Paddling the Potomac

Great Falls to Observation Deck Rapids - Part I
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The Potomac River forms the northern border of Virginia, separating the Old Dominion from Maryland and the District of Columbia. Throughout the history of the United States the Potomac has functioned as an important highway for communication and commerce as well as a barrier to the many military forces, foreign and domestic, that have campaigned throughout this area. In more recent years the Potomac has found new duties as a premier recreational area for the millions that live in the region. Whitewater paddling is the most recent of these activities, but the old river has proven to be a superlative location for the enjoyment of this relatively new sport.

The Potomac and its tributaries provide whitewater of all degrees of difficulty throughout its length, from the small headwater streams of West Virginia and western Maryland, through the Blue Ridge at Harpers Ferry, and across the Piedmont between the mountains and the coast. The most heavily used section, however, and the section that is discussed below is the stretch between Great Falls and the tidal estuary at Washington, DC. This area has access to the river in many spots. The C&O; Canal follows the river on the Maryland shore between Washington and Cumberland, Maryland, and provides public access and parking at many locations. The Virginia side of the river is almost entirely in private ownership and public access is rare. Between Great Falls and Washington the most important access points are Great Falls, Maryland, and Old Anglers Inn, both on MacArthur Boulevard, and Carderock, Lockhouse number ten and Lockhouse number six, on the Clara Barton Parkway and Canal Road respectively. All of these points are accessible via the Capital Beltway (I-495) at the Clara Barton Parkway exit. The comparable road on the Virginia side of the river is the George Washington Memorial Parkway, but that provides no access to the river. The original plan called for the parkways to be joined by a bridge at Great Falls but this plan was fortunately scrapped, due largely to the efforts of the late Chief Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Along the northern border of Virginia lies the largest rapid in the state and one of the largest runnable rapids anywhere. This drop was named by the earliest colonists and has retained through the centuries the designation given to it by them: the Great Falls of the Potomac.

The Falls are created where the Potomac, like all other rivers that flow eastward into the Atlantic, drops over the edge of the continental bedrock onto the sedimentary soil of the Coastal Plain. The falls line proper is actually located farther downstream, at Roosevelt Island in the estuary between Rosslyn, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The entire section of the river between this spot and the Great Falls, a distance of some nine miles, is a result of the headward, i.e., upstream, erosion of the riverbed by the stream. The present location of the falls represents the latest manifestation of this unending process. All of the rapids downstream (Observation Deck Rapids, S-Turn Rapids, Rocky Island Rapids, Wet Bottom Chute, Difficult Run Rapids, Yellow Falls, Stubblefield Falls, and Little Falls), are the locations of particularly resistant strata of rock where the falls may have once paused in their ever-slow but inexorable upstream migration. The present-day Great Falls of the Potomac display the steepest and most spectacular display of a falls line rapid of any of the eastern rivers.

Before beginning a description of the Great Falls section it must be pointed out most emphatically that this area is extremely hazardous. The dangers are high. The most advanced paddlers in the country examined these drops for years before the first attempt was made, and although the passage of many years since has increased the number of paddlers completing the run, it has not decreased the objective hazards presented by these falls, as proven by the hundreds of documented deaths that have occurred here. No one should attempt such a run without the highest degree of skill and confidence, particularly a very fast and sure roll and previous experience in vertical waterfall running. Most importantly the newcomer should only paddle the Falls with someone who has previously completed a successful run; the choice of the wrong route would almost surely be fatal. Finally, the park rangers who administer the land on both shores request that runs be made only before 9 A.M. and preferably on weekdays to avoid a public spectacle and the encouragement of unqualified individuals to emulate the paddlers they see but don't understand. A run that turns into a circus or results in a death or costly rescue operation by the Park Service would almost surely cause the law- and rule-makers to close this incredible resource to those who are best able to appreciate it.

The Potomac flows along lazily all of the way from Harpers Ferry, some 35 miles upstream, across the Piedmont with only the lightest riffles disturbing its placid green surface. Seneca Breaks, five miles upstream from the falls, marks briefly the new sentiment of the river but the Potomac resumes its pastoral quality below Seneca. Only four miles from the Capital Beltway and without further prelude the river drops over the Great Falls Dam, a six-foot stone structure built in the 1850s to provide drinking water for the District of Columbia. The structure still serves in its original capacity, the water thus stored being pumped by gravity through the aqueduct running under the equally aged MacArthur Boulevard into the city. The Potomac pools briefly below the dam and then begins its rush to the estuary in earnest.

