Dirtbag Diaries: Potomac Source to Sea


Walter: We started on the South Branch of the Potomac, at 3,000 feet in the Appalachian Mountains, a little trickle of water that we would follow for the next 32 days canoeing and sea kayaking. It took us through rugged West Virginia mountains, idyllic small towns, and our nation’s capital before spilling us out into the Chesapeake Bay. I was looking for the sense of accomplishment. It was the vacation of a lifetime.


Suzanna: Vacations involve beach umbrellas and strawberry daiquiris.


Walter: So just when we started feeling good about our skills negotiating a heavily loaded canoe through some technical Class II-III rapids we came around a bend in the Smoke Hole Canyon section of the South Branch, and things hit the fan.


Suzanna: The river came up overnight from upstream rains and the waves were crashing over the bow. We couldn’t get to shore fast enough to bail. Next thing we know we’re paddling a submarine instead of a canoe.



Walter: The boat got pinned on a midstream boulder in some fast water and we spent an hour swimming gear to shore and wrestling the boat.


Suzanna: He finally got it loose and watched it drift 20 feet downstream only to get hung up again. The Chesapeake Bay seemed a world away. Fortunately, we got it loose again. But I’ll probably never forgive Walter for the night we camped out just below Great Falls about 8 inches above river during a massive electrical storm, listening to flash-flood warnings on the radio. Are people supposed to camp that close to Washington, D.C.?”


Walter: But we were able to walk into Georgetown to restock and hit happy hour. That was quite a culture shock after three weeks in the mountains.


Suzanna: For the record, Walter did get a lot of funny looks walking through Georgetown carrying drybags, having not showered in a week.


Walter: I guess we deserved the looks for staring so long at that bearded old man in West Virginia the one in a gold-colored Speedo, flying a pirate flag from his canoe, and offering to show us his wife’s boobs.



Suzanna: We could’ve done without that.


Walter: It was great to get to the Washington Canoe Club and switch from canoes to kayak for the open water downstream. They were a big help.


Suzanna: So were our moms, who drove three hours to make the boat exchange.


Walter: It was sweet when we started cruising in those sea kayaks when we got to the tidewater.


Suzanna: Yeah, sweet. Like paddling 20 miles in the dark to get to the campsite Walter talked about all day that turned out not to exist? We camped that night on a slope beside a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, and had to leave the next morning before the crabbers spotted us.


Walter: What a great trip.


Last summer, Walter and Suzanna Garrett paddled the length of the Potomac River, from the mountains of West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay.

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