Week 2 Journal
I enjoyed seeing old friends at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) but really enjoyed having my wife Kathy and daughter Krista come spend the night. It had been a long week since I had last seen them. I went to several workshops but spent the majority of the day running around the campus coordinating logistics for the Sunday World River Day Celebration Paddle. I went down to the river. It seemed odd not be paddling but I was also exhausted. I seriously needed rest. So I took a nap before Kathy and Krista arrived, relaxed with my family in the wonderful accommodations at NCTC and ended up going to bed rather early while others stayed up late and having fun around the bond fire. I thought it best take advantage of the bed before sleeping on the ground again for another week.
I woke up at 4 am to finish writing my journal from week 1. After breakfast, I began gathering everyone for the day’s paddle. The sky was gray and it was drizzling. I certainly would have understood if people did not want to paddle. In the end, 22 people attended World Rivers Day Paddle including a surprise guest, Mary Ann Hitt and her family. I knew Mary Ann from NC when she worked for Appalachian Voices. She is now the National Director for Beyond Coal Campaign for Sierra Club and lives on the Upper Potomac. She paddled up as we were giving the safety talk.
River and Trail Outfitter Service provided an interpretive guide, Mike Dudash, who had a lot of paddling experience and did a fantastic job of emphasizing the importance of protecting our water resources. He referred to our group of paddlers as “heroes” for safeguarding our rivers. Mike was quite animated when he spoke, kind of like a football coach trying to rally the team spirit. It was clear he was sincere in his words and loved his job. He did a great job of introducing everyone and getting all the kids involved.
The rain held off and it turned out to be another beautiful day on the river. In addition to having my family paddle, PRKN President Jeff Kelble and his family attended, which was great because my daughter actually had kids her own age to hang out with on the water. It was also the first time, Jeff, all three Riverkeepers (Brent Walls and Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf ) and PRKN staff member Alan Lehman paddled together.
We had aquatic biologists and wildlife experts pointing out all the amazing fish and wildlife we were seeing. The sun finally came out and the kids swam when we stopped for lunch on an island. We paddled down through the “Horsebacks” section of Potomac, where striated rock stuck out of the low water like the long spine of some prehistoric creature. However, the rocks ran parallel to the river for several hundred yards, creating several columns or long shoots of fast moving water that paddlers could not get out of once you were in them. It was one of the more unique sections of river I look forward to exploring later.
It was an enjoyable and relaxing day celebrating the Potomac River on World Rivers Day, which we now intend to do every year. The Potomac provides drinking water to 6 million people and is a recreational destination for tens of thousands of people every year. It is the life blood of the entire region. The river is certainly worthy of a at least a day of celebration, on a day in which tens of thousands of people all over the world were celebrating our great rivers.
The trip finally ended. I said good bye to everyone at Snyder’s landing. Mile Dudash gave me his card and told me to call him if I needed anything. I paddled down to Shepherdstown where I met Kathy and Krista to load up my canoe with all my gear. My goal was to paddle over 15 miles down to Harpers Ferry before nightfall. After a relaxing day, I suddenly felt like I was in a competitive paddle race as I ate food and packed my gear as fast as I could. It was 6pm when I left, saying good bye to my family for yet another week. I paddled through some swift water and was making good time before I hit miles of backwater above Harpers Ferry. It was dark before I even hit Dam 3 and the “Needles” below the dam, which is a rocky section of the river which splits into dozens of channels and has some pretty intense rapids. It was also cloudy again, so the moon was not available to light my way down river.
I got to Dargan Bend, which forms a natural dam of rock sticking up out of the water. It also forms Dargan’s Ledges which is actually as small waterfall located only a few miles above Dam 3. I could hear the roaring water so I made sure everything was tied down. It was pretty dark when I tried to shoot through one of the slots in the rock but immediately got stuck going over the ledge. I stopped so quickly, I lunged forward. My paddle flew out of my hand. Water immediately poured into my canoe which started to bulge. The pressure from the water broke my yoke and within 5 seconds, all my gear began floating out of the boat. Thankfully everything was strapped down but my cooler and other gear were spinning like pinwheels in the violent rapid. I grabbed my electronics first. I stepped out of the boat hoping removing my weight would allow the boat to pop out of the hydraulic. Nope! It was stuck. I was in white water up to my chest in the middle of the river, it was dark, my boat was stuck and my paddle was gone! I reminded myself to stay cool, literally saying out loud.
