Photo by Ash Daniel
The raft on a test run in April
Captain John Smith might have found its “great craggy stones” impossible to pass, but that was in 1607 — now we can all conquer the mighty James River without even emerging from behind our computer screens.
Set to go live later this month, the online Tour of the James uses 400,000 individual photos “stitched together” into about 65,000 panoramic images. It’s the brainchild of Ryan Abrahamsen of virtual trail-mapping website Terrain360 and Andy Thompson, who together operate the RichmondOutside site. “It’s like Google Street View: You can look up, look down, pan the screen around, basically see anything for any given spot,” says Thompson.
The James River Association has provided funding for the project, which has beaten virtual-mapping powerhouse Google to a significant first. “Google has sent a raft down the Colorado River, where they did maybe 200 miles,” Thompson says, “but no one’s ever done an entire river.”
Starting at the end of June, a custom-made pontoon raft manned by two people and fitted with six cameras spent 25 days capturing photos every 30 feet of the James’ 340-mile length.
By late August, the resulting map will appear in part on RichmondOutside and in full on Terrain360 and the JRA’s Envision the James website (envisionthejames.org). The tour “will allow people to explore the river corridor in a new way,” says JRA outreach manager Justin Doyle, adding that he hopes it will also be used as an educational resource, as well as a tool to guide restoration work in the future.
RichmondOutside will feature the Central Virginia section of the map. Going forward, Thompson hopes to create “augmented reality” maps, allowing the viewer to click on icons within the map that could include information on anything from the location of bald eagle nests to historical markers or information on rapids for paddlers.
So how did the raft navigate Smith’s impassable rapids? Prior to departure, Thompson was considering a crafty workaround. “We might get out and do some pictures from the rocks.”
Tour of the James: By the Numbers
- 25 days on the raft
- About 340 miles photographed
- About 440 miles traveled (incorporating both sides of the tidal section, because it’s so wide)
- 100 gallons of river water filtered and drunk
- 102 freeze-dried meals consumed
- About 3 terabytes of image data
- 6 cameras, each with an 8mm fisheye lens
- About 400,000 photos, creating 65,000 panoramic images
- 200+ bald eagle nests passed along the way