Riverside Outfitters In Richmond, Virginia During IPW 17.




Trip Leader/Guide Discusses Balance, Understanding Whitewater & The Texture Of The James River In Richmond, Virginia

Trip Leader Ryan Crenshaw After A Day On The James River. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Experiencing whitewater, especially rafting, is a unique experience anywhere one goes because it is always dictated by the land surrounding it. At Riverside Outfitters in Richmond, Virginia, the company has the unique element of being able to raft right through the heart of a decent sized city. Trip Leader Ryan Crenshaw sat down down with MRV: The Buzz Editor In Chief Tim Wassberg after a run down the James River to talk about history, teamwork and the ecology of fun. 

The Buzz: What's your beat? How'd you get into this? 

Ryan Crenshaw: I've been doing this since -- well, professionally I've been doing this for about 15 years –- and I've been on whitewater most of my life. Three and four years old I was canoeing. Grew up on water, on rivers, around all this kind of stuff. 

The Buzz: Where did you grow up? 

RC: I grew up in Northern Virginia. But I'm originally from Illinois. There's not a whole lot of whitewater in Illinois. (laughing) But my mom would take me on camping trips, out canoeing. Her three and four year old would be out paddling around in a canoe all day. So anytime there was a chance of getting a boat, I was in a boat. About 15 years ago, I saw an ad in Style Weekly, it's a local paper here, that said, "Do you want to be a raft guide?" And I said, "Wait a minute. That's something I can do here? I don't have to go some place?" So I can raft through the town where I live now. I came here to go to school. And I get to go rafting through this thing. I get to drive [the raft]. And you're going to pay me for it? That's a pretty awesome combination, as far as everything goes. 

The Buzz: What's it about Richmond? I mean, you grew up here but you could do this in Costa Rica... 

RC: Well, but it's this river in particular. The James River is very important to me not only for its history but for how far it's come and where it's going. I used to be an environment educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. And so just learning about not only how this river affects everything - it's one of the five main tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay - and the role that it plays in the ecosystem, and the life of the Chesapeake Bay, is important to me. I don't work for CBF anymore, it was a temporary position. So I either could move -- I could keep working for them, move to Charlottesville or stay here. And I picked to stay here. And so this job really affords me the opportunity to talk to folks, and really continue to educate people about the river and the watershed, go rafting, and do the things that I like to do. So it's really a “best of” scenario. 

The Buzz: You're talking about education, about the balance between education and entertainment. Because you're also teaching people about how these things work. So it's how the modern meets nature. 

RC: This is a perfect example of it. We're going right downtown. A couple of our rapids are man made. And so that's how we get into them. And then really -- the performance aspect is one thing that I really enjoy because I have a performance degree from VCU. I have a Classical Guitar Performance Degree. So, this is close but not quite. I think it helps and plays a big role in helping to present this river in a way that people are going to want to have a good experience and experience something that they really can't get anywhere else. There is rafting in a lot of places and there are a lot of things that those [places] have to offer that we don't have. But we have the urban environment. We have [the place] where the pavement literally comes up to the water. And that's very, very unique. 

The Buzz: That sort of keys into the fact that you were talking about music. Maybe I'm making too much of a metaphor here but it's like the rhythm of the water – but also having instinct with the water. 

RC: Exactly. And that, I think that's 100% accurate. And I think about that all the time, and as a matter of fact, being able to get in tune of how all that stuff works. In fact, I don't know if anyone else has keyed this in but water has a particular sound. That roar of the rapids is always the same and it's a flat A. It's not A-flat but it's right in between the two. It's like a fourth, third, or nine hertz. So there is a rhythm and a tune to all of it. And water makes a sound that isn't really available elsewhere in the world. Plus water is very healing. It gives off negatively charged ions that we as species react to. So we're always drawn to water. Why do people have lake houses and river houses and beach houses? It's because we're drawn to the water all the time. It's what our bodies are made up of. It's a simple thing.

A Rafting Team Heading Underneath A Bridge Heading Through Richmond. [Courtesy: River Outfitters]

The Buzz: As the trip leader, you have to see all the logic and how everything's moving. The strategy of going down the rapids here is very specific but it's also about the vibe. Can you talk about it as a lifestyle? 