I had to extract all my gear to get my boat out. So one piece at a time, I unclipped my gear and had to lift everything over my head, placing each item carefully on the giant rock ledge behind me. I eventually had to laugh at my predicament as my cooler, attached to a long strap, spun round and round in the raging current five feet downstream from boat. I would reach into my canoe which was like a hot tub with the jets turned on. I would feel around in the bubbling water trying to retrieve one of my straps and another piece of attached gear. One by one, slowly unclipping everything I had. This is when you appreciate the value of a good dry bag to make sure your cloths and sleeping gear stay dry, which thankfully they did.
After unloading all the gear, I still had to get my canoe out of the hydraulic. I finally popped it loose but also had to drag a partially swamped canoe back up and over the ledge. The current below Dargan’s Ledge was strong and made it impossible to empty my boat. I climbed onto the ledge in the middle of the river and carefully opened the dry box to retrieve my phone, careful to not drop it. I looked for Mike’s card but could not find it. I called my friend Rick Chatham, who was at Harpers Ferry waiting for me. Rick was a founding board member at Yadkin Riverkeeper, where I used to work in NC. We were supposed to meet at Harpers Ferry Adventure Center but any thought of making it there tonight by boat was out of the question.
I used my navigation app to find out where I was and asked him to come get me. I still had to dump out the water, load all my gear in my boat and swim my boat and gear 100 yards to rivers edge on the West Virginia side. It was one of the few places on the river where I actually saw lights from a house on the banks of the river. The water was calm behind Dargan’s Ledge but deep. I would swim for a while then bump a huge rock. I would climb up on it to cross over only to drop back off into the pitch black water which was over my head. It was kind of eerie but I eventually made it to shore and knocked on the door. The homeowner, Alan was very generous and allowed me to store my boat until I could come back and retrieve it the following day.
When Rick showed up, we had a good laugh and began loading gear into his Jeep when suddenly the Super Moon broke through the clouds. We had a perfect view of the eclipse. Alan stood there with two total strangers, watching the eclipse from the bank of the river as we finished loading gear. It was an incredible site to see but I was still soaking wet and ready to get back to camp down at the river. We also had to meet another friend and paddler John Ray who paddled many miles with me (as had Rick) on the Yadkin River which I used to paddle every year. We all got back to camp rather late and ended up staying up watching the full moon and catching up with one another before calling it a night. What a crazy day!
We were dragging when we got up for coffee. I was wondering how I was going to fix my boat and get a replacement paddle. That day, I still had to face the Confluence Paddle. The “Confluence” is where the Shenandoah River merges with the Potomac River at historic Harpers Ferry, which is also where West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland borders all meet. The Appalachian Trail also runs through Harpers Ferry and passes over the Potomac River.
We headed up to the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center (HFAC) office to meet everyone for the Confluence Paddle. I was surprised to see Mike Dudash again since he works for River and Trail Outfitter. “What are you doing here”, I asked? “I am not gonna let you have all the fun”, he replied joking. I told him about my experience the night before and that I could not find his card. He quickly produced another one and said he come the following morning to help fix my canoe, replace my paddle and help provide shuttle for us down river. I was grateful for his generosity and support. It was also great to have him on the paddle again.
PRKN Board Member Pat Munoz also showed up with Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf and staff Alan Lehman. Unfortunately, Brent Walls had to go and investigate the latex chemical spill up river. In the end we had about ten paddlers, a perfect number for running white water. Today was a Class III day, not a good fit for beginner paddlers. Everyone had a kayak but I ended up renting a canoe from HFAC.
We got shuttled up to Dam 3, not far from my boat and proceeded to run the Needles down through rocky rapids. It was really shallow, channels flowing everywhere. Most channels were far too shallow to paddle but thankfully we had several people who knew this section well and guided us down the main channel. I was suddenly grateful for getting stuck at Dargan’s Ledge because trying to navigate the Needles at night would have been a big mistake. In fact, impossible!
The water was clear. The bluffs, Maryland Heights and Louden Heights, looming far above Harpers Ferry were impressive, as were the old bridges crossing into the town. We paddled into the clear waters of the Shenandoah. By now, it was sunny and hot. Several of us swam in the clear, rocky channel where the two great rivers merged. We still had the biggest rapid, White Horse Rapid, to run. It was a sizable Class III but no one was in a rush. It was an easy paddle day, only about 4-5 miles.
