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Film About James River Danger Wins Award for Father-Son Filmmakers

boy in kayak
Colton Wolf, kayaker, filmmaker, and - now award winner - in a still from his latest short, "Hidden Dangers of Z Dam." Colton says he wanted to warn people about the dangers of a spot on the James River where over 20 people have died. (Screenshot: Hidden Dangers of Z Dam)

VPM News intern Clara Haizlett reported this story.

A drowning last summer on the James River inspired a short film from Stephen and Colton Wolf, a father and son duo who kayak, swim and make movies together.

They’ve won an award in the 2021 RVA Environmental Film Festival for their short, which they produced to warn others about a river dam that’s been called a “drowning machine,” and has claimed over 20 lives.

Wolf and Colton titled their short film, “Hidden Dangers of Z Dam.” In about 5 minutes,  7-year-old Colton describes the hazards of the titular dam. 

river view
A view from Pony Pasture, near the dam. (Photo: David Streever/VPM News)

Built in 1932, the purpose of the Z dam is to redirect water to the water treatment facility for the City of Richmond. The dam is named for its shape; it zigzags across the river in the shape of the letter Z. 

His father says they’ve made other videos together while on vacation, but this one was different. Colton says he wanted to help people and prevent another tragedy.

“When we go on vacation and stuff, we'll make little videos and put them on YouTube,” Wolf said. “He wanted to make one that was a little more educational.” 

In the film, Colton and his dad go to the Z dam, a “lowhead dam,” and explain what makes it so dangerous. 

“We’re here to talk about the danger of lowhead dams,” Colton said in the video. “If you see one of these buoys right here, go immediately to the side and pick up your kayak or canoe and walk it around.” 

Colton says the most frustrating part of the filming process was “trying to remember all those words.” 

A sixth grade science teacher, Wolf helped his son set up a simulation to demonstrate what happens when a person gets sucked into the hydraulic. To build the dam, they taped a piece of wood across the middle of a plastic container. Water from two hoses simulated the river flow and a Lego man played the role of a kayaker paddling over the dam. 

They chose to use a Lego man because, according to Colton, “a wood chip isn’t that exciting.” 

As water moves over the dam, it picks up speed. The water plunges down to the bottom of the dam, creating a hydraulic effect. In the simulation, once the Lego man goes over the dam, he’s trapped - circulating round and round underwater. It’s unclear in the video if the Lego man survived. 

Although the film may have been his idea, Colton says entering it into the RVA Environmental Film Festival was his dad’s.

“Dad secretly did that on New Year's Eve night,” he said.

For their Honorable Mention award in the long-standing local festival, they were awarded $100 as a prize. Colton says he’ll either save the money or use it to buy Pokémon cards. 

“I can get one of those big packs,” Colton said. “It’s only like $15.”

map
Google maps view of the the Z Dam location.

The festival is being held virtually this year due to the pandemic, instead of in person at the Byrd Theater in Carytown. Wolf’s film will have its virtual showing on Valentine’s day between 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The festival is free and open to the public. Register here to watch Colton’s video and other films from around the region and world.

*Correction: An on-air version of this story incorrectly stated the festival dates. The festival runs Feb. 12 - 26. Learn more and register at the RVA Environmental Film Festival website.