RC: The rapids are kind of what draws us here. It draws everybody else here. But my point is if the rapids are here, the experience should be similar whether there's rapids or not. It should be about that connecting to everything that's going on. Let's say, for example, the water is at 10 feet. 5 feet higher than it is today. The water does all the work. You don't have to do anything. But when the water comes down specifically lower than that – today's was a good level. Today at 5 feet is a good level to do it on. But when it comes down, then it's a lot more technical. The rapids are a lot more challenging. The curves, the moves. That's the trick to guiding people through this stuff. But then this is a very old river, but more specifically it has a lot of our cultural history attached to it. Not only do we have native people here long before white people came, but in 1607, John Smith from Newport came here, and this was as far as they could get. And that boundary is what we're rafting on. The fall line really is what we're here to do. And that's why there's rafting in the middle of an urban setting like that. So it's a very unique place. I've been rafting around the country. First time I went rafting I was 12 years old in Alaska. I've been in Oregon. I've done the Grand Canyon. And I grew up in the Shenandoah and the Potomac. And this is where I come back to over and over and over again. 

The Buzz: Every trip has these little adventures going on. We had some interesting ones today. 

 RC: Today was a perfect example of things that can "go wrong." And then how do you react to it? And that, I think, is the whole point of running rivers in the first place because regardless of what happens, regardless of whether you don't want to go forward, forward is really the only direction to go. You're not going to turn around and go a different route. The current is driving you, and when it gets down to it, the options are either go forward or go forward. 

The Buzz: Then there is the ecology, about how it can actually function that there's a river going straight through a major city. 

RC: Well, the city is here because of the river, and not only does it provide us with drinking water-- all the water we drank on the trip today [came from the river]. All the water you drink in the city comes out of the river. A lot of rivers have drinking water problems. It's important to keep the source material clean, otherwise you've got to treat it a whole lot more. We've seen in Flint and in a lot of places, that those things cause trouble. The James River was historically a very dirty river, particularly in the 70s. These days, it's a much, much cleaner. In fact, it's the cleanest of the five tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay. The James River Association recently was able to grade it a B for the first time ever. And that's 40 years of handing out those grades. So the James – and just to back up a second, the biggest problem facing the bay, is nutrient pollution. 

The Buzz: What, fertilizers? 

RC: Fertilizers, but also general waste. Our waste, animal waste, fertilizer, car exhaust, runoff, all of those things. What happens is excess nutrients go into the bay, and they create an algae bloom. Algae decomposes quickly, dies very quickly, and the decomposed composition uses the dissolved oxygen, which robs it from aquatic life. Fish, oysters, blue crabs, anything that's living down there. And what it also creates is all sorts of debris and sediment. Sediment's another problem, but last of it, is mostly when it rains these days. So the James River has come back from an exceptionally far degree to be a clean, much cleaner and healthier river than it had been ever. 

The Buzz: It's a very clear river, but also the one thing that really impressed me is all the wildlife, especially on the cusp of the city. 

RC: And they're coming back. In my time on this river, the wildlife is coming back to an exceptional degree. We didn't see any bald eagles today, at least I didn't, but they're out there. I saw some this morning. The osprey are out there, and if those predators aren't there, then the rest of the ecosystem's not intact. You can tell a lot about health in any ecosystem by how far up the food chain it goes. And so when you have the top predators intact and doing what they're supposed to, you know you have a pretty vibrant underbelly going on.

Trip Leader Ryan Crenshaw Giving A Safety Talk Before The Rafting Excursion. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
The Rafts Coming Back Into Base At Riverside Outfitters in Richmond, Virginia. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: I love the purity of this exercise, but also the purity of your team. How you guys work together, how you guys have fun together, and that's the key to any great company. Could you talk about sort of the purity of what you guys do? 

RC: Absolutely. Most rafting companies, this is true probably industry-wide, there isn't a place you go to guide school. You go to guide school for the company you work for. And one of the things that keeps me here at this particular company, and this is not to say that other companies don't do this, there is really something about the culture that's been instilled here. Dave, Matt, and Ben are kind of our team leaders around here. And safety is, we say it almost in jest, but it really is true. Safety is the first thing we teach. And I help teach and train all these guides. Almost everybody today is a guide I helped train. And that's the part that we really pride ourselves on. Our training process, our checkout process, and the way that we work to keep getting better. No matter who you are or how long you've been doing it, I go through training with them and I go through a swift water -- we all do a swift water training every year. And that's something that's important to us. It's important that people enjoy themselves, but also get down intact most of the time. So even when stuff happens like today, where you've got some people going for swims, we're ready, we react, and we can pull them back in, and let them have the experience that those things provide. 

The Buzz: I loved it. When we we're all going down there, we were pulling out one guy as he's going down as we're going, and it's only when you have all those people working together. 

RC: Yeah, you can't move the boats. It's not kayaking, it's not an individual pursuit. You can't move the boats without the people involved. And so everybody gets a real stake in the experience. You don't get down the rapids without your friends, and you don't help everybody else without that kind of teamwork.

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

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