We played around at White Horse Rapids watching the expert kayakers surf the big waves, I swam the rapid while others like Alan pulled their boats up river to paddle it again. It was such great day. Warm and easy! We eventually made our way down to the take out at HFAC, next to our campsite. I said goodbye to Mark our Shenandoah Riverkeeper. It was the last time on the paddle I would be seeing him or Brent as I moved down river. I had gotten used to all the support and companionship Brent, my paddle partner in the upper Potomac provided.
Alan generously offered to help retrieve my canoe. After which, we wanted to show Rick and John historic Harpers Ferry. Alan spotted my paddle stuck in the craggy rocks below Dargan’s Bend. John Ray offered to paddle over to retrieve it but ended up dumping at Dargan’s Ledge as well. We all laughed as John pulled back up to shore soaking wet with my paddle in hand. “Thanks” I said laughing. He thought it was funny too. We gave him some dry cloths and headed back to Harpers Ferry. We ate at the Canal House, a cool historic house turned into a restaurant. We toured Harpers Ferry after we ate and did not get back to the campsite until rather late.
As promised, Mike Dudash showed up, tools in hand as I sipped on my coffee. He grabbed my canoe and fixed my broken yoke in 10 minutes. “What next” he asked. I had no answer for him. I was still packing up and certainly was not ready to leave. “Ok, let’s figure out shuttling for you guys.” In the end he recruited someone from River and Trail to help Rick shuttle his car down Rick’s Jeep all the way down to Great Falls since Rick was paddling the whole week with me and John to another location near White’s Ferry. Thank Goodness for Mike. He was like a jolt of energy when we needed it most—I had been on the river for 11 days and was getting a little worn down. We packed up and headed up to HFAC to charge my devices.
Keeping two chargers, my phone, and my GoPro all charged and replacing fresh batteries (every day) in my GPS Unit and occasionally in my lanterns and head lamp(s) was one of the most difficult tasks. Thankfully, Jenn who runs the show for HFAC, was very cool about leaving all my charging equipment and extra gear at the office. “We will be back in a few hours,” I told her. It was 10:30 am. “No problem” she said, as we rolled out the door. The other difficult task was always planning a few days, if not a week, ahead when I was tired and exhausted. It was not easy to keep up with all of the details when you are always on the river. Sometime you wake up in a panic realizing you need to call someone tomorrow to let them know you are still coming or need something.
One of those plans involved hooking up with folks at Calleva. Calleva is a family run operation with lots of property along the river and more importantly they run a school to teach kids outdoor education as well as youth kayak training programs. I texted SteveO, who is the young energetic director of outdoor youth education program. He offered to let us park at the Calleva Farm near Whites Ferry and wanted to paddle with us during the trip. He actually said he wanted to run Great Falls in his kayak so we could get it on film which made me nervous. He texted me the address as John Ray and I drove down the road, following Dudash in his big GMC truck.
As I drove, John tried to transfer pictures from my camera, which was out of memory, to his computer, before leaving John’s car and computer downstream. I needed to do a photo and video dump from my phone or I could not take pictures, video or do my daily social media posts. “Won’t work” John said. I am not very patient or savvy when it comes to technology glitches or addressing computer related problems. “It just worked a week ago before I started the trip” I said, offering little help to improve the situation. John eventually figured out a way to dump some of my pictures on to the “cloud” to give me a little more memory just as we arrived at Calleva Farm.
There were kids everywhere. Apparently, Calleva does much more than teach kayaking and outdoor education. They were setting up for their Haunted Forest October 1st opening that Friday. It was hard for me to fathom the month of October was only a few days away. It had been so hot and dry. It only rained one day during the trip at that point but you could also tell Fall was coming.
Mike Dudash, of course, seemed right at home. As soon as we got out, he barreled right over to Matt Markoff, one of the owners, and began talking. We were trying to text SteveO who I had not met face to face. Mike eventually waved us over and introduced us to Matt who was very supportive of the paddle trip and Potomac Riverkeeper program. He explained his family connection to the Potomac and the generations of boaters and boat makers who participated in the 1972 Olympics. “We also own an island on the Potomac” he said. “You need to come out there sometime.” Of course, I agreed. When SteveO arrived we all sat at a picnic table, talking about paddling with total chaos going on around us. Kids were running everywhere. Big props were being assembled for the upcoming Haunted Forest. It actually started raining a little. Matt just closed his computer but no one seemed to care about a little rain. We worked out the logistics of the shuttle and leaving John’s car at the farm.
