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Guide to Kayaking Z Dam, James River, Richmond, Virginia

Z Dam is one of my absolute favorite features for freestyle kayaking. As its name suggests, Z Dam is a dam located on the upper James River in Richmond, Virginia and it forms different features depending on the water level. At low water, Z Dam offers an excellent hole feature formed by a fish ladder notched into the river right side of the dam itself to allow fish such as shad, river herring, and striped bass to swim upstream. At high water, the river overtops the dam and creates a riverwide wave. The Z Dam hole is considered to be one of the best play spots on the East Coast when it is at prime levels, allowing almost every trick and combo to be thrown. In addition to being an excellent freestyle location, Z Dam is a hot spot for wildlife, and it’s common to see bald eagles, osprey, and blue heron perched in the trees that hang over the river, hunting for fish. I like to think of all the wildlife as my spectators when I’m practicing my rides.

The Z Dam hole deserves respect at all times because Z Dam itself is a low-head dam and the fish ladder that forms the play spot is never too far from danger. The center hole feature is safe between the levels of 5.0 feet to 5.9 feet on the James River at Richmond-Westham gauge. At these levels it is safe to kayak in the center notch or “krackern.” You can enter the feature from above or below, but entering from above provides a couple extra benefits, with a flat water section to warm up in and an opportunity to practice with entry moves, which is always a bonus that you don’t necessarily find at all features. There is eddy access on both sides of the feature. Z Dam at these specific levels is safe and the dam is not in play as long as you are in the notch region. HOWEVER, always pay attention when you are kayaking at this spot and do not stray too near the dam itself.

I would describe this spot as being wide, slightly steep, and powerful. I find that from 5.9 feet to 5.7 feet, it is a friendly feature: pretty flushy, but good for first timers or those just getting used to it. From 5.7 feet to 5.5 feet it becomes slightly more retentive and easier to throw tricks and stay in the feature. From 5.4 feet to 5.0 feet it becomes significantly stickier and better for more advanced tricks or combos. My favorite levels here are between 5.23 feet and 5.35 feet because the hole is sticky and retentive enough to throw big tricks one after the other and come up with epic ride plans, but it’s not so retentive that it’s hard to get out of. Check out my Z Dam level guide below:

At high water, approximately 11.5 feet and above, Z Dam forms a river wide wave. The wave is a great party surf wave but it is relatively flushy, meaning it’s a bit tougher to throw wave tricks and stay on the wave. – In addition, there is no eddy access at these levels, so hen you flush off the wave you need to paddle hard to shore and get out and walk back up and do it again. It is tiring but it is totally worth checking out.

Z Dam is my favorite spot to kayak and I keep the James River at Richmond-Westham gauge open on my phone at all times to watch the levels. Anytime the levels are right, you will find me at Z Dam whether it is sunny, raining, storming, snowing, sleeting, etc. Hit me up any time you want to come paddle!

Catch you on the river,