By Matt Kollmansperger
“Once a Native American village, a Civil War prison camp, an iron foundry, and currently a city park, Belle Isle is considered to be quite the outdoor recreation haven.” ––Olivia Hess (‘17)
This statement quite accurately describes the wonder involved in exploring the downtown Richmond and Belle Isle areas. Rich with history and littered with the ruins of the former city, one cannot be bored on the winding system of trails spider-webbed throughout the downtown area. What brings intrigue to this untamed side of Richmond is its isolated atmosphere, as you sit on an island surrounded by water looking at the Richmond Federal Reserve looming over the canopy of the towering trees above. It truly feels like a completely different and uncivilized world within the heart of urbanity.
Begin your exploration by stepping foot on the wooden foot bridge spanning across the side of the James River known as Dry Rocks on the southern side of Belle Isle. Characterized by weathered wood and iron framing that have been left exposed to the elements, this portal out of the city provides a rustic feel.
A turn to the left and you’ll encounter a fork in the trail. Pictured above is the trail that will take you directly to the edge of the river, but most people walk past the historical sight just to the left.
A quick walk down a trail will bring you to an opening with two seemingly insignificant buildings. What people don’t see is the eerie wonder within the Belle Isle Pump House. Inside, the remnants of what used to be a hydroelectric plant are decorated with years of colorful and profane graffiti that, though vulgar, add an modern flavor to the seasoned buildings.
To the right lies a different environment, one higher off the ground. As you walk out on a narrow cement wall amidst the canopy, the trees part to reveal a side of the plant more difficult to access. Barred and walled off by rusted iron, the post-apocalyptic atmosphere is even more projected by the “Feed Your Brain” graffiti.
If you continue down the trail to the edge of the river, you can hear the rushing rapids before they are visible. Just past the bend, First Break rapid becomes visible. A popular stopping point for paddlers to surf rapids and play around, there is often much to observe in this upper section of the rapids. As you travel further down the river, the water progresses in power. You then see the rapid that is the jewel of the Richmond paddling scene: Hollywood. WIth multiple whitewater features, including one known as “Meat Grinder,” paddlers have dissected this rapid into every line possible on everything from whitewater rafts to paddle boards. Pictured above, local paddler Justin Hood paddles the right line of Hollywood rapid.
On the other side of the trail from Hollywood, the trees part way to a man-made quarry. This quarry is a popular climbing and photography location, as well as a place to swim.
Connecting the island to the city is a series of bridges that are quite popular for sightseeing and photography. Above are pictures of the suspension bridge from Tredegar Iron Works to Belle Isle and the new Tyler Potterfield pedestrian bridge from Brown’s Island across to the Manchester Climbing Wall.
As you traverse the river, wildlife activity is at an all-time high for spectators. Here, a grey heron is searching for bait fish in a pool below a rapid. Herons are quite common, as are many species of waterfowl, fish, and the occasional deer along the banks.
As you reach the end of the bridge, you are met with one of the most photogenic views in Richmond: the split where the city meets the river. Framed by the weathered, rusted train bridge, and in the foreground of skyscrapers, this mix provides a scene found in few places.
All photography by Matt Kollmansperger.