I realized it was already 1:30pm. “We really need to get on the river” I said. Matt just laughed. “You aren’t going anywhere, Dudash is gone. He is off talking with my brother about his upcoming trip to Costa Rica.” I did not even realize Mike had left us. We still had an hour drive back to Harpers Ferry. Matt offered to take us on a tour of the farm while we waited for Dudash. I just went with the flow. The tour was incredible. Calleva grows all their own food and raises their own meat. They harvest everything on location, including their own timber. They even have their own mill. Kids attending Calleva can learn how do all of this as well as make boats and get out on the river to learn white water kayaking. I was really impressed.
As the farm tour ended, Matt agreed to make a donation to Potomac Riverkeeper Network and help in any way he could. I thanked him for his support and help for the paddle trip. “Let us know if you need anything” he said. “How about helping me find Dudash,” I replied laughing but was seriously getting concerned about the time. It was now 2:15pm. Dudash was somewhere on the farm. Matt called his brother Alex, who also came over to say hello. Thankfully Mike was with him. I knew all of these contacts were important relationships but also had 14 miles to paddle. By the time we got back to Harpers Ferry, it was 3:30pm. Jenn at HFAC laughed at us because we were still not on the river. I told her I would be back in a few hours which turned into 5 hours. I grabbed my overly charged electronic devices and thanked her for all her help. I had hoped to take advantage of the hot showers at HFOA but the shuttle took way longer than I ever would have thought. We had to go!
It started to rain pretty hard as we loaded the last of the gear into the boats. It was now 4pm. We began paddling down through the rocky shoals of the Potomac just below the 340 bridge. It rained harder. It was foggy and hard to see. John’s kayak dumped at one of the rapids and it took time to get him back in his kayak. As we waited for John, my seat suddenly broke. I had to turn the boat around and use the other seat which also required moving all my gear. This also took time. Despite the recent rain, the water was still very low which also meant we were moving slow. It was tricky navigating the rocks and the rapids at such low water. We only made 5 miles by dark but were thankfully out of the rocky shoals. Once again, I was paddling in the dark but this time it was pouring down rain. Thankfully, Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf had showed me Brunswick Family Campground way back in April. I did not think I would need to use it on this trip but now we were desperate just to paddle the 6 miles from Harpers Ferry to the Brunswick Campground.
We finally arrived at Brunswick Family Campground, which was largely a RV campsite. It started raining even harder. The thought of putting up a tent was inconceivable at this point. Thankfully, we saw a pavilion with some campers huddled under it. We approached the shelter only to find a bunch of bikers, who were biking up the C&O Canal to Cumberland and then all the way to Pittsburgh. They also had a hot pizza. I inquired about the mileage of their trip but also had to ask about their pizza. “We are biking about 375 miles….. We ordered the pizza from a pizza place in Brunswick.” They said. They offered to let us stay but pointed to another pavilion if we wanted more room. I was never so grateful for a pavilion and to be out of the rain.
We ordered a pizza as the rain started to really intensify, almost like a tropical storm. We started to unpack our gear and hung up wet cloths to dry on the rafters. By the time the pizza came, the campground was literally flooding and was coming into the pavilion. We ate our hot pizza and anything else we could make that night. Using our tents was not an option. John Ray was lucky to be able to hang up his hammock but Rick and I were forced to sleep on picnic tables. We took pictures of Rick as he went to sleep on his picnic table bed. It was a rough night of sleep but pretty comical. I was just grateful to be out of the rain and not have to deal with setting up a tent in the sideways rain. Before we went to sleep, I remembered to text Dudash and tell him about my broken seat. I remembered he was running a youth trip that day and leaving out of Brunswick Campground. I was hoping he would come to my rescue again.