The area below the dam for a quarter of a mile, and generally lumped together under the designation of Great Falls, begins with gentle rapids. Immediately the channel, 2,500 feet wide at the dam, is split by the long and narrow Falls Island, which separates the main part of the Falls from the so-called Fish Ladder, adjacent to the Maryland shore. Just downstream, the Fish Ladder channel is split again by Olmsted Island, which separates the Fish Ladder from an equally steep but unnamed channel between Olmsted and Falls Islands. In past years Olmsted and Falls Islands have been linked with the Maryland shore by footbridges, allowing visitors to the Maryland Great Falls Park, known officially as a unit of the C&O; Canal National Historic Park, the opportunity to walk across the Fish Ladder channel and the previously mentioned unnamed defile to Falls Island to view the main section of the Falls. In June of 1972, the flood caused by Hurricane Agnes destroyed these extremely sturdy steel and reinforced concrete bridges, located 25 to 40 feet above normal water level, and made the islands and their spectacular views of the Falls the exclusive preserve of the wildlife and whitewater boaters in all but the lowest water levels. Reconstruction of the bridges was completed by the end of 1992, but damaged again by two floods of 1996. Both the Fish Ladder and the unnamed channel were altered by the Corps of Engineers around the turn of the century in an attempt to allow fish to migrate upstream of the falls. The resulting channels have concrete ramps which have weathered to expose the aggregate rock and look like magnified views of emery cloth, knife-edged boulders in mid-channel and impossibly tight turns. These hazards, combined with the extremely high gradient, make both these channels horrifyingly dangerous and they should not be considered.

The main channel, separated from the Fish Ladder channel immediately below the dam, falls over unnamed drops of increasing severity for a couple of hundred yards. These drops, reaching Class IV in difficulty, would be significant enough to be named and paddled often anywhere else, but here they are mere prelude to and warning of the main event which awaits just below.

The Falls proper begins on a front approximately 600 feet wide. The Maryland Falls, running alongside Falls Island, reach their full development first, running swiftly to the brink of a convex-curved 20-foot vertical drop known as Tumblehome. The river immediately regathers its strength and within a few boat lengths drops over a straight-lipped ten-foot drop called Charlie's Hole that is not quite vertical. The river again"pools" while moving at a rapid pace and turns sharply right and drops over a concave edged ten footer named Horseshoe Falls that has a very wicked hydraulic at the bottom amid many broken boulders. This hydraulic has kept boats and boaters for uncomfortably long periods of time. Indeed, while there had been no boater fatalities here at the time of this writing, the hole had kept a couple of pilot-less boats on a permanent basis, tearing them to pieces in lieu of releasing them to their bedraggled owners.

To the right of Maryland Falls the channel known since George Washington's time as the Streamers extends its flat section a few dozen feet farther downstream of the Maryland Falls and then proceeds to drop through a chaos of boulders, narrow twisting chutes, and vertical falls that defies description. At the top of this channel is a very interesting phenomenon: a small chute drops a distance of several feet and apparently runs onto a sharply sloped rock at the base, causing the flow to bubble straight upward in a natural water fountain fully as high as the height from which the water originally fell. This entire section of the river is ridiculously dangerous-looking and has only been run by deranged experts. The name of this section apparently comes from the last drop in the sequence. A relatively small amount of water, at summer-type levels, falls over a rocky lip which is fairly regularly notched at the top, creating dozens of tiny waterfalls at intervals of one foot or so, falling a vertical distance of about ten feet.

Even farther to the right, against the Virginia shore, is the section known as the Spout, named possibly by George Washington or at least current at the time of the writing of his diaries. The Spout is separated from the Streamers by a 100-yard-long rock island locally called The Flake, but named officially Kirby Island in USGS records. This channel extends even farther downstream than the Streamers before becoming unruly, but it makes up for any tardiness with extra effort at being horrendous, awesome, and even downright bodacious. After the initial pool the channel flows over a drop of seven or eight feet, called U-Hole, from a lip that has the shape of about 120 degrees of a circle; the paddler drops from the outside to the inside of the circle. This concentration of the resulting hydraulic makes it extremely strong and it tends to back-pop-up or back-ender the paddler, thoroughly frustrating the carefully constructed plans the paddler has made for surviving the following drops. Most paddlers of this falls eschew the entire left side of the drop and enter on the far right, even though this necessitates a very sharp right turn at the bottom.

