Racing Down The Rivanna


by Staff writer, Charlottesville Paddlers

The Rivanna River in Virginia flows for approximately 50 miles and is formed by the confluence of two tributaries, the North Rivanna, which is formed by the Roach and Lynch Rivers, and the South Rivanna, which is formed by the Moormans and Meechums Rivers. The North and South forks of the Rivanna join just a bit Northeast of Charlottesville, VA and the river then flows to the southeast until it meets the James River in the town of Columbia.

The head of the river skirts the eastern edge of Charlottesville and is the first river in Virginia whose entire length is designated as "scenic." The vast majority of the river is quiet and relatively isolated, even the section that winds its way around the population center of Charlottesville.

That is, except for one day each Spring when dozens of canoe and kayak enthusiasts line up at a starting line with excitement swirling in the air, a blast from an air horn pierces through the morning haze, and paddlers enthusiastically paddle as fast as they can toward a finish line that is 6.2 miles (10k) away where they are greeted by family, friends, and curious onlookers.

This annual river race has become a tradition in Central Virginia and brings out not only recreational paddlers who wish to experience the thrill of racing, but has also created as competitive class of local paddlers who have gone on to compete at the highest levels at other regional paddling events. The race coordinator, Merrill Bishop, divides paddlers into classes by gender and boat type so that paddlers may compete with others of similar ability to keep it all interesting, fair, and fun.

The 9th annual Rivanna River Canoe and Kayak race will take place on May 10 and I recently caught up with Merrill Bishop to find out more about this event

CP: How did these races get started?

MB: Back in 1999, with Albemarle Co. Parks and Recreation Dept. representatives, we toured this 10k run and mapped the rapids. We were surprised that such a fun run was so close to town. It didn't have any highly technical or challenging rapids so we wondered what we could do to attract paddlers to the river and maybe introduce new people to the fun and excitement of paddle sports.

Unfortunately, public access to the river is limited and it isn't immediately obvious to people just how close and accessible the river is to Charlottesville.

During the first year of the event, we launched a flotilla of over 40 canoes and kayaks from Darden Towe Park down to the city's Riverside Park immediately after the race to help introduce people to the river. While these paddlers floated downstream, Dan Mahon of the Albemarle Parks and Rec. Dept. gave the participants a verbal history of the river.

CP: Why do you continue to organize this event every year and who participates?

MB: Local kayakers and canoeists enjoy this stretch of the river and I simply love introducing new people to the river and to the sport. After the first year of the event, word slowly got out to more skilled paddlers who regularly shot the Tye River (and its Class II-III rapids) in nearby Nelson Co. that there was another river race close by that didn't require quite as much skill so we've attracted area paddlers who might be a little hesitant to tackle more technical white water. Over the years, we've had families with grade school age kids riding along, young solo paddlers, and we've even got quite a contingent of senior citizens who enjoy the challenge without the risk of endangering life or limb. We've drawn folks from northern Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina so we're starting to get wider regional attention, too. Of course, it wouldn't be possible without a large number of volunteers who make it all happen and I have deep appreciation for these people for volunteering their time and talents for this event each year.

Plus, some of the race classes have become highly competitive and are constantly attracting new, skilled paddlers so it is fun to watch the friendly competition. Just two years ago the top three downriver racers finished less than 80 seconds apart and that year we also had a 7-mile flat water race on the reservoir above the dam and the top four finishers in that race were only separate by about a minute and a half. That's exciting to watch!

CP: That's great stuff. What else should folks know about the race?

MB: The Rivanna River Regatta Races are positioned on the May calendar so area kayakers and canoe enthusiast can participate in the Tye River race on the 1st weekend in May, the Rivanna race on the 2nd weekend, and then move on to other races like the Richmond Kayak Boatercross and Rappahannock Whitewater Canoe and Kayak Race after that. On good years in May, the Rivanna may be two or so feet above normal spring flow which can take on the appearance of a flat water race with a few rapids thrown in. In other years, the water may be low and you have to drag your boat across a rock or two while dealing with several rock gardens. That unpredictability adds a dynamic dimension to the race each year. This river is not dangerous, but it has some challenging elements to it. During normal levels, if you "tippy-canoe," you just swim or wade with your craft over to a bank-which is never very far away-- and dump out the water and resume your trip.

The Regatta Races are open to solo and tandem canoe and kayakers and the prize for the best overall time is $100 and medals are awarded to the top three finishers in each division. Along the route, you'll see bald eagles, many blue herons, (if you're quiet), deer, and also muskrats and beavers along the route. It is an enjoyable experience even if you do not place in the race.

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