It was gray and cloudy when we woke but it had stopped raining for now. None of us were particularly anxious to get moving. It looked like a bomb went off under the pavilion. Cloths and gear were scattered across half a dozen picnic tables and hanging from rafters. Coffee was the first priority, and regardless, I wasn’t going anywhere until my seat was fixed. River and Trail showed up at 9 am with a bus and 32 kids from Frederick County anxious to paddle. I saw Mike’s truck pull in so I walked over to greet them. By the time I got over there, he was already giving his safety talk and environmental education speech to the kids. I had to wait until he was done. Mike held up a newspaper and showed the front page story of the latex chemical spill following us down river. It was scheduled to arrive in two days time. “This is totally unacceptable and saddens me greatly” Mike shouted like a Marine drill sergeant. “It should bother all of you too! This is your drinking water!”
As I sipped my coffee, Mike suddenly put me on the spot and asked me to say a few words. I was caught off guard, was still waking up and groggy. I did my best but certainly did not match Mike’s energy. The kids finally got into their canoes. Mike made them paddle upstream to buy a little time and get them some practice before paddling down to Point of Rocks. “I thought about you guys all night” he said. I asked if he got my text. “Yup, but I don’t have my tools today. I actually had a seat for you yesterday” he laughed, “but not today!” He quickly asked Everett aka EZ with River and Trail Outfitter to help us. The bolts on my seat broke, not the actual seat which was good. Everett asked one of his shuttle drivers to drive to the hardware store to get new bolts which gave me time to pack.
We said good bye to Mike for the fourth day in a row but hoped we might see him again somehow. As we watched them paddle downstream, Mike encouraged the kids to pick up trash from the river. In the distance we heard Mike leading the chant “Eco Warrior” and all the kids began chanting “Eco Warrior” as they pounded their paddles on the canoe gunnels and paddled around picking up trash. This guy is a Riverkeeper’s dream, I thought to myself.
I headed back to the pavilion. I still had to do my social media posts and pack all my gear. Rick was already packed, John was mostly ready to go, but my gear was still scattered. I had my sights set on taking the last possible hot shower at Brunswick Campground but once again time did not permit. Rick was basking in the glow of the hot shower he took. I was jealous but we had a long paddle a head. We had once again fallen behind schedule.
We finally packed up and by the time I got back down to the boat launch, my seat was fixed. I never even saw the guys from River and Trail come back. I thanked Everett and his team and quickly got back on the river. It was not long before it started to rain again but it was not very hard. We passed numerous islands along the way, some of which were Native American settlements. Many of the creeks and rivers flowing into the Potomac in this region have names stemming from Native American origins like the Opequan, the Conococheague, the Monocacy and my favorite Catoctin Creek—not one, but two. One on the Maryland side, one of the Virginia side.
We also passed Antietam Creek, down river from historic Antietam Battle Field, the deadliest day of the Civil War. I think most people realize the historical significance of the Potomac but it started to dawn on me the Potomac River was the actual dividing line between the North and the South. The Potomac River Basin is where many battles were fought. I suspect more soldiers died in this river basin more than any other.
We passed Point of Rocks, floating under the Highway 15 bridge and paddled passed the Carolina Road which was an old ferry crossing nearly 200 years ago and part of the Great Wagon Trail down to southern Appalachia. We pulled over on a big rock in the middle of the river to take a break when John Ray revealed he really needed to get off the river that night and head back to NC rather than campout and leave Thursday morning. I texted Steve O but did not receive any response. We continued to paddle through a lot of dead water below Point of Rocks. It certainly was not my favorite section of the river. We finally paddled to the Monocracy River. Just upstream the Monocacy Aqueduct crossed the river which was flowing heavy from the rains. The “Muddy Monocacy” I heard so much about lived up to its reputation and was gushing chocolate-milk-colored water into the Potomac. For 12 days, I had paddled in very clear water but now the Potomac was brown. I wondered if I would see it clear again for the rest of the trip.
We pulled over to show John and Rick the aqueduct and part of the C&O Canal. The aqueduct was impressive. Knowing the aqueduct used to hold so much water and transported giant barges filled with cargo or coal weighing thousands of tons over the river was impressive. The old stone work was beautiful. The Potomac once had a 185 mile long working canal, dozens of aqueducts and stone lock houses running up the Maryland side all the way to Cumberland—many impressive structures that would never be built today. Now the C &O Canal is an amazing bike trail run by the National Park, which thankfully for paddlers like me, allows camping.
