Z Dam. It was pretty amazing.
The river braids into dozens of channels as it makes its final plunge down the Falls. The majority of the water funnels through Pipeline, making this rapid the ‘go-to’ at all levels, low water and high water. However, some of my favorite channels to paddle are the lines scattered across the center of the river. Lines like Triple Drop, LuLu, Deception, ect... At a certain level, somewhere around 12 ft and up, scouting becomes almost impossible, making it extremely dangerous to drop in these lines blind. Do you think there are any options at 18 ft?
To be honest, I know there are some lines in there that probably would have been more fun to run than Pipeline. Pipeline got very washed out. I know the gradient provided in Conception, Deception, and LuLu could have been amazing. However, I think without an option to scout, it is really just a fool’s errand to run those things blind. I think that if you had more than one day, and I could scout those lines from a bridge with binoculars, you could find some of the most amazing rapids you have ever seen on the James, but unfortunately the 18+ ft peak only lasts a few hours, so you got to get it while the getting is good.
Cooper, thank you for sharing your experience with Home on the James. You are an amazing person to paddle with and have a lot of river knowledge to offer the community! Do you have any last thoughts?
One other thing I wanted to talk about was one of the best parts of the day. The surf is always good on the James, but I think the best part was the downriver freestyle that was possible at this level because all of the waves got so tall. These haystacks were so large, you were able to launch off the top and throw some pretty crazy stuff while moving downstream. So, I think that was my favorite part of the day. Another thing is, I just want to say that this is a really rare day, and a really dangerous day. Everybody that was out there had been paddling for many years. Max and I had both been out there 10 years ago at this same water level, and we have been training ever since then to come back. Take it seriously, because it is serious.