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Faces of the James

Two women stand in front of a colorful mural that they are painting. The mural contains bright colors of red, orange, pink, and yellow while depicting butterflies, moths, a human skeleton, and leaves.

While researching his new guidebook, an author is inspired by the strangers he met along Virginia’s iconic river. 

I met David Leroy Ross among the thick woods of 54-acre, history-laden Belle Isle—the popular island in the middle of downtown Richmond’s stretch of the James River. I learned that David, an artist by avocation and new to Richmond after retiring from an international career selling spy equipment, has provided consultation to several famous actors, including Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.

Malcolm Turner, who grew up in Mosby Court and now lives in the West End, enjoys RC rock crawling in the Dry Rocks area.

I met Malcolm Turner at the Dry Rocks area, a vast, low-water expanse of granite boulders where he was enjoying RC rock crawling: little remote-controlled vehicles that go up and over and around rocky terrain. Malcolm grew up in the subsidized housing developments of Richmond’s East End which, with 30,000 residents, is the largest concentration of public housing south of New York City. He no longer lives there but devotes time to making life better for those who do.

I’ve lived in Richmond and enjoyed the river for decades and have seen the 11-mile portion within the city limits continually improved with signage, bridges, pathways, safety measures, events, and new (to me) activities, such as RC rock crawling and paddleboard yoga. And two years ago, when the visit count for the city’s James River Park surpassed two million, I decided to write about why this stretch of the river is so revered. 

My new book, “The James River in Richmond,” is a guide to the river’s urban recreation opportunities, as well as its history, nature, and accessibility. While researching the book, I enjoyed the best of the river—hiking the trails, paddling the currents, hopping the boulders, and fishing the eddies—but the best surprise of the endeavor was what I learned from strangers along the way.

While taking photos for the fishing section of my book, I learned about Oregon-based Smith Optics. A fly-fishing stranger whom I encountered, Kyle McCann, was the gear company’s marketing executive who had relocated to Richmond and proposed to his wife on the river’s shoreline. 

While documenting trails along the river, I learned about another Oregon-based company, Stages Cycling, from another Oregon transplant: Stages product manager Travis Hall, who was hiking with his infant son Julian perched in a backpack. 

Travis Hall with his son, Julian.

My book is not only a guide to activities but also events and festivals. The river’s Haxall Canal is the site of Richmond’s annual Street Art Festival during which artists paint large-scale outdoor murals. There I met Richmonder Naomi McCavitt, who was painting atop a scissor lift (I recommend visiting her website,, to view amazing works, murals, and designs.).

Two women stand in front of a colorful mural that they are painting. The mural contains bright colors of red, orange, pink, and yellow while depicting butterflies, moths, a human skeleton, and leaves.
Naomi McCavitt (left) and her assistant Casey Criddle creating a mural at the RVA Street Art Festival.

I got an on-site first aid lesson when I encountered injured cyclist Eric Fisher and good Samaritan passerby Stephen Rice. I watched Stephen clean Eric’s bloody wounds, examine his scalp where clumps of hair were missing, move a finger back and forth and up and down in front of Eric’s eyes, and then call for an ambulance. Eric suggested two biking safety rules for my book: know your limits and wear a helmet, neither of which he was doing.

On a beautifully panoramic riverside trail I met a smiling Cerlisa Collins who was enjoying the river’s natural ambience. Her smile dimmed as she told me about her 2021 autobiographical book, “I Will Survive,” her traumatic story of dealing with domestic violence.

At Robious Landing Park, I met members of the Austin Family Reunion—50 happy visitors from all over the nation, including Elizabeth Guilamo who works cleaning subways in New York City, and who laughed as she told me about some of the interesting things she’s found.

I was unaware that there is such a thing as the Virginia Composting Council until, at the annual Dominion Energy Riverrock festival that attracts 100,000 persons to the river, I encountered Ryan Duckett who is the Council’s president. I learned a bit about the importance of compost, but also that just two weeks after moving to Richmond, Ryan met his future wife at a riverside meetup.

I also didn’t know the term “full stack developer” until I met software engineer and D.C. transplant Daniel Schep, who was pedaling a front loader cargo bike along the river with his dog Kali as the cargo. 

people gather near the edge of the water canal in downtown Richmond, Virginia to get in brightly colored kayaks.
Kayakers and paddleboarders in the riverside canal.

My book won’t teach you about full stack developing or compost or spy equipment, but it will educate and guide you to seemingly endless ways to enjoy Richmond’s James River. And as you explore the river and talk with its revelers, you’ll no doubt be treated to enlightening stories of humanity.  

Learn more the new book, “The James River in Richmond,” at

All photos by John Bryan

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