The sun was going down. John and Rick were taking pictures when I tried to reach SteveO again. No response. I called Matt instead and he immediately agreed to grab John’s car and drive out to meet us at the aqueduct. He was there in literally ten minutes. I was grateful for the ride but our paddle time with John came to an abrupt end. As John gathered his gear, we chatted with Matt. He informed me water levels were definitely going up in the next few days. I expressed serious concern about running Mather’s Gorge and Little Falls on Friday. “We have rafts! I will send SteveO and another guide to raft you guys down through the Gorge on Friday!” he said. “That would be awesome” I said, thanking him. What a relief.
John and Matt headed out while Rick and I set up camp along the river with a nice view of the aquaduct. We were starving and fairly chilly. No pizza delivery tonight. I cooked spaghetti. Rick set up his tent. The camp felt lonely without John Ray around. The three of us made a good team and had a lot of fun with all the people we paddled with up river at Harpers Ferry. I have done lengthy paddle trips before where people jump on for various legs of the paddle. It’s never fun to lose a good paddling companion but having someone new join the paddle usually raises the sprits, brings some new excitement. I was hoping to recruit some folks for this new white water rafting adventure on Friday. We ate and went to bed early. Tomorrow would be another long paddle day.
We woke to more rain. I lay in my tent reading about Hurricane Joaquin, which was heading toward east coast. If it hit the east coast, it was going to cause serious flooding problems for the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac. I tried not to rush to judgment, but several people were texting me about concerns they had about rafting Mather’s Gorge and Little Falls. The combination of rain fall totals from Joaquin and three days of continuous rain was going to significantly raise the water levels in the river by Friday and Saturday.
I posted my pictures from the day before, made my coffee and attempted to make breakfast but my stove rain out of fuel. No breakfast! The only thing left to do was eat granola bars and pack up our campsite. It was going to rain all day. I thought if we could make Great Falls tonight, we could drive back to my house near DC, get a hot shower, and a good night’s rest but we still had about 20 miles to paddle.
We paddled for about 2 hours down to Whites Ferry which is the only Ferry service left on the Potomac. It was pretty cool to check out the small ferry operation but we were even more excited to eat at the Whites Ferry Café, which was more like diner. I was chilled to the bone. Several bikers from the C&O canal were also enjoying the warmth and dry accommodations inside. I drank two cups of coffee, ate a burger and french fries. It was wonderful! I enjoyed the warmth and the break but was really having trouble seeing how we would finish that night. I had originally planned to camp on an island above Great Falls. But the thought of having to set up a tent in 45 degree rain with no way to cook food seemed like terrible alternative.
We got back in our kayaks and paddled under the enormous cable that spanned the entire river to help guide White’s Ferry across the Potomac. We had to move quickly before the ferry got too far away as the cable dropped back into the water once the ferry moved the other side of the river. So we paddled. The warm food and coffee renewed my spirits but this was some of the worst dead water on the entire Potomac. More than ten miles of little or no current! Paddling my canoe and all my gear easily weighed over 500 lbs with me in the boat. The rain continuously filled my canoe adding to my heavy load. It was one of those days where we said very little and just kept on paddling for hours at a time.
Our spirit was renewed when we finally reached Seneca Creek and the backwater of Dam 2 at Violette’s Lock. This is where part of the river suddenly turns right and enters the old Patowmack Canal, a series of five inoperative canals more than 200 years old, located on the Virginia side. They were designed to bypass the rapids in the Potomac and the Great Falls. George Washington himself persuaded state lawmakers to support developing the canal system, which is now a swift winding channel of shelves and small ledges, making for some tricky paddling. All the sudden the paddle trip went from frustrating flat water to fast moving rapids and turns, which normally I would love but I was cold and worried about dumping all my gear. Still, we were moving quickly down river as the sun began to disappear.
Thankfully I had paddled this stretch once before but my past experience offered little assistance navigating the numerous channels, boulders and rocky islands in the dark. We did the best we could. Once again, we were paddling at night. We hugged the left bank on the Maryland side, trying to find the take out. I remembered we had to paddle right up to the edge of the dam above Great Falls before you could take out but it was eerie to hear all the rushing water in the pitch black, knowing a dangerous drop off lay ahead.
This is one take out you can’t miss or you go over a dam and eventually down the Great Falls. Not an option! We used flashlights and paddled slowly down the edge of the river, scanning the shore for the take out. From a paddlers perspective, there is nowhere on the Potomac where the take out is marked like I have seen in many other places I have paddled. We finally found the take out which is nothing more than a well worn trail leading into the woods. Now the hard work began. It also started raining again.
