vol. 88 / true places

vol. 88 / true places📍

There's no better time to get outside, and off the map, than right now in the River City! With that spirit in mind, meet our guest editor, Andy Thompson. He’s the founder of the outdoors news site Richmondoutside.com, a former Richmond Times-Dispatch outdoors writer, co-founder of Terrain360, co-founder of RVA Osprey Cam, co-owner of Riverside Outfitters, and co-owner of Sharp’s Island. Take it away, Andy...
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” -- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

That’s how Melville described Queequeg’s island home, and it’s been a guiding axiom for me since I first read it in high school. Cruise ships, packaged travel and tour guides with their placards raised high will take you places, but true places are harder to find. To do so requires adventuring with an entirely different mindset. So, let’s take Melville with us to the James River in search of true places. Here are three, of many, options...some of which are still out there waiting to be discovered.



William Foushee was one of the most impactful and famous Richmonders of his own time that few know anything about today. RVA’s first mayor (in 1782), Foushee was a physician, politician, businessman and man about town, hobnobbing with the Founding Fathers. In 1819, he financed the building of a two-story gristmill on the north bank of the James River, just downstream of what is now the Nickel Bridge. The ruins of that once-massive stone structure still stands today! That's right, 200-years of storms and floods and general neglect have not quite consumed it. This abandoned and almost entirely unknown slice of Richmond offers a tangible link to Richmond history. Go in search of Foushee Mill, and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely hike along the James and a history lesson, courtesy of the sign erected two years ago by the James River Hikers Meetup group


Vitals: To reach Foushee Mill, park at the Texas Beach lot and cross the train tracks on the concrete walk. Head down to the riverside trail at Texas Beach and walk up river. Once you pass the canal outflow below Maymont, before you reach the Nickel Bridge, begin looking for the stone remains (if you reach the Nickel Bridge, you’ve gone too far). 



Catfish Alley only exists in space and time for a couple months every year. Last year it didn’t exist at all! But that was soggy 2018! We’re beyond all that (I think). This year is shaping up to offer peak Catfish Alley. And the time is now. Go buy a cheap snorkel or grab some goggles and practice holding your breath. As the summer heat drains the James of water, pools form in the rocky part of the river downtown. Fish find themselves trapped in those pools, waiting for the next heavy rain. Sometimes those fish are huge flathead and blue catfish. Catfish Alley is the largest of those pools. Once you find it, stand on the rocks above it and take a deep breath. Yes, you are going to put on that snorkel, get in the water, and swim with the fishes! And yes, it will freak you out at first. But the catfishes won’t hurt you. They’ll hardly care you’re there. Touch them, if you dare. No one who’s experienced Catfish Alley sees the James River quite the same again.


Park at the Pipeline Walkway lot and follow the trail down to the Pipeline Trail, which is part of the James River Park System. Hop off the Pipeline to a sandy beach next to where the Pipeline rapids have eddied out and the water is calmer. Swim across (a PFD is helpful here, depending on your swimming level) to the closest island and walk inland and upstream. Depending on the river level, Catfish Alley is about 25’ by 10’, but you’ll see many pools. Hop rocks. Explore. Check them all out!



There’s an island—Cooper’s Island—that sits near the south bank of the James between the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Bridge and the Nickel Bridge, and on it are the dilapidated remains of an ancient treehouse. You have to bushwhack to the middle of the island to find it, and even then, it doesn’t always make itself obvious. But once you know it’s there, you can’t stop staring. And wondering: How long has it been there? What did it once look like? Who brought out all the materials to this island? And, maybe most intriguingly, how in the name of Pete Nelson did they get all those materials that high in that glorious tree?! So many good questions? Zero answers. Just the wonder.

Bonus adventure: The island’s most prominent feature isn’t the treehouse or even the bald eagle nest that also resides in a pine tree there. It’s the flatrock beach that beckons on the north side of its upstream tip. Bring a picnic and enjoy the lazy rapids at the water’s edge. Feeling super adventurous? Summon your inner child and gaze upstream from the flatrock beach. See the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Bridge? Good. Look down at the old bridge pilings immediately below it; there are 10 of them. Start at the south bank and count pilings toward the north bank. Stop at 7. Get yourself to that piling. You’ll know why when you get there. It won’t be easy, but in the summer it’s really not that hard. Wade, swim, take your time. Just get there. Trust me.



Park at the trailhead near the traffic circle where Riverside Drive meets New Kent Road in Westover Hills. Start down the steep trail and stay left of the concrete ruins you’ll see in 50 feet. Make a beeline to the river. Cross the train tracks. The island you see once you reach the river is Cooper’s. Walk downstream 50 more feet and find the pipeline that goes over to another island and then Cooper’s. Water will be pouring over it, but at current river levels, you’ll make it with ease.