The channel runs straight downhill to the next drop, called Z-Turn, which splits at the top. The right two-thirds consists of another conclave lip and a very nasty-looking hydraulic at the bottom. The far left side is a rightward-slanting slide and is actually easier than it looks. Immediately the channels converge and crash together violently against a rock wall straight ahead. The paddler must make a 90-degree turn to the left, proceed over a five-foot drop, make an immediate 90-degree turn to the right, and then drop a couple of feet. The whole sequence of Z-Turn from the slanting drop through the two sharp turns, usually lumped together as the second of three major drops in the Spout, occupies the linear space of only about three boat lengths and drops some 10 to 12 feet. A flip here, even with the quickest and surest of rolls, could be disastrous, particularly in view of what lies downstream.

After twisting through the described second drop the Spout forms a moving pool of 60 feet in length before delivering the coup de grace. The third and final drop consists of a single vertical falls of about 20 to 25 feet. The right two-thirds of the falls drops onto a slanting ledge halfway down and then strikes a flat boulder or ledge at the bottom. The exact configuration of the slanting ledge and flat ledge at the bottom are unknown but the surrounding rock is heavily fissured and potholed, suggesting the presence of many nooks and crannies in which the bow of a boat might become wedged, trapping the paddler under an enormous weight of water pouring over his boat and body. Rescue from such a situation would appear to be quite impossible due to the steepness of the shoreline and the tremendous power of a large amount of water flowing over a lip only about 12 feet wide. Only the farthest left portion of the falls drops into clear water. Reaching this clear slot requires a turn at the top of nearly 90 degrees, virtually in mid-air. In addition, the paddler must simultaneously raise the bow of the boat to avoid a tiny, almost invisible rock at the bottom which is hidden by the curtain of water at all but the lowest levels. This small rock has taken a heavy toll in sterns from those who failed to notice it and achieve some degree of arch to their fall from the lip. Fortunately, within the very narrow range of water levels in which runs of the falls are possible, the hydraulic at the base of the last drop is not a safety problem. The long fall, however, results in a deep penetration of the pool at the base and the water pressure at these depths has popped the seams of some fiberglass boats.

After this orgy of descent the river pools very briefly and runs down to the heavy but more normal rapids of Observation Deck or "O-Deck" as it is known locally. The origin of the name "the Spout" will be obvious to any who view this huge rapids. Survivors of such a run will certainly know that they have done something. We must again emphasize that for anyone but those who just can't sleep nights without having run Great Falls once in their lives the best advice is to forget it. Or to repeat a phrase heard repeatedly on many rivers, "Let's not, and say we did."

For years the myriad of paddlers who played in the rapids below the Falls gazed up from Observation Deck Rapids and wondered about the possibility of a successful run through some section of the very complex drops of the Falls. Many hours were spent discussing the merits of each of the almost infinite number of possible routes through the maelstrom. Most paddlers considered any attempt to verify these hotly contested assertions to be tantamount to suicide, a notion reinforced by the steady incidence of fatalities incurred by ill-advised swimmers and rock scramblers. Each year several of these unfortunates were swept accidentally into the Falls and without exception met death in the foamy green chaos of the two-hundred-yard-long stretch of whitewater. For many years it seemed that the Great Falls of the Potomac would forever remain outside the ken of whitewater paddlers, unexplored and unknown. In 1976 this changed.

Two internationally known local paddlers, Wick Walker and Tom McEwan, studied the Falls along with many others and wondered whether a run was possible and. if so, which route would be the most feasible. These two, one a C-l paddler and the other a kayaker, chose a route down the Spout section and, based upon experience gained in running smaller waterfalls during the development of waterfall running during the early 1970s, decided to attempt it. An additional factor in this decision was their plan to run a steep river in the Himalayas in the near future and their feeling that the Great Falls bore a resemblance to the 300-foot-per mile gradients they would encounter in the canyons of Asia. Thus, the first run of one of the most feared drops in the region was, in point of fact, a mere training run for more severe rapids in Nepal!

After the initial run it was two years before another attempt was made, in 1978. In late August of that year Bill Kirby and Steve McConaughy, both rangers at Great Falls Park, successfully ran the Spout. The following year the Maryland Falls was successfully run for the first time. Since that time the number of paddlers completing the run and the variations of route and water level have multiplied. No one has been killed purposely running the falls so far, but there have been an increasing number of close calls and many destroyed boats. As mentioned above, the first fatal run could be the last legal run of all, so let's be careful out there.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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