The parking lot at Great Falls, where Rick’s Jeep was parked, is blocked by the canal which is filled with water. So we had to unload all our gear and make several trips, lugging our gear and boats up to the tow path. We had to drop our boats down in the canal, load all our gear back into our boats and paddle a 100 yards up and across the canal. Once on the other side, we had to unload our gear again, drag our boats up a muddy steep bank and across the grass to the edge of the parking lot where Rick had moved his truck.
We still had to load all our gear into the truck and had a tougher task of getting two boats on top of Rick’s Jeep. We eventually strapped the kayak on top of the canoe. It looked like a silly canoe, kayak sandwich stacked on top of Rick’s truck but we could care less. We were off the river and for only the second time all trip, I was actually ahead of the schedule. I texted my wife and let her know that we were on the way home. All I could think about was a hot shower and getting to sleep in my wonderful bed for the first time in two weeks. It seemed like two months. I know Rick was relieved to get out of the cold. At 60 years old, Rick proved he could hang tough! We were both totally exhausted but I was excited another friend, Jenna Walley, joining us for the rafting at Mathers Gorge. PRKN staff member Alan Lehman was also planning to join us. I was hoping we could get Mike Dudash to come but he could not make it.
I sat in my living room watching the pouring rain outside. Although we dodged a bullet with Hurricane Joaquin which veered out to sea, the effects of the hurricane were now in full force. Strong winds, lots of rain and only a high of 54 that day. I still had to work out shuttling logistics. I was grateful we did not have to rush out the door first thing in the morning. SteveO texted me he could not meet until 2pm which gave us some time but also meant the river continued to rise. The higher water levels meant a faster ride and less paddling. We were paddling 11 miles with big Class III waves but as Mike Dudash described, with Class V eddies. Mather’s Gorge is just below the Great Falls where the river narrows to 64 wide but is up to 80 feet deep, creating a canyon of boiling water and dangerous currents which have killed many people. Little Falls, just above Chain Bridge in Washington DC, is a big Class IV rapid at higher water. The Potomac saved the best for last. Giant white water that plunges down into the tidal waters of the Potomac, just a mere few miles upriver from the White House.
Jenna and Rick were very excited. We headed up to Great Falls to meet one of our guides, Adam. We also had to shuttle vehicles down river to take out at Lock 5 while we waited for SteveO to arrive. It continued to pour down rain. Once back at the falls, we had the tedious task of carrying a very heavy raft down the tow path and down a steep, rocky trail below Great Falls. As we passed visitors coming back from the observation decks, they looked at us like we were crazy. Great Falls was roaring. It was loud and grew louder as we made our way down to the water which was running fast. SteveO finally caught up to us down at the river. He was like a ball of energy, getting us pumped up for the paddle.
We paddled up stream and entered Mathers Gorge just below the “fish ladder” which was a section of the river that meandered away from the main stem of the Great Falls but came crashing back into Mathers Gorge via its own small waterfall. At this water level, the fish ladder was roaring as it merged with S-Turn Rapids, forming a violent collision of the rapids and accelerating currents just before it squeezed through the narrowest section of the entire Potomac River. I wasn’t really worried about the big waves and the speed of the water but the giant eddies and the bizarre, swift currents that welled up deep from below and could easily pull someone 20 feet underwater were definitely cause for concern. I kept thinking “please everyone just stay in the boat!”
Jenna laughed the entire time, especially when we hit the giant waves in the upper end of the gorge. She thankfully did not know the dangerous history of the Great Falls or Mathers Gorge. Once through, the waves settled down to Class II as we zipped through the gorge in the fast currents. We only saw a few kayaks out paddling. Most people were smart enough to stay inside. After Mathers Gorge, the river opens up into multiple channels with giant rock islands that rise like giant monoliths out of the river. It is one of the most impressive sections of the entire river. Once I began to relax, I started to get cold.
