VCU junior Nikki Wilkins.
VCU junior Nikki Wilkins prepares to take a group from VCU's Outdoor Adventure Program out on a whitewater rafting adventure. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

RVA My Way: Nikki Wilkins

How a nature newbie went from having zero outdoor experience to being a river-loving whitewater rafting guide.

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About RVA My Way: This story is part of a series where VCU students share how they’ve made Richmond their own and how it’s helped shape them in return.


Up until two years ago, rising junior Nikki Wilkins had never been in a raft or done any sort of recreational water activity. She’d never been camping. Growing up, her experience with nature was pretty much confined to her backyard.  

That all changed during orientation, when she was taken on a hike at Belle Isle, a small island in the James River about a 30-minute walk from Virginia Commonwealth University’s urban campus. Fast forward to today. Wilkins, who is majoring in political science and minoring in African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, works at VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program, where she does everything from caving to surfing and has completed the challenging Student Outdoor Leadership Experience program. She also works at RVA Paddlesports, a local rafting company. The Stafford, Virginia, native, who never considered herself the least bit outdoorsy before she came to VCU, is now an OAP raft guide who takes other students out onto the James River for adventures in Class II and IV whitewater rapids.

VCU News caught up with Nikki to talk about rafting on the James, her favorite things about Richmond, and how she transformed from nature newbie to nature lover. 

When Nikki Wilkins came to Richmond as a VCU freshman, she had never been in a raft or done any sort of recreational water activity. Growing up, her experience with nature was pretty much confined to her backyard. Fast forward two years, and now she's a whitewater rafting guide with VCU's Outdoor Adventure Program, making the most of the urban campus's surprisingly close proximity to the James River and its class III and IV rapids.

Why she loves Richmond: “Something that stands out is the whole city vibe, which I really enjoy, but it’s not too big. It’s the perfect amount of people walking around and [for] seeing different ways of life. And then I go over the Lee Bridge, and there’s the beautiful nature.” 

Best spot to pause during a rafting trip: “Blackbird is a little island in the middle of a flatwater section located by Tredegar. They call it Blackbird Island because it looks like a little blackbird, the way that the trees are formed. There’s a nice little rope swing there that we go to and just jump into the water over there.” 

Rapids to know: “Pipeline has four drops to it [see more on Pipeline below for a cautionary tale]. Hollywood is right by the Belle Isle rocks. It’s just a giant hole that is swishing back and forth at you. Those two are pretty cool to go down at high water because you have to go right into the middle of the hole. You get splashed in the face with a whole bunch of water, and all the clients are terrified. It’s great.” 

What to wear: “I would recommend you either wear a swimsuit or you can wear athletic clothing that is synthetic. You don’t want to wear cotton … you’ll just stay cold forever. Shoe-wise, I recommend either sandals with a backstrap or tennis shoes. Don’t bring anything you don’t want to lose. … I brought out a set of keys once, and they’re gone forever.”

Scariest river moment: “When I was going through my raft guide training, [on the third drop of Pipeline Rapids], there is a big rock to river-right that looks like a little house. It’s called House Rock. And then there is another rock that is slightly below it on river-left. It was my turn to guide and we were going down, and next thing I know I didn’t have my line correct and I got pushed into the rock that’s below House Rock. I pinned my boat. … I did not know how to unpin rafts yet. And so myself and the people that were in my raft were just stuck on top of a rock in the rapid, and everybody else was running around us like little mice trying to figure out how to get our boat unpinned. After a while, I was scared of that rapid. … Eventually I went through it again, and I didn’t get pinned, and I was like, ‘Oh, man. I can do that!’” 

On being a role model: “I did not get much experience outdoors as a child. I feel like that’s mainly because I had a stigma of it being just a white man’s sport. That’s one of the things that I’m working on to try to change. Especially at the OAP, we are trying to push a moment of diversity in our area. I really enjoy nature and I feel like if other people had the opportunity or if [I could just say], ‘Take my hand. I’ve got your back,’ they would enjoy it just as much. … Now I believe that I am in a position to be a role model for other people, and I hope to really use that.”