If you haven’t noticed, Richmond’s outdoor scene is getting a lot of national attention lately. In 2012 Richmond was named “Best River Town” by Outside Magazine. Dominion Riverrock has grown into the nation’s largest outdoor sports and music festival and just last week The Active Times featured Richmond’s recreation offerings in its travel section. But, it did not happen overnight. Countless outdoor enthusiasts have lovingly labored for decades to foster recreational opportunities among Richmond’s bounty of natural endowments. A particular group of dedicated recreation professionals south of the James have been at the forefront of this movement.
For more than thirty years, the Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation Department’s Outdoor Programs team has offered outdoor and adventure programming for residents of all localities and ability levels. Last week, I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon on the James River with Adventure Programmer Greg Velzy. He instructed me in basic whitewater kayaking techniques, while we chatted about Chesterfield’s varied offerings.
Hikers on a recent Chesterfield Parks excursion to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Velzy, a certified instructor for more than twenty years, talked about the county’s programs as he guided me though riffles and some moderate class II rapids.
“We focus is on instruction, so people can enjoy the river safely,” he said.
I got a small sample of that instruction while on the river with Velzy. After a couple of attempts, I learned how to “ferry,” a maneuver used to get across an eddy line into the rapids. When done right, the move will take you in an upstream angle across the smooth water and turn you into the flow of the rapids. Chesterfield’s beginner whitewater kayaking class is a good way to learn the basics. The two-day class teaches safety and technique on calm water on the first day and running and reading rapids on the second.
In addition to kayaking, Chesterfield instructors offer sailing, rafting and stand up paddle boarding (SUP) classes, too. The county also offers a swift-water rescue class – just in case.
Instruction is just one goal. Another is to instill a sense of stewardship. “When people enjoy the river, hopefully they will be motivated to take care of it,” said Velzy.
And instructional programs are just part of the county’s offerings. There are many nature and interpretive programs as well, and they are not all on the water. In fact, Chesterfield offers many hiking, backpacking, paddling and climbing programs all over Virginia. The Great Dismal Swamp, Shenandoah National Park, and the Chesapeake Bay are just a few of the destinations the country takes people who sign up for their programs.
Mark Battista, who has worked as a Naturalist for Chesterfield County for 25 years, summed it up well. When asked about what kind of programs the county offers, he replied, “A little bit of everything. We hike and paddle, explore swamps, vernal pools, the Blue Ridge Mountains, maritime forests, bottomlands and beaches. We are quite diverse in our program offerings. In one week, we can conduct an astronomy program, conduct a hike to the Dismal Swamp, lead a bird walk and conduct a campfire program.”
Students test the pH of the James River at a recent field trip at the Dutch Gap Conservation Area.
Some of the most popular programs are “Wonderful World of Bugs”, “Swamp Walk” and “Butterflies and Dragonflies.”
Group programs are available as well. The Challenge Course features a series of physical and social challenges for individuals and groups designed to foster confidence and team-building. It has high and low elements, so it is well suited for adult and student groups. A variety of school field trips are offered including: Exploring Wetlands, Adaptations, Geology of Chesterfield Count, Watersheds, Reptiles and Wildlife Detective.
A big variety of programs are also available at the Rockwood Park Nature Center. Programs include: geocaching, camps, beekeeping, wilderness survival, campfire programs and more. Bob Smet, Director of the nature center for the last three years noted that visitors will be very impressed by the recent changes and program additions. He says the archery classes are “one of the hottest new programs.” There are beginner and intermediate courses and classes for youth and adults. Bob recommends signing up early because the classes fill fast and there is a waiting list.
More information about the Rockwood Nature Center can be found at rockwoodnaturecenter.com.
Chesterfield County offers hundreds of outdoor programs every year – way too many to list here. Programs are open to everyone regardless of where you live and prices are kept low to encourage the whole community to participate. Information about Chesterfield Outdoor Programs can be found at chesterfieldoutdoorprograms.com. And you can click here to register for programs.