We floated over Yellow Falls and eventually pulled over to scout Little Falls Dam. The water continued to rise throughout the day and was surging over the dam which created a large Class III to IV rapid. At lower water, we would have had to portage the raft around the dam but at higher water it was possible to run it. The only problem is many people have died in the lethal hydraulics below the low dam, including several marines back in 1984. I did not want to unnecessarily scare anyone but told SteveO we were happy to portage it. We scouted it from the concrete pump house on river right. The chocolate colored water poured over the dam, forming a tongue of white water. “Its high enough…..we are good” SteveO said. I trusted him but was cold and nervous. I began to shiver. We were actually all cold and began doing jumping jacks and various cardio exercises to warm up before the big ride. It was pretty comical. I wish I had gotten it on video but my GoPro died up in the gorge.
We jumped back in the raft. I told Jenna and Alan to get down in the raft once we go over the dam and lean toward the middle. They were excited, I was really nervous. As we paddled up to the dam, you could not see over the edge but having seen it from the shore, we all knew a massive double wave lay below. Thankfully, we hit it perfect and shot down through a couple more rapids.
The river began to accelerate quickly. I was so relieved about making it over the dam, I momentarily let my guard down about Little Falls proper. But if you read paddling descriptions, Little Falls becomes a Class V rapid at high water and can generate waves as high as 15 feet! The water was obviously not that high but it was really moving and rising by the minute. Turns out the fastest water velocity ever recorded on the earth was at Little Falls in 1936.
As the river accelerated, we were hitting numerous Class II and III rapids barreling toward Little Falls. It was hard to imagine anyone paddling a canoe through here even at lower water levels but people do it. I remember being warned by several people that I needed to stay on river left in Little Falls proper and avoid the channel to the right. The rapid is separated by a giant rock island in the middle of Little Falls. “Which way should we go?” SteveO yelled out. “Left or right?” he asked. “Go left” I said. “Ok, right it is” was his response, clearly having no intention of running left. Might as well, I thought. It would probably the last time I would ever run the right side. He cautioned us not to try and steer the boat.
At this point the water was so high, the rock island was practically under water. It was hard to see. As we approached it, the water piled up on the rocky island. We turned sideways to make the first of two quick 90 degree turns, first right, than quickly left but the speed of the water kept pushing us further up on to the island instead of the raft turning right as planned. Both Adam and SteveO began yelling to “paddle hard!” We responded but narrowly missed flipping into the giant hydraulic just below the rock island. Now we quickly accelerated sideways across the river strait toward another giant boulder, teetering on the edge of a monster hydraulic.
SteveO told us to stop paddling, which is hard to do when your first instinct is; we are going to violently crash into the rock we are racing toward. But we trusted our guide and stopped. The swift currents from the river turned the boat 90 degrees all on its own and sent us surging back down river as we passed within inches of the giant boulder and skirted perfectly around the dangerous hydraulic. We let out a whooping celebratory scream. We all knew that was the climax of the trip! What an intense ride.
We could see Chain Bridge directly down river. The river was still rolling fast but we paddled hard to cross the river and take out at Lock 5 on river left, the Maryland side. We paddled into an eddy and quickly came to a stop as we watched the river roar past us. It was immediately apparent to me that there were tidal fluctuations in the cove. Little Falls plunges directly into the tidal Potomac just above DC. I have never seen any river like it. Giant rapids influenced by tidal fluctuations. Yet another unique and an amazing characteristic of the Potomac River.
We got the raft out of the river and scouted the route we just ran. We high-fived and celebrated our triumphant run. I had run big white water many times across the country including the Upper Gauley but the Potomac River at the high water level rivaled anything I have ever done before. And all within in a stones throw of DC. The bond built after any rafting trip is strong. Your adrenaline is flowing. Everyone is excited. You just did something special and unique that you will likely never experience again with the same group of people. Basically, you really don’t want it to end but sadly it was over.
We still had to carry the raft up the hill and paddle up the canal to lock 5 where our vehicles were parked which was good because it was still raining and cold. But our time together on the river had come to an end. We said goodbye. We tried to tip our guides but they refused to take it. I offered to make them members of the organization and they agreed that was the best use of the money but they were there to support Potomac Riverkeeper Network and my journey down the river. Alan ended up coming back with us and going out to dinner with Rick, Jenna and me. We took hot showers and eventually ate a feast for the first time since Harpers Ferry, which already seemed like a lifetime ago. My wife Kathy and my daughter Krista also joined us for dinner. It was clear during dinner everyone’s battery was running low which was totally understandable. We will sleep well tonight!