Paddling the Potomac

Observation Deck Rapids to Little Falls - Part II
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Below the falls the Potomac drops over Observation Deck Rapids, named for the tourist overlooks on both sides of the river. At levels of around three to four feet on the Little Falls gauge this rapids provides large, ender-sized waves for the delight of the paddler. The sure presence of hundreds of amused, awed, and puzzled spectators on sunny weekends provides the hot-dog paddler with an unparalleled forum for the display of his skills. One such kayaker, a few years ago, apparently in search of female companionship, painted in large letters on the stern deck of his boat his name and phone number, preceded by the message"For a date call . . . ." The effectiveness of this technique is unknown to the writers.

Below O-Deck the river turns 90 degrees left and runs toward the reentry of the Fish Ladder on the left. Just before the Fish Ladder drops into the mainstream, the river drops over a three-foot ledge that produces fun surfing waves at lower water levels. Where the Fish Ladder enters bizarre currents are created in the deep water, which can be fun or frightening depending on the skill level of the paddler. Immediately after receiving the Fish Ladder's flow the river enters the S-Turn, a back-to-back set of right and left turns. At higher levels the Potomac splits again just below the Fish Ladder, with the left fork running hard up against the Maryland shore for one-fourth mile before reentering below Rocky Island Rapids. The upper portion of this Maryland channel is called the Catfish Hole and is a popular put-in spot accessible via the C & O Canal towpath from Great Falls, Maryland.

S-Turn Rapids is a strange little place. The rapids are created not so much from a high gradient as from the concentration of the entire Potomac River into a channel only 60 feet wide. At levels between 3.2 and 4.0 feet on the Little Falls gauge a nasty hole forms behind a boulder on river right at the beginning of the S-Turn. At lower levels this boulder, known as Judy's Rock after the late Judy Waddell, a local paddler and Great Falls Park Ranger, becomes exposed. At any level the whole S-Turn sequence is full of moving waves, whirlpools, and cross currents. After straightening out of the S-Turn the river flows more or less quietly for 200 yards to Rocky Island Rapids.

Rocky Island Rapids is probably the most heavily used rapids on the river. When the gauge reads between 3.8 and 4.6 feet paddlers flock here to surf the wide, smooth five-foot waves created here. Shortly below Rocky Island Rapids the Maryland channel from Catfish Hole reenters and the reunited river runs through Wet Bottom Chute, a four-foot ledge offering surfing waves and a nice bouncy ride. For the next mile the Potomac flows placidly between vertical rock walls 50 to 200 feet high on both sides with spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife. It is difficult to believe in this section that one is only a few miles from the Washington, DC city limits and right in the middle of a suburban community. The land on both banks is part of national park areas and is thus preserved for recreational enjoyment.

As the vertical rock walls recede, the paddler approaches the confluence with Difficult Run, a creek entering from the Virginia, or right side of the river. Just upstream from the mouth of Difficult Run is the rapids named for that creek. Difficult Run Rapids consists of three chutes, separated from one another by rock islands. The left channel, called the Maryland Chute, is a three-foot ledge offering a small hydraulic and two-to three-foot waves. The center channel, appropriately named the Middle Chute, is a longer, gentler rapids with boulders and small ledges scattered over 100 yards. The Virginia Chute, on river right, is a narrow two- to three-foot ledge with a very smooth surfing wave at the top. All three of the chutes are heavily used as a training area by Washington region paddlers.

Below Difficult Run the river flattens and runs placidly between wooded shores. One-half mile below the rapids the Angler's Inn put-in appears on the left shore. A parking area on MacArthur Boulevard across from a restaurant called the Old Angler's Inn provides access to the river. Paddlers park here for trips both upstream and downstream on the river and on the C & O Canal. Hikers, bicyclers, birdwatchers, and other outdoor types park here also, so in anything approaching good weather arrive early to secure a parking slot. Be certain not to block the emergency gates in the lot because the rescue squad and park rangers use these accesses regularly on busy weekends. Also, forget getting a drink or a bite to eat at the Angler's Inn in paddling clothes. The place is strictly for yuppies; gnarly-looking river rats will be shown the door immediately.

Below Angler's Inn the river continues flowing calmly for about a mile until the Yellow Falls-Calico Falls area is reached. The river is now being split by high rock islands with vertical walls. When a modern design home is seen on the right, Virginia, shore a choice must be made as to which channel to run. Yellow Falls on the right is the steeper, more entertaining of the two. Calico Falls to the left is a longer, cobble-strewn sequence with no distinct drops. Yellow Falls should be scouted by first-timers because of the nasty hidden boulder located at the bottom that has wrapped up and destroyed many canoes.

Below Yellow and Calico Falls the river channels merge once again and soon the Carderock Picnic Area is passed on the left, another access point. On the Virginia shore opposite Carderock, Scott Run enters, creating a picturesque little waterfall. Bathing in the cascade is often, but one must be careful, and certainly should not swallow any water since Scott Run watershed is entirely urban and suburban. Immediately below Carderock, Stubblefield Falls is encountered. This is a gradually steepening cobble rapid with entertaining standing waves and whirlpools.

The Cabin John Bridge carrying the Capital Beltway is now in sight and without this reminder the paddler would think he was still in some remote mountain location. Below the bridge the Potomac flows tranquilly through a maze of low wooded islands for some three miles until Little Falls is approached. On river left below Cabin John Bridge access to the river is gained from the Clara Barton Parkway at Lock 10 on the C&O; Canal. The take-out spot is well hidden among small channels along the Maryland shore so the paddler new to the area should seek guidance from a local paddler before attempting to take out here. The river between Lock 10 and Little Falls is interesting and scenic but contains no fast water so most whitewater aficionados seldom paddle it.

The Little Falls section of the river is a blessing to whitewater paddlers in the area but it can be an extremely hazardous place under the wrong conditions The beginning of this section is marked by the Little Falls dam, a low concrete dam that is deceptively simple looking. The smooth flow over this three-foot barrage creates an absolutely lethal hydraulic at the base that has killed dozens of people over the years. The river is nearly a half mile wide at the dam so rescue from shore or boats in the event of a mishap is virtually impossible. From upstream the dam is not easily seen but can be inferred by the concrete pump building on the left. If one is paddling down the river and this structure becomes visible, start moving left to exit the river well above this dangerous construction.

Immediately below the concrete dam is the old Little Falls dam, a rock-fill structure built to provide water for the canal on the Maryland shore. This dam has no hydraulic but at reasonable levels the rocks are thinly covered in most places and iron bars poke dangerously through the rubble in some areas. Choosing the proper channel is difficult but crucial.

Below the twin dams the river narrows rapidly and drops over one long rock garden and several wave trains before reaching Little Falls proper. This rapid is a straightforward ledge at the lowest levels but even the slightest change in water height can alter Little Falls into a thundering, boiling monster. At high levels the normally short Class III drop stretches into a Class VI killer with 15-foot exploding waves stretching for half a mile. No detailed explanation of Little Falls is attempted here since it is essential to only attempt this stretch in the company of paddlers who have experience with this rapids and to scout it from the left bank of the river. It is interesting to note that the highest water velocity ever recorded in nature was seen at Little Falls during the massive flood of 1936.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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