John Mays praises the James River for its combination of being a "wilderness-style river that you don't have many of in the mid-Atlantic area" and a gentleness that allows paddling on it by "a group of kids and also grandma and grandpa."
John Mays’ path to a career in the outdoors is a familiar one. In his youth, he lead summer camp trips down the Maury River, but later in life found himself stuck in a corporate job he wasn’t happy with. He decided he needed to make a change.
“I worked in the corporate finance world for 15 years,” he remembers. “I sat in an office every day looking at a parking lot, and I said, ‘That’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”
While the “quit-my-job-and-pursue-my-passion” scenario is well tread, the way it came about for John and his twin brother Dan has an unusual twist. Both part of the Navy Reserves, the Mays brothers were mobilized to Iraq in 2004. While serving for six months, they decided it was a good time to make a life change and bought the old James River Basin Canoe Livery outfitter from the original owner. They negotiated the purchase over satellite phone from just outside Baghdad.
The Mayses changed the business name to Twin River Outfitters (get it?), and now rent a stable of canoes, kayaks, rafts, and tubes out of their Buchanan location along the James River. The James River served as the backbone for the country as a whole for a large chunk of America’s past, and is now the backbone of the paddling industry in the Roanoke Region.
The development of the Upper James River and Alleghany Highlands blueways has brought more infrastructure to the James in the form of put-ins, boat ramps, and maps for camping. Filling in the access gaps along the James has precipitated both a commercial and private paddling boom in Botetourt and Alleghany counties.
More people now have better access to the water, but that has not affected the James River’s picturesque charm.
“It’s very scenic, much of it is through farmland,” he says. “It seems like you are going through a wilderness area with very few houses or industry at all. It’s just a neat wilderness-style river that you don’t have very many of in the mid-Atlantic area.”
Over the past decade, John Mays has seen much change on the river where he does most of his business, but one thing has remained constant. He was inspired by that first experience paddling the Maury with a summer camp of kids, and is eager to share the love of paddling and an equal opportunity for fun.
“Paddling is an activity you can do with a whole range of ages,” Mays says. “Paddling is something you can do with a group of kids and also with grandma and grandpa. That’s a neat thing.”
John Mays' Picks
James River – Buchanan to Arcadia
This is a classic James River stretch (just off I-81 in Buchanan) and is one of Mays’ all time favorites. This scenic float begins just outside Twin River Outfitters’ doors and is perfect for families. This run also includes some “peppy” rapids, providing a little excitement along its 6-mile stretch.
Cowpasture River – Sharon Park to Lick Run
Mays says this 8-miler is the prettiest float they run out of Twin Rivers. It begins just north of Clifton Forge in Alleghany County and passes under I-64 before meeting up with the Jackson at the head of the James. This runs mostly in the spring when the water is up or after a rain, and features Class I rapids.
Maury River – Buena Vista to Glasgow
Before moving to Buchanan, Twin Rivers Outfitters was located in Glasgow where the Maury meets the James. This Maury stretch traces the edge of Jefferson National Forest providing great scenery and fun Class II rapids. Check the river level gauge before this trip; water levels below 1.9 feet its too low, and above 3.5 feet it becomes quite difficult.
James River – Glasgow to
This 5-mile float includes the beautiful Balcony Falls section of the James, and is a must-paddle for anyone looking to step up their game from beginner to intermediate. With fun Class II rapids, and Balcony Falls at Class III, and a year-round flow, this stretch is great for kayak instruction and play boating.
Upper Jackson River - From Gathright Dam to Covington
The Jackson is one of the premier, blue ribbon trout rivers in the mid-Atlantic, but it is also a fun paddling river. Starting at the base of the Gathright Dam the upper 13 miles of cool and clear water make this paddling trip unique.
Upper Pigg River Blueway – Franklin County
This Class I water is great for a fishing float or a canoe trip with the family. Starting at Waid Recreation Area and float 8 miles through numerous small riffles and fishing holes. Allow 4-5 hours to reach the take out at Lynch Park – about a 3-mile shuttle for your vehicle.