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Lohmann: Leaving (running-shoe) footprints and taking pictures, the story of a book about James River Park

Lohmann: Leaving (running-shoe) footprints and taking pictures, the story of a book about James River Park

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Sometimes when he goes out for a long run, Bill Draper readily acknowledges it might take him from sunup to noon to cover 12 miles.

If you do that math, that comes out to … not particularly fast.

But that’s the way it goes when you’re constantly stopping to take pictures.

Draper, 69, is indeed a longtime marathoner — he’s completed about 50, including 32 Richmond Marathons — and fitness aficionado, who will hop on his bike and ride the length of the Virginia Capital Trail. And back. That’s 104 miles.

He’s also a photographer by training and hobby. When he goes for runs in his beloved James River Park, he usually has a full-size camera around his neck and his iPhone in his running belt. Sometimes he even carries along a serious telephoto lens that weighs 7 or 8 pounds and a collapsible monopod. He packs a snack in his backpack.

All of that gear, though, has paid off with some nice photos, many of which are on display in a new coffee table-style book, “A Photographic Journey Through the James River Park System,” which is priced at $41 and is available through the Friends of the James River Park. All proceeds will benefit the park system.

“I just love James River Park,” Draper said. “I grew up in Stratford Hills, near Riverside Drive. I swam in the river, canoed in the river and fished in the river. I just grew up with the James River.

“It’s been a labor of love taking pictures. I didn’t start out to do a book. I was just taking pictures, and it just kind of evolved. Somebody said, ‘You should do a book,’ and I thought, well, OK, I’ll give it a try. I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said with a laugh.

“When I’m running in the park and taking pictures, I could be a thousand miles away, out in the woods,” he said. “It’s just amazing that you can be in the city and feel like you’re away from it all.”

When he first started thinking in terms of a book, Draper was still living in Short Pump and driving into the city for his runs through the park. Last year, he and wife, Deedee, purchased a town house in Oregon Hill — with a nice view of the James.

“I wake up in the morning, lift my head and I can look out the glass double-door and see the river,” he said. “We just love it here.”

Draper studied photography at Western Kentucky University, and as an intern was a staff photographer for the university as a student. He and Deedee married while they were in college — they both will turn 70 and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year -- and started a family. When Bill graduated in 1975 he wasn’t able to find a job in photography that would pay the bills so he went into medical sales, eventually starting his own business. He retired in 2016.

For years, his photography was mostly limited to family and vacations, but then he returned to the craft on his travels around the city, posting pictures publicly and having some picked up by news sites and organizations such as Maymont, Venture Richmond and Hollywood Cemetery.

For the James River Park book, he captured striking images of rainbows and rapids, flowers and falls, visitors paddling and biking and hiking, and all manner of wildlife.

“Everything from deer to wild turkeys to a coyote and osprey, blue herons, bald eagles,” Draper said. “It’s been a great joy to see the growth in the wildlife that have come back to the James that weren’t there when I was growing up. I never saw a bald eagle when I was growing up.”

Draper brings the eye of a true photographer to the project, of course, but also the heart of someone who loves the place he’s focused on and a tenacity to actually make the book happen, said Michael Burton, trail and greenway superintendent who first met Draper more than two years ago when the book was in its fledgling stage.

“It’s been amazing to watch how Bill has persevered through this process and figured out a way to make it work,” said Burton, who directed Draper to Friends of the James River Park when Draper expressed an interest in helping the park.

“Super generous” is how Burton describes Draper’s decision to donate not only some of the proceeds from the book but all of them.

“I think it does have the potential to turn into a nice little fundraiser; that’s always a good thing,” Burton said.

The popular park does not suffer from a lack of attention, but Burton said, ‘It’s always nice to see it really highlighted in such a good light.”

And, as Draper did a lot of the shooting in the early morning and late afternoon, there’s a lot of good light in this book.

Besides a book, all that running with camera gear has had an added benefit on Draper’s health. Near the end of his business career, he had become “pretty crippled,” as he put it, with back pain.

“I could barely walk 50 yards without having tears in my eyes,” he said.

He was told he needed spinal fusion surgery, but the more he looked into it the less eager he was to go through it. So, he started working out, six to eight hours a day. It became his primary job as he stepped away from his business.

Improvement came slowly but surely. He recalls the day he came home and happily told his wife he had walked around the block without pain.

Long story short, the daily workouts continued and the pain faded away. He never had surgery, and now he’s running and shooting pictures pain-free.

“I still have the bad [spinal] disk, but I’ve kept my fitness level to the point the pain hasn’t come back. I feel like I’m living in